‘When’ Does Learning Happen Best? Dan Pink on the Science Behind Timing...

EdSurge Podcast

‘When’ Does Learning Happen Best? Dan Pink on the Science Behind Timing and Education

By Tony Wan     Jan 2, 2018

‘When’ Does Learning Happen Best? Dan Pink on the Science Behind Timing and Education

As the old adage goes, time is what we want most but what we use worst. Whether it’s sleeping or studying, or sticking with New Year’s resolutions, it often seems like there is simply never enough time. The crunch is felt especially among teachers and students, as they scramble through school days crammed with ever more activities and responsibilities.

So what’s the best way to make the most effective use of our limited time?

That’s the driving theme in the newest book from Dan Pink, the speechwriter, TV producer and acclaimed author of bestsellers “Drive” and “To Sell is Human.” His latest book, “When,” draws on research from psychology, biology and economics to explore how timing impacts every aspect of our lives—including of course, how we teach and learn. For instance, what’s the best time to take a test? Why do kids need more breaks? When the school day is so packed with back-to-back classes and activities, how can students, parents and educators make the best use of time?

Pink recently talked with EdSurge about how his insights can help educators, and why everyone—kids and grownups—can thrive with less multitasking and more recess breaks. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: There’s a saying that goes something like: “Time is what we want most but what we also use worst.” In this book you share some findings that are specific to teaching and learning. Was the education audience a group of readers you had in mind from the beginning?

Pink: It always is because teachers and in particular educators in general are strong, very avid readers. And if you think about all the industries and domains in American life, educators, I think, are really keenly interested in ideas. It’s not a book for educators only but I think there are elements in there that are very germane to educators.

One of the things I discovered is that there is a hidden pattern to our days, and we’re better off putting certain kind of work in certain kinds of times of the day. That is, all times of the day are not created equal. And if we understand this underlying pattern, we can begin to reorganize our days so that they are more in sync with when science says we’re able to do the best at certain kinds of work. And there are huge numbers of timing effects on education.

How is there a mismatch between what science knows and what education does?

There’s a really interesting study of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which looked at grades and also performance on standardized tests in math for elementary school students. And what it found was that students who had math in the morning had higher grades and better scores than students who had math in the afternoon.

Now that’s pretty amazing because when we think about scheduling, we think of it as purely an administrative task. We don’t think about it as a pedagogical task. We focus a lot, understandably, on what’s the curriculum we’re going to use? We focus a lot on who’s going to be teaching, and are we giving that teacher the proper professional development?

But just the random assignment of kids in an afternoon math class, versus a morning math class, is going to affect how much math that kid learns. And that could have a few degrees of tilt in the trajectory of that kid’s education life going forward.

There’s another study from Denmark, where students take standardized tests on computers. But there are more students than there are computers, so everybody can’t take the test at the same time. So kids are randomly organized—some take the test in the morning, some take it in the afternoon. Again, elementary school students who took the test in the afternoon did worse than those who took the test in the morning.

The difference between taking the test in the afternoon versus taking the test in the morning was akin to having missed two to three weeks of school that year. So timing wasn’t everything, as we like to say, but it was a big thing.

So perhaps there is some logic behind those dreaded 8:00 AM finals in college...

It’s interesting you say that because it’s actually a really bad idea for college students! Some of this goes to our chronotype, which is our propensity to either wake up early or wake up late, to stay up late or to go to sleep early. You sometimes hear it talked about in terms of “larks” and “owls.” Some people are larks. They rise early, feel energetic in the morning and then fade out by evening.

But people between the ages of about 14 and 24 are very “owly.” That’s a period where, because of puberty, our bodies begin changing and that shifts our wakefulness forward a couple of hours. So people go to sleep later in the evening and wake up later in the morning.

This is one reason why for teenagers and college students, school typically starts way too early. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 issued a policy statement that said, please do not start school for teenagers before 8:30 in the morning. Unfortunately today, the average school start time to teenagers is 8:03 AM, so most schools are operating directly in contravention of the recommendation of the nation’s pediatricians.

