By Cait Etherington April 22, 2017
It’s a known fact and yet one that most societies ignore: Teenagers circadian rhythms (the cycle of sleep and wakefulness) typically begin two hours after the adult cycle. In fact, neuroscientists say most teens are biologically predisposed to go to sleep around midnight and not feel fully engaged and awake again until about 9 or 10 am or later. Simply put, this means that while teachers may be ready to start work at 8 am or 9 am and prefer to leave by 4 pm, their students are likely not up and running until at least 10 am and may prefer to be in school from noon until 7 pm everyday. Now there is a possibility that eLearning could help us study and work at peak times, but this means rethinking how work cultures are structured.
In 2014, tens of thousands of British children were given the option of starting school at 10:00 am. The study, led by a team of Oxford University neuroscientists, was initiated after a pilot study found that starting just one hour later improved students’ grades in core subjects by 19%. As one of the study’s investigators, Professor Colin Epsie, explains, “Our grandparents always told us that sleep is very important but it’s only recently that we have started looking at the neuroscience of sleep. We know that something funny happens when you’re a teenager, in that you seem to be out of sync with the world. Your parents think it’s because you’re lazy and opinionated and everything would be okay if you could get to sleep earlier. But science is telling us that teenagers need to sleep more in the mornings.”
While results are still pending (the team hopes to publish initial results in 2018), early findings suggest that moving the school day start may be strategic. However, students are not the only people who stand to gain. Oxford University researchers have suggested that the 9-5 workday is also wrong for employees. Dr. Paul Kelly explains: “This is a huge society issue. Staff should start at 10am. You don’t get back to (the 9am) starting point till 55. Staff are usually sleep-deprived. We’ve got a sleep-deprived society. It is hugely damaging on the body’s systems because you are affecting physical, emotional and performance systems in the body.” In Kelly’s words, “Sleep deprivation is a torture,” but it is also pervasive.
In the workplace, flexible scheduling has gained considerable ground over the past two decades. While not universally available (or universally lauded), more workplaces are now permitting employees to work at their peak times. If you are an early bird, arrive at 7 am and leave in the mid afternoon. If you’re a night hawk, arrive at 12 pm and work into the evening. By and large, research suggests that a flexible work schedule has positive impacts on workplace engagement, retention and productivity. But could we also adopt flex school schedules?
Unlike the workplace, where there is an assumption that employees can work on their own (with minimal supervision) at least part of the time, schools are highly structured spaces and students typically work under the supervision of a teacher. The other obstacle, of course, is that students and teachers are on different cycles. While a teachers in his or her 60s may work best from 9 am to 4 pm, a younger teacher may work best on a 10 am to 5 pm schedule, and one’s students may work best from 12 pm to 7 pm. With teachers and students reaching their peak performance at different times, what’s the solution? One obvious answer is to bring teachers (of all ages) and students together only during peak hours that work across demographics (let’s say, from 12 to 4 pm) and to create robust eLearning opportunities to account for the other 4 hours. The eLearning portion of the day could even include online interactive forums that bring students into dialogue with teach other well after the on-site school day ends. But what do teachers and students think about this plan?
Kelly Klassen, a high school English teacher in New York City, agrees that eLearning could help us study and work more effectively: “I would never want to work in a 100% virtual school. I need to see my kids in person, and they need personal contact with us. But under the right conditions, cutting the day in half could be great. My students work late at night, and I know because I see when they upload their homework, and it is often hours after I’ve gone to bed.” David Curtain, a tenth grader in Klassen’s class, agrees: “I would be more on if I could get to school at 11:30 or something and then leave around 4 or 5 and then do more work at night, when I’m at home and online anyway. I like seeing and hanging out my friends at school and after school, but I could do a lot of the stuff we cover in class online.”
So is a flex school schedule possible? While the technologies needed to make a flex school day possible certainly exist, it seems unlikely this will happen on a mass scale anytime soon. As researchers at Oxford University’s Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute observe, “The work culture of long hours, shift work, and long-haul flights all contribute to sleep and circadian rhythm disruption across most sectors of society. It has been suggested that the adult population sleeps on average 1-2 hours less every night compared to the 1960s, and for teenagers, sleep loss may be much greater.” To date, however, evidence to support claims about the negative impacts of our current work and school schedule is scarce. Experts at Oxford University’s Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute hope the evidence they are currently generating will provide a compelling reason to rethink both the work and school day in the near future.