The Best for Students or the Best for Colleges?

TED 2019 is in the books. There were some really provocative, fascinating talks from interesting, clever people. Carole Cadwalldr unleashed Hell on Silicon Valley’s social media and search companies, showing the power and damage that unchecked privacy and social policies can have on entire countries, if not the world. Calling out the richest, most powerful people on the planet, who happened to also be in the room was riveting.

There were only two things that surprised me at TED 2019. (Unfortunately, taking down the ‘Gods of Silicon Valley’ while calling out the uber-rich and politically powerful was not surprising. It was maddening for sure, but after seeing our own election changed by outside influences, the Brexit story was not a shock.)

No. The things that surprised me were these. First, the lack of presence by academics at TED was shocking. I’ve blogged before about the crucial need for professors to get 1/3 of their professional development in their subject matter, 1/3 specific to teaching, and 1/3 in areas of general interest. Yet we know that about 97% of all PD is actually done only in one’s field instead. TED is big enough that I thought it would be the one exception to the rule. But it did not appear to be so. The audience was filled with inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists from industry, and technologists…but very few educators. What a shame.

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The second most surprising thing at TED 2019 was Matthew Walker’s talk about sleep. Oh, and the news is not good…

Again, I have blogged about the power of sleep previously. Medina has a chapter dedicated to sleep in Brain Rules and various neuroscientists have weighed in over time. But the volumes of information that we know, condensed into a book and then pushed through a 20 minute talk blew me away. I have since ordered Walker’s book, “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.” But he created some of the most compelling evidence and argumentation I have ever seen that we are really messing ourselves up, one night at a time.

Here are few, choice nuggets of information to get you going:

  • To be considered a genuine “low-sleeper” (which sees one getting chronically < 6 hours of sleep/night without any impairment of function) is an incredibly rare thing. Less than 1% of the population qualifies. Yet a huge percentage of the population act as if they are in this category, mostly disguising their sleep deprivation with caffeine and sleeping pills.

  • As the book Nudge pointed out long ago, people are very bad at assessing their own abilities. When it comes to sleep, people are very bad at objectively assessing decreases in performance due to sleep deprivation.

  • We now understand two kinds of REM states (REM and NREM): NREM is when we
    ”prune” memories, transfer short-term memory to long-term memory, gain “muscle memory,” secrete growth hormone to become both stronger and to repair damage, and more. REM is responsible for forming new neural connections, problem solving, dreaming, dealing with emotional responses to painful memories, and more. Yet we sleep so much less than ever before, we are preventing these things from happening.

  • Physiologically, we need sleep to flourish or thrive. If we decrease sleep, we see higher mortality rates, increased cancer rates, problems with heart disease, weight gain, rate of infection, Alzheimer’s, irritability, and systemic inflammation. We also find that lowering sleep amount impacts our ability to rationally make a decision, memory recall, emotional control, testosterone creation, sex drive, ability to lose weight, immune system function, and much more.

  • Walker pleads with us to avoid both caffeine and alcohol if possible.

  • A mere 100 years ago, people got 9-10 hours of sleep. Today, we average less than 7 hours, seeing a large part of the population averaging 5-6. The minimum for most people is 8 full hours.

But I want to share one last factoid with you. It is one that can hugely impact you and your students. Walker recommends getting rid of your alarm clock. Yes, seriously.

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My entire life, having grown up around religious people, I have heard that early morning is associated with Godliness and spiritual maturity. My dad used to yell at me in high school saying that people would think I was lazy if I slept in. School administrators and faculty seem to have followed suit, seeing 8am classes at every institution and 7am classes on occasion. Counselors and advocates even recommend taking classes as early as possible for a myriad of reasons that have nothing to do with being successful nor with the brain. (Bad advice alert)

But the fact that those classes exist is not inherently bad. Who usually takes those classes is. Who takes 8am classes? Mostly Freshman who were unable to get the classes they needed as older students with priority got first choice. Those classes might also see students whose adviser simply placed them by class, not caring about the time. And then there is a very small percentage of students who are “morning people” (what researchers call “Larks” - making up about 10% of the population). So, 1 in 10 students thrive at 8am. 9 in 10 students struggle mightily, seeing a lot of them fail.

Upper class-men try to help younger students out with advice, blogs, and such. But Walker suggests something far more sinister. Forcing yourself awake in the morning means you are sabotaging your ability to reason, critically think, or be creative.

At the same time, teens develop a later biological clock than adults, starting in puberty and lasting until the mid-20’s. Biology creates a preference to stay up later and (therefore) get up later. This has nothing to do with willful disobedience nor with laziness. Telling most college students to sleep by 10PM is like asking professors to sleep at 6PM. So, as it comes to class schedules, from high school to college, teens are punished with early mornings. If young people have delayed circadian rhythms, waking up to prepare for an 8am class is akin to forcibly waking adults at 3:30AM everyday.

The results are obvious: Inability to think, lower motivation, lower IQ, greater irritability, more easily distracted, higher amounts of anxiety, poor written communication, inability to take tests effectively, inability to recall content, the freshman fifteen, poor social connections, and many, many more.

The bottom line is that sleep matters a lot and our sleep habits are only getting worse and worse as time goes on. Between lighting and technology and stress and always being connected…we are getting less sleep. Which of course means we are getting dumber, angrier, and more anxious too.

So, just as it feels incredibly disingenuous to hear high school districts claim they want “the best” for students while still promoting 7:25am start times, just as incongruous are colleges that promote 8am classes to students who are not morning people while still arguing the importance of student success.

Just like we now understand the physically detrimental nature of boring students via lectures and such, forcing students to early classes is also (literally) killing them. The attention to scheduling ensuring students can take the classes they need, at reasonable times of day seems to be a pretty good indicator of just how much a college or university really “cares” about its students.

But it once again leaves us with the question: Do schools want what’s best for students or what is best for the school?

Good luck and good learning.