Learning With and About Sleep

As you know, last weekend we put back our clocks. This is part of the change from daylight savings time when we increase the amount of light available in the morning when children are going to school and adults are going to work. Consequently we lose some light in the evening time because it gets dark earlier.

But did you know that when the clocks were put back on Sunday, the number of people who had heart attacks fell compared to any other day? And so did the rate of traffic accidents. The opposite happens in March. Now, this might be surprising, but there’s a good explanation for it.

We get one hour’s extra sleep on the night when clocks go back; that is why fewer people have heart attacks, and fewer traffic accidents occur the next day. And in March in the northern hemisphere when we deprive people of an hour’s sleep, heart attack rates go up the day after clocks are put forward, and so does the rate of traffic accidents. So, this blog post is a reminder of the value of sleep. And sleep has particular relevance for education; I’m going to mention three implications of sleep research for education.

First of all, sleep improves our memory. Not only are ideas consolidated when we sleep, but sleep has a way of prioritizing the memorization of some information. Information presented to us as being important is more likely to be remembered after a night’s sleep. Moreover sleep is essential for acquiring the complex grammatical rules needed when learning a language. We’re able to abstract language rules better as a result of sleeping soundly. And sleep can help us in physical performance, such as playing a piece on a musical instrument or typing on a keyboard.

Second, it has been estimated that more than 50% of children who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have a sleep disorder, but they may not know about it; that is because the effects of a sleep disorder are similar to the symptoms of ADHD. Although that finding may have implications for how the conditions are treated, it does not trivialize ADHD; a lack of sleep can be so detrimental to our health that the Guinness Book of Records will not accept record attempts for the longest duration of sleep deprivation.

The third area where sleep impacts on education is a policy one. It relates to when schools open. Now, I don’t think this is as big a problem in Ireland as it is in the United States. But the effect of circadian rhythms on teenagers means that early school opening times are particularly problematic for their health and well-being, never mind their learning.

Teenagers find it more difficult to go to sleep at the same time as their parents or non-teen siblings. Typically they will fall asleep later at night. But then they need to sleep later in the morning. And when schools open early, teenagers are deprived of precious REM sleep. That’s the rapid eye movement component of sleep and one quote from the sleep neuroscientist Matthew Walker illustrates its importance. He writes that “Rapid eye movement sleep is what stands between rationality and insanity.” That quote and all of the other information in this post comes from a book by Matthew Walker called Why we Sleep, published by Penguin Books.

In summary, sleep is really, really important. But as teachers few of us educate children about sleep, possibly because we never learned about it ourselves. We talk to students about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs, and about smoking. We highlight the importance of a healthy diet. But rarely do we talk about the importance of a good night’s sleep.

Sleep has a huge impact on children’s wellbeing and on their learning. So, in the week our clocks went back and we received a bonus of one extra hour of sleep for just one night, maybe we can encourage our students to get more sleep. And for ourselves, as adults, at least seven hours is required.

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