Reorganizing School Schedules: Start Times, Light, Scheduling

With sum­mer draw­ing to a close and schools start­ing up for a new sea­son, what bet­ter time to take a look at how schools uti­lize research about the brain in deter­min­ing the tim­ing of the flow of school. Not only cur­rent brain research, but com­mon sense, tells me the fol­low­ing areas need tweaking.

  • - School start times and sleep
  • - Expo­sure to nat­ur­al light
  • - Sched­ul­ing of classes

SCHOOL START TIMES AND SLEEP
Left to your own devices, what time would you go to sleep each evening and what time would you wake up? As adults, it is like­ly that exter­nal respon­si­bil­i­ties deter­mine your wake time, and the matu­ri­ty of age guides your sleep time. More often than not, thanks to a sound night’s sleep, you wake men­tal­ly refreshed and pre­pared to face the day. Teenagers are sim­ply out of luck in this realm.

Mela­tonin is respon­si­ble for our body rhythms, also known as cir­ca­di­an rhythms. These sleep/wake cycles are direct­ly influ­enced by our expo­sure to light. As dark­ness sets in, mela­tonin is released, pro­mot­ing the urge to go to sleep. Teenagers usu­al­ly release mela­tonin at lat­er times in the evening so they tend to fall asleep lat­er and wake up later.

Notice, there is no “ear­ly” in that last sen­tence, and the result is that teenage cir­ca­di­an rhythms are often out of synch with school start times. The Nation­al Sleep Foun­da­tion has found that school start times should be altered to accom­mo­date teenagers, with the antic­i­pa­tion that bet­ter qual­i­ty sleep will pro­mote health­ful pat­terns, result­ing in more ben­e­fi­cial learn­ing environments.

EXPOSURE TO NATURAL LIGHT
Light and dark do more than impact our cir­ca­di­an rhythms. Light also influ­ences our moods. SAD (Sea­son­al Affec­tive Dis­or­der) results from insuf­fi­cient expo­sure to sun­light in the fall and win­ter months. Research has shown that nat­ur­al light has a con­sis­tent and pre­dictable pos­i­tive effect on stu­dent performance.

When my sev­en­teen year old was in mid­dle school, he astute­ly not­ed that dur­ing the best hours of win­ter day­light, stu­dents were kept indoors. While it may not be prac­ti­cal to retro fit school build­ings so that nat­ur­al light per­me­ates every class­room, when cou­pled with the ben­e­fits of exer­cise, the ben­e­fits of every stu­dent hav­ing out­door recess would go a long way toward alle­vi­at­ing SAD and wak­ing up neurons.

SCHEDULING OF CLASSES
Okay, so they are out of bed and in school, though they may be yawn­ing through the morn­ing. Now they have to fol­low the sched­ule of class­es. Research has shown that in mid­dle schools the best type of class sched­ule is one that incor­po­rates longer seg­ments of time. How many schools do you know of that tend to sched­ule class­es that last longer than 45 minutes?

Not only could the dai­ly class sched­ule have flex­i­ble chunks of time, but the year­ly school sched­ule could also be designed to bet­ter accom­mo­date the diver­si­ty of stu­dent learn­ers. The Cen­ter for Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion takes an in-depth look at What research says about reor­ga­niz­ing school sched­ules in this 2006 posting.

If you know of exam­ples or have expe­ri­ences that sup­port or refute these sug­ges­tions, please share them! And please note that my per­spec­tive is based on teach­ing mid­dle and high school stu­dents for the past ten years, and also hav­ing taught at schools that had flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing blocks.

For addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion relat­ed to these topics:

Laurie BartelsLau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self the “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it exist­ed as a pro­gram”. She is the K‑8 Com­put­er Coor­di­na­tor and Tech­nol­o­gy Train­ing Coor­di­na­tor at Rye Coun­try Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the orga­niz­er of Dig­i­tal Wave annu­al sum­mer pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, and a fre­quent attendee of Learn­ing & The Brain conferences.

4 Comments

  1. Laurie on October 6, 2008 at 4:32

    Hi !
    I am con­cerned about the high school sched. where our daugh­ters attend. They go from 8:30am to 12:06 with only one 4 minute break. This is to meet required gov. hours and acco­mo­date 2 weeks off twice a year (and sum­mer hol­i­days). After­noons are about 2 1/2 hours with no for­mal break. Snacks, espe­cial­ly for ath­let­ic kids, dia­bet­ics, etc, water,bathroom breaks and just a men­tal break would seem to me to take more than 4 min­utes. These stu­dents are high achiev­ers and com­plain of an inabil­i­ty to focus deeply for this long. Is there evidence/research that shows what sort of time spans are opti­mal for class­room learn­ing and when our minds and bod­ies needs a break, and for how long?
    Thank you so much!
    Laurie



  2. Laurie Bartels on October 10, 2008 at 9:15

    Hi Lau­rie,

    In Mel Levine’s book, A Mind at a Time, he dis­cuss­es sched­ules and notes “Changing class­es every fifty min­utes may lim­it how well stu­dents are able to con­sol­i­date much of what goes on dur­ing a class.” He goes on to sug­gest that block sched­ules and oppor­tu­ni­ties to spend sev­er­al months focused on one sub­ject area, “are like­ly to allow for more com­plete diges­tion of con­tent. Few­er and longer class­es also help.” (p. 332–333)

    The Nation­al Mid­dle Schools Asso­ci­a­tion has a research sum­ma­ry about flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing (http://www.nmsa.org/portals/0/pdf/research/Research_Summaries/Flexible_Scheduling.pdf), the gist of which sug­gests that longer block peri­ods per­mit more vari­ety in types of activ­i­ties utilized.

    At the high school lev­el, here is a link (http://www.principalspartnership.com/hsschedules.pdf) to The Principals’ Part­ner­ship Research Brief on High School Sched­ules, which con­tains links to a large num­ber of resources also sum­ma­rized on the site. I have not read all of them, but you will prob­a­bly find much use­ful infor­ma­tion in the links.

    From all that I have read and writ­ten, and from my expe­ri­ence teach­ing, regard­less of how class­es are sched­uled, pro­vid­ing snacks, access to water, and breaks that engage the body phys­i­cal­ly, all pro­vide impor­tant pos­i­tive ben­e­fits to every­one engaged in the school­ing process.

    Hope you find some of this helpful!
    Regards,
    Lau­rie B.



  3. Laurie Bartels on October 10, 2008 at 9:17

    p.s. The link to the Nation­al Mid­dle Schools Asso­ci­a­tion is very long, so here it is as a tinyurl:
    http://tinyurl.com/4oy3x5

    Cheers,
    Laurie



  4. Laurie Bartels on October 17, 2008 at 3:22

    For rea­sons about which I am not clear, the tinyurl is not going to the cor­rect page. 

    When using the URL for the Nation­al Mid­dle Schools Asso­ci­a­tion research sum­ma­ry, please be sure to add “pdf” to the right of the dot.

    Cheers, Lau­rie



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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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