Drawing on his experience teaching at a school in China, ANDY ELLMERS discusses how important and just how difficult it is for secondary school students to strike a balance between academic demands and finding time for extracurricular activities.

As a teacher at an International School in China I am confronted with different perspectives about extracurricular activities almost every day. Some choose involvement in wider school life, while others hold the belief that this kind of involvement is an unnecessary distraction from what they are at school to achieve. I believe the consequences of this choice during the formative years of a student can be as critical as what happens in the classroom.

Too often student capability is perceived by objective means of assessment only without recognising the less objective outcomes of education to their full extent. A student’s ability to manage his or her time, commit to a long-term project, and maintain positive relationships at different levels – all of which are necessary skills to function beyond secondary school – cannot be directly assessed through an exam. I have completed many university references in which I am required to give an account of their personal attributes. In theory these attributes are to be established and refined under the deliberate and guided learning experiences in the classroom, but whether this can be achieved is questionable.

Positivity and skills

By their nature, extracurricular activities foster different personal skills from class-based activities as a consequence of choice. A conscious choice from a student to engage in an activity in spite of other responsibilities they may have will often create an experience that is more meaningful to them than a mandatory task. This has been evident to me over the years as students make the first step to challenge themselves to have more fun, or have more skills, or be something more than they are, and in doing so the activity is salient to them. Further to this, they also surround themselves with other students who have made this choice, which creates a positive environment, yet one that a student may opt out of, unlike that of a class-based activity.

Common extracurricular activities may include the school play, sports teams, student council, debating team, a cultural group, a musical group, Model United Nations (an educational simulation and academic competition in which students learn about diplomacy, international relations), and many more. This additional activity requires a student to prioritise personal and group-based tasks, which builds time-management skills. Often they will work as part of a team towards a common outcome which is tacitly or explicitly agreed on, as it is a voluntary activity. A student is faced with the challenge of self-motivation and must develop the skills to manage their thoughts when they get tired, lazy or a little bored. The contributions and commitment that a student has to their group can be realised by the product or performance of the group which is not assessed by a teacher, but assessed by their peers in a way that is more immediately meaningful across a broad range of personal and social aspects, including fun, happiness, pride, self-identity, and acceptance.

Outside the comfort zone

Many extracurricular activities include a period of time away from their familiar setting, for example school or home. The challenge of an unfamiliar, and sometimes unpredictable, setting often provokes a response from the student with real consequences, rather than something as abstract as a grade. Among the support of a school group, the response is very often a positive one. I believe such a range of outcomes is rarely achieved in class, and in my experience, a likely outcome of extracurricular activities.

The cultural beliefs held from parties outside the school may help or hinder a student’s involvement in extracurricular activities. These parties may include family, religious and nationalistic groups, among others. Independent of the school’s aims, it is often these beliefs that decide how important an additional activity is in the day-to-day life of the student. A student who may seemingly be integral to a group performance may be absent due to religious reasons, and whilst it can sometimes be difficult for other students to reconcile how someone may have priorities different from theirs, this can also provide an opportunity for other students to develop awareness and understanding of others, and also resilience so that the desired outcome might be achieved.

Cultural considerations

As a teacher in Asia, many parents of my students come from cultural backgrounds and a tertiary education structure in their home country that values exam results. As a consequence of this there are many students who do not participate in any extracurricular activities, and instead attend additional academic classes outside our school setting. In my experience these students have displayed reclusive tendencies, which has not lent itself to developing a range of skills in the classroom.

There are also parents who, while they come from conservative cultural backgrounds and expect high academic standards, are very supportive of their child being actively involved in many aspects of school life. Not all of these students are naturally confident, however the support and understanding of time and energy demands for an additional activity provides an encouraging environment for their child to try new things, whatever the outcome may be. This is an amazingly applicable lesson for a student to learn.

A positive social-emotional climate and infrastructure of extracurricular activities can greatly affect the wellbeing and success of a student as they approach university entrance. It seems all schools differ in their approach to student welfare and achievement. In International Schools in Asia, with such diverse cultural perspectives, it is difficult to meet all the parental objectives all of the time.

The right environment

However, as educators, I feel it is the responsibility of the school to act to develop all facets of a successful functioning adult, which again, may not be determined by an exam. While many schools may offer a range of extracurricular activities, the student’s time and energy may not be effective if the school does not provide the necessary expertise and support. In this case, the student may be better off studying for their assessments. I believe there is no right answer to solving issues regarding student involvement in school activities and fostering intrinsic motivation; however, I do believe in creating an inclusive and supportive school environment to maximise the chances of positive student experiences.

Schools that place an overt emphasis on extracurricular activities as a part of their daily routine are more likely to foster desired outcomes from their students. This may include: hiring staff with specific extracurricular skills and experience; providing organisational structure of extracurricular activities as a recognised workload in the teacher’s timetable or compensation; setting deliberate expectations of instruction and appropriate tone of the activity; providing necessary equipment and facilities for success; monitoring of student progress, and regular recognition of student achievement. I believe schools have a responsibility to provide an environment to support the growth of students into happy, confident, self-aware adults. While this may sound like common sense, it is evident that not all schools take this responsibility seriously.

As a teacher of Year 11–13 students, the graduating year always seems to exhibit a range of school involvement. However, what does not seem to vary is that the successful academic students by and large are also the students who have devoted time and effort to extracurricular activities. These are the students who have learned organisation of priorities and time management. They have strong interpersonal skills and can establish and maintain relationships in many situations. They have learned commitment to working towards a long-term goal. They demonstrate intrinsic motivation and resilience. Above all, they are highly functioning, self-aware students with the confidence to try something new to enrich their lives. I believe extracurricular activities are every bit as important as what we achieve in class. It is well worth the student’s time and effort to participate in extracurricular activities, and well worth the time and effort of the schools to provide a quality experience.

New Zealander Andy Ellmers is a teacher and high school coach at an International School in Beijing. He has also taught in schools in England and Egypt.

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