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The Extracurricular Hamster Wheel: Lessons for Promoting High Performance

Note: Jonathan Plucker, the Raymond Neag Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, is guest posting this week. He can be found on Twitter at @JonathanPlucker.


My thoughts today are heavily influenced by (a) being a parent and (b) the American Psychological Association's Coalition for High Performance, of which I am a member, and which is directed by Dr. Rena Subotnik at APA. That said, everything that follows is my opinion and not that of my spouse or the other members of the Coalition.

A few years back, some colleagues and I administered a version of the High School Survey of School Engagement (HSSSE) to high school students in China. It wasn't the best sample, but we covered most of the country and drew students from a set of high schools that we considered to be roughly representative. We compared the responses to those from American high schools in the HSSSE archive.

One set of questions asks students to rate how important various activities are, then indicate how often they do each activity during a normal week. One set of results caught our attention: Both Chinese and American students valued spending time with friends, participating in extracurricular activities, and studying. Yet, when asked to note how they spend their time, the Chinese students reported almost no time spent with friends or in extracurriculars and the vast majority of their out-of-school time spent studying; American students' responses showed the exact opposite pattern.

That's interesting, but it was the reaction of our colleagues in both countries that surprised us. In the U.S., most people who read the report noted, like one particular reader, that "American students need to stop hanging out and start studying" (it sounds better if you use your grumpy old man voice as you read that). Our Chinese colleagues had a very different response. To quote one education expert, "Chinese students need to study less and do more extracurricular activities." He continued, while poking his finger at a chart about American extracurricular participation, "This is the reason for your country's success. This is how you teach them to be leaders and to be creative."

One lesson I pulled from this experience is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But it also made me rethink the strengths and weaknesses of the American educational system. Are my Chinese friends right--are we overlooking one of the sources of American greatness in our focus on education reform?

Sometimes I think we are, as I know countless adults who benefited from participating in a range of out-of-school activities as they grew up, be they sports-related, musical, artistic, or nerdy. (My daughter was surprised we had "coding" back in the early '80s. Not only did we code, we did it in FORTRAN.) Not coincidentally, as I get to know new colleagues around the world, we often end up bonding over our out-of-school activities: What sports did you play? How did you first learn to use a computer? Did you learn to ride a horse? How did you get into art? My colleague and good friend Paul in Holland taught me much of what I know about Dutch culture by explaining the intricacies of the Dutch love for soccer and field hockey. You learn a lot about yourself in out-of-school activities, and you can learn a lot about a culture by noting which extracurriculars children are participating in. That's all good, and we would be wise to keep in mind the importance of out-of-school activities when we contemplate education reform and efforts to improve student learning and development.

But sometimes I worry that our extracurricular activities have gotten seriously off-track.

As a case in point, much has been written lately about the insanity of youth sports, and the Tiger Mom and her ilk have only reinforced the message that anything worth doing - sports, music, school - is worth doing to the point of absurdity.

Again, I'm a big supporter of extracurricular activities, but the obsession with specialization is getting out of hand. Too much of a good thing is ... well, too much of a good thing.

A great deal of research suggests that one of the worst ways to get a child to be successful in a particular activity is to have them specialize early. It encourages burnout, leads to elevated rates of overuse injuries, and runs counter to what we know about developing creativity and talent - i.e., children should be trying lots of different activities in an effort to broaden their base of experience and explore new activities and skills.

So the "pick an activity and stick with it" approach is generally ill-advised. Yet I'm a huge hypocrite on this issue, which reinforces how difficult these decisions can be. My kids have been involved in sports, music, coding, etc., activities for most of their childhoods. Yet I want them to play more, practice more, study more. I don't even believe that's a great idea, yet here I am, driving my son to soccer four days a week. At the age of nine. When he, exhausted for one reason or another, comes home from school and asks if we can skip the "optional" practice that evening, I find myself torn: He clearly needs a break, but will it hurt his development if he misses this practice, or will the coach think he's slacking and cut his playing time?

But that's why the extracurricular hamster wheel is so insidious: It preys upon our insecurities as parents, and it does so in a way that makes us feel that all of these activities are good for our sons and daughters, when the opposite is often true. We should be letting them explore multiple opportunities, devoting reasonable time to a range of activities. Doing so will not appreciably decrease their chances of playing later in life, enjoying the activities, or learning valuable life skills - if anything, the odds will probably increase. The value of extracurricular activities, as my Chinese colleague implied, is that we learn about ourselves and how to interact successfully with other people when solving ill-defined problems.

I have much more to say about these issues, but we're late for soccer practice, and we have guitar and flute lessons after that.

--Jonathan Plucker

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