A summer-y of current vacation theories

When it comes to summer vacations, some education scholars wonder whether bigger is better

The summer vacation period provides much-needed recreation time for stressed out students.
The summer vacation period provides much-needed recreation time for stressed out students.

Over the past week, Queen’s students have been returning to Kingston in droves, moving into homes and residences and preparing themselves for the new school year. Some have spent time abroad, others have had internships and jobs and some were lucky enough to spend the summer doing virtually nothing.

Initially implemented to give rural students time to help their parents with spring planting and fall harvest seasons, breaks from the school year—and summer vacation specifically—has morphed into a time of money-making and globe-trotting; students work to earn the cash to get them through the year or stock up on life experience in foreign countries during the long months between spring and fall.

But the lengthy summer vacation has not always been the norm and has recently come under fire from education theorists.

In the decades preceding the Civil War, American schools operated on two calendars, neither of which included a summer vacation. Rural students were given vacations to aid their parents on the farm. Urban schooling, meanwhile, entailed up to forty-eight weeks of study per year, with one short break per quarter.

Immigrant populations in these cities formed a large percentage of students. Needing a safe and affordable method of supervision for their children while at work, newly immigrated parents enrolled their children in public schools, where they learned English and other subjects during a rigorous eleven month school year. In the 1840s, this began to change, as educational reformer Horace Mann proposed a melding of the two systems out of concern regarding the inefficiency of the rural schools and low attendance rates at urban educational institutions.

Summer was suggested as the obvious time for a school-wide vacation: it provided a welcome break for teachers, worked well with the agrarian calendar and assuaged physicians’ fears that large groups of students packed into sweltering classrooms could promote the spread of disease.

Since its adoption in the 19th century, the summer vacation has been widely accepted and utilized in North American schools, despite contemporary fears that many months of vacation might cause students to forget what they had learned the previous year.

This fear became the inspiration for the “45-15” theory of education, an alternative scholastic calendar that has been growing in popularity in recent years. Under this schedule nine week terms alternate with three week vacations throughout the year, attended by students in waves: rather than having all classes begin Sept. 8, students have different start dates depending on their year of study. In schools operating under this system, one group of students is on vacation during any given cycle.

Supporters of the 45-15 calendar noted less crowded campuses and classrooms, and an improved student-to-teacher ratio without a reduction in the size of universities. Promoters of the traditional summer vacation system simply refer to the 45-15 method more negatively as “The Year Round School.” John Freeman, an associate professor at the Queen’s University Faculty of Education said vacation time is important for both social and familial reasons.

“I think the long summer vacation can definitely cause students to forget what they’ve learned the previous year. That’s what studies have shown.” he said.

“But you need to balance the loss of subject matter knowledge with the fact that young people do need a break to pursue their other interests and to spend time with their families.” He added that the Year Round method raised many questions for educators.

“It’s a big question and I do believe that students need a break during the year, the question I guess is how lengthy a break do they need at any one time, and do they need many months in the summer for that break?” he said.

“The other question is: Can we use our school facilities more efficiently by running classes all year long? It’s a multi layered issue.”

While Queen’s four months of summer vacation fall around the average amongst North American universities, schools in Europe and Australia fall closer to the 45-15 method, with Scottish universities scheduling only seven weeks of vacation between July and August.

Freeman said the jury was still out amongst education theorists regarding which was the more effective calendar.

“I think there are advantages but there are also some disadvantages—the whole idea of looking forward to the summer is also important. It gives students something to strive for. I just don’t know how they would feel if they never had any long breaks.”

Though Queen’s has not adopted the alternative calendar and offers quite a lengthy summer vacation, many students chose to extend their education into the summer months on their own. In an e-mail to the Journal, Tom Monahan, senior programmer analyst for the Registrar’s Office said over 10,000 students were enrolled at Queen’s during the Spring/Summer terms, and an additional 162 students sought an educational experience at the International Study Centre in Herstmonceaux, England.

As universities all over the world continue to develop summer programs for domestic and international students, study and work-study opportunities during the vacation months have transformed the summer break into an opportunity for individualized learning, as students specialize or take electives unrelated to their field of study. The study-abroad vacation is becoming an increasingly common summer option for students.

Freeman said this trend contributes to a well-rounded student body, adding that life as a student is about more than just studying.

“I think we also have to understand when we’re raising questions about summer vacation that our lives are not only about our academics, that there are non-academic areas of our lives that are not pursued in school and that can be better pursued when we’re not in a school environment.”

Overheard at Queen's

“You could put a condom on that dog!”
- Guy at a rugby game

“She either needs to go to jail, or have a baby. It’s the only way she’ll calm down.”
- Girl on a cell phone on Brock Street

Frec: “Who’s your daddy, frosh?”
Parent of a horrified frosh: “Actually, I am.”

“QCARD makes me want to sharpen a pencil and put it in my eyeball.”
“... I thought it was an actual card.”
- First-years in the JDUC

“I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. I drink, smoke and eat junk food so much that I bet a fetus is literally incapable of gestating in there.”
- Girl in Starbucks

Drunken First Year: “Hey you. I’m in second year.”
Annoyed Ghetto Resident: “No you’re not.”
Drunken First Year: “No, I’m not.”

Submit your own overheard quotes at journal_postscript@ams.queensu.ca

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