I may be straying a tad from my regular range of topics, but an important aspect of 21st century education is drawing upon contemporary research to enhance our students’ learning, and I believe the research is clear that sleep matters.

Po Bronson’s NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children isn’t revolutionary, and much of it is not that new, but it is informative and entertaining, and it does call upon us to vigorously continue reforming learning.   The best essay in the book may be the chapter entitled The Lost Hour, also available as an on-line article in New York magazine entitled Can a lack of Sleep Set Back Your Child’s Cognitive Abilities?

Some compelling quotes:

Every study done shows a similar connection between sleep and school grades—from a study of second- and third-graders in Chappaqua to a study of eighth-graders in Chicago. The correlations really spike in high school, because that’s when there’s a steep drop-off in kids’ sleep. Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota surveyed more than 7,000 high schoolers in Minnesota about their sleep habits and grades. Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged eleven more minutes than the C’s, and the C’s had ten more minutes than the D’s.

In Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis,  the high school start time was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30. The results were startling. In the year preceding the time change, math and verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of Edina’s students averaged 1288. A year later, the top 10 percent averaged 1500, an increase that couldn’t be attributed to any other variable.

Intentional 21st century schooling cannot ignore this data: if we want our students to learn more, we need to support their health and well being, and most of all, promote the health of their brain development and cognitive processing.  This requires we provide them more sleep-time.

Important to note though is that it is not just a matter of sleep-time length, but we must not ignore that teenagers have different hormonal patterns that make it much harder for them to go to bed earlier at night.   We middle aged adults may find it perfectly easy to lay our head to rest at 9:30pm, but teenagers are running on different patterns, and it can be almost painful for them to try to sleep at that time.   Their bodies keep humming until eleven, whether we like it or not (NOT!), and we can’t just point fingers of blame that they ought to go down earlier.  To quote from an online article that is well written and well-sourced:

Unlike those of adults, the sleep cycles of adolescents are relatively fixed and extremely difficult to change. In 1976, researchers at Stanford University began conducting a study that tested the ability of teenagers to adjust to earlier times. Although the students had to rise earlier, they could not get to sleep any earlier the night before.

The scholarly source evidence for this claim lies in a publication from National Academies Press, Sleep Needs, Patterns, and Difficulties of Adolescents (2000).  It is available on-line, and it is very compelling:

Another study that looked at the effects of the biological clock did so by examining melatonin secretion. As night falls, melatonin is “turned on,” preparing the body for sleep. Toward dawn, it shuts off, as cortisol secretion increases. Carskadon discussed research on 10 adolescents (five boys and five girls; mean age of 13.7) who were put on a fixed sleeping schedule for 10 days at home. Their schedules were checked by sleep logs, telephone calls, and wrist actigraphy (a device worn to measure daily activity levels). They then were assessed in a laboratory setting on a 28-hour schedule that controlled for all environmental and psychosocial influences on sleep (e.g., lights, television, radio). A correlation was found between subjects ‘ melatonin secretion and their stage of development. The results indicated that melatonin onset occurs later in adolescents, making it difficult for them to go to sleep earlier at night. At the same time, the hormone “turns off” later in the morning, making it harder for them to wake up early (Carskadon et al., 1998, 1999).