Monday, January 18, 2010

Sleep and Learning

I sleep about 9 hours on a good night. (Sometimes I wake up in the night, start thinking too much, and can't fall back to sleep.) My 7-year-old son sleeps 11 hours a night. I've always hated waking to an alarm, and haven't had to do that for years now. We go to bed between 8 and 9 pm, and if my son sleeps late, I let him. (His school is very unusual, and it's ok for him to arrive late.)

I'm happier - and I can teach better - when I've had enough sleep, so it's been a priority of mine for many years now. Recently, I've been hearing about how important sleep is for our health and our brains. The article I read just now (Snooze or Lose, at NY Magazine) gives even stronger evidence than I've seen before. This paragraph got me started writing this post:
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.
A combined score of 1500 is in the top 1% of all test takers. 1288 is in the top 15 to 20%. This is a huge jump. The article gives detail about how sleep helps us learn too:
Dr. Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley explains that during sleep, the brain shifts what it learned that day to more efficient storage regions of the brain. Each stage of sleep plays a unique role in capturing memories. For example, studying a foreign language requires learning vocabulary, auditory memory of new sounds, and motor skills to correctly enunciate new words. The vocabulary is synthesized by the hippocampus early in the night during “slow-wave sleep,” a deep slumber without dreams. The motor skills of enunciation are processed during Stage 2 non-rem sleep, and the auditory memories are encoded across all stages. Memories that are emotionally laden get processed during R.E.M. sleep.

At the end is a companion article about how to get more sleep. The bit of advice I found most helpful is to limit exposure to tv or computer screens in the last hour or two before bed. I guess if I want to sleep more soundly, I'd better stop surfing a bit earlier.

Sweet dreams!

(Kudos to Rebecca Zook, who posted about this in her blog, Triangle Suitcase.)


  1. Sue! I'm so excited to see you posting about this. Thanks so much for visiting my blog, and I'm glad that it gave you some food for thought! I have found that limiting exposure to computers and TV screens helps me sleep as well--even though they seem to be the primary way most people in our culture wind down. I don't know if you already know about this, but I wrote a related post about the pineal gland and its relationship to sleep on my blog as well:

    Thanks again, Sue!

  2. I loves this post. I've seen a huge jump in sleep deprivation in my students especially over the last five year. I blame it on cell phones. From raising 3 teenagers, I know they want to keep it on 24 hours a day are often awakened in the middle of the night by text messages. I eventually started taking up their phones at 10:00 pm every night.

  3. Wow! I can't believe they wouldn't turn those off themselves.

    Rebecca, I really like your blog. I'll definitely go read that.

  4. Sue,
    I'm an early to bed, early to rise guy myself, but I always ghet my hackles up a little in studies where they only tell you the difference between two years (rather than several years of data...good effects tend to make lasting change).. the page didn't say where the data came from (or when) but I did a little research on the sleep study that was BIG in Minnesota few years ago.... didn't find the statistics on the top 10% in general, but the overall statistics didn't do much to support the idea of a later start.. Here is what I found from the people who actually did the longitudinal study...the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)
    "It is ironic that this negative correlation between academic success and scheduling activities and athletics before school starts is the only statistically significant impact on academic success resulting from the change in start times found by the CAREI researchers.

    By their own admission they found no statistically significant academic benefit to later start times.

    When the Edina School District, MN (one HS, two MS) shifted to later start times in 1996, their Grade 12 SAT Verbal Test scores dropped 6 points (588 – 582) and their Grade 12 SAT Math test Scores dropped 16 points (594 – 578).5 In 2005, the Grade 12 test scores were 584 and 590, respectively. Since shifting to a later start time, Edina High School
    has implemented “Zero Hour” where they offer academically challenging courses from 7:30 am – 8:30 am, before the start of the regular school day. This year’s offerings include AP European History, AP U.S. History, Chemistry, Choir,Health, and Lifelong Recreational Fitness.
    [no dates stated for this change either, but if it was in the first year, then the growth happened when the brightest ten percent all took classes EARLY, not late...hmmm]
    Even more ironic is the fact that Edina High School and the two Edina Middle Schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, a requirement of No Child Left Behind, in the 2007 -08

    school year."

    Not exactly a panacea from that description.. I remain unconvinced that a change in start time will improve academics, although I have no doubts about the value to education of a good nights sleep.

  5. Hi Pat, Thanks for checking this further. I need to remember that anything I find in a newspaper that claims a study actually is news may be more hype than not.

    Although you found data that shows this change didn't help their testing scores as much as the article claimed, I've read from so many sources that teens seem to have a circadian rhythm that starts and ends later in the day. Anyone know more about that?

    I've read other things about the value of sleep, so this confirmed what I already thought, and seemed to give more weight. Anyone reading this have good evidence about the other claims made in the article?

  6. two or three times a day
    would probably be my ideal...
    and "to everything there is
    a season" has been very much
    my experience. we seldom
    get a whole lot of pick&choose.
    it's a fascinating topic of course.
    (my dad boasted to me at least
    once that in the navy he'd been
    called "horizontal thomas".
    i'm proud to take after him
    here as in many other ways.)

    owen t.


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