How to organise the school day

Posted on 13th April 2018

In a book review for TES of When by Daniel H Pink (Canongate), Alistair McConville, Bedales Deputy Head, Academic, considers the implications of our cognitive highs and lows for the ways in which we organise the school day.

Pink is a synthesiser of scientific, psychological and sociological studies and shows their radical relevance to work, society and schools through engaging storytelling. In When he argues that 20 per cent of cognitive variance on standardised tests is because of the time of day the test is taken. A study of two million Danish schoolchildren showed that the difference between taking it in the morning and the afternoon was equivalent to the impact of two weeks of missed school, with morning the better.

We all follow a pretty similar rhythm of cognitive highs and lows during the day. Broadly, we’re better at analytic tasks during the early part of our cycle and stronger at creative and insight work during the middle period. Says Alistair: “So that’s maths and science in the mornings please, then arts and humanities built around naps in the afternoon”.

Circadian rhythms shift dramatically during the teen years and early twenties, with 6am the average mid-point for a teenager’s biological sleep cycle. Pink cites evidence from the US that seems to point pretty unambiguously to the fact that even relatively modest shifts to a later start lead to improved academic performance. Alistair says:  “We’re routinely waking them up in the middle of their night, and some bold schools have done something about it. Hampton Court House, for example, has shifted its sixth form start time back dramatically”. Food for thought, then, for educationalists.

Al McConville | TES | When – The Science of Timing