The Center for Disease Control has written about how it has an effect on everything from car crashes to obesity to depression. Big reductions in dropout rates. Improvements to standardized test scores. Even things like reduced car crashes among teenagers. And so, this is another case where timing isn't everything, but it’s a big thing. It’s absolutely nuts that we start school so early for teenagers.

Let’s talk recess. What’s your finding around taking a break in the school day?

In schools, and basically every realm in life, we have dramatically undersold the importance of breaks. I was really blown away by some of this research. I am old enough to remember 15 years ago when people in a business setting would brag about pulling all nighters and how little sleep they got, and we thought they were heroes. Then the science of sleep emerged and we realized those people aren’t heroes—they’re fools.

Breaks have a huge effect on our performance, and we should be taking regular systematic breaks no matter what age we are. The big picture is that the science of breaks is telling us that we need to think of breaks not as a concession to weakness. We need to think of breaks not as a deviation from performance, but as part of performance itself.

The science is telling us very, very clearly: Breaks are essential to our productivity, to our creativity, and to our overall well being. And they have to be a more intentional part of our lives and recesses are how students and schools take breaks. One thing we shouldn’t forget is that teachers need breaks too and I don’t think teachers get nearly the number of breaks that they need.

Is there an ideal length for a break?

You know, I don’t think there is. But something is better than nothing. We know that social breaks are better than solo breaks, even for introverts like me. Breaks where people are moving are more restorative than breaks where people are sedentary.

There’s some interesting research showing that breaks that are outside and that involve nature are more restorative than breaks that are indoors. Even to the point where taking a break where you can look outside and see a tree is better than taking a break in a room where you can't see a tree.

We know that fully detached breaks are more restorative than semi-detached breaks. So answering your email on your phone while you’re walking around outside does not count as a break. Breaks should be fully detached. But they needn’t be super long. We’re not talking like half hour breaks necessarily or hour breaks. For a lot of people, 10 minutes might be enough.

Many classrooms can look chaotic, with groups and subgroups of students doing different activities at different times. Now, there’s a part of your book that explores the value of synchronization and synchronized activities...

There’s something about when we synchronize with other people that makes us feel good. I think the really cool thing from an education perspective is there’s also research showing that synchronizing with others makes us do good.

Take two groups of kids and they each play games. One group plays a synchronized game. One group plays a non-synchronized game. The group that plays the synchronized game plays kind of a clap and tap activity where they’re all clapping and tapping at the same time. And the other group plays a fun game that isn't synchronized. Afterwards, the students who played the synchronized game were much more likely to say, “I want to play with a kid I haven’t met yet.” They’re more likely to help the teacher, [and demonstrate] all these behaviors that social psychologists call “pro-social.”

You even see this in something like swing sets. One group swings in time with each other, the other group swings asynchronously. The group that swings in sync is again, more likely to engage in the so-called pro-social behaviors, open to outsiders, helping the teachers, being kinder. It’s really kind of incredible.

It really blew my mind because I had no idea about how powerful synchronization was, and I think it offers educators a very powerful tool that they can use to lift up kid’s lives. I don’t understand what it is, but there is something about synchronization that is meaningful to us, that lifts our spirits, that makes us act better, that is fundamentally human.

Technology is supposed to free up things to give us more time but somehow we as a society can feel busier than ever. How does this “always-on” digital age force us to reconsider our best uses of time?

I think that it goes, in part, to how we configure our days. The science of timing tells us that as we go through the day, we have a peak period, a trough period, and a recovery period. And if you are spending your peak period—the period where the science tells us you should be doing your heads down focused analytic work—on email, that’s a waste. So, what we should be doing is putting that kind of administrative stuff into our trough period.

We should be single-tasking instead of multitasking, and the constant specter of our phone sitting there on our desk, buzzing and beeping, encourages us to multitask, takes us down a path where our attention is diverted and it steers us into doing something that we’re terrible at.

What would your ideal school day look like?

It depends on the age of the kid. If we’re talking about teenagers, what I would do is I would start the school day probably around 9:30. I would offer many more breaks than we have. I think those two interventions for teenagers would be huge.

With elementary, maybe some middle-school students, I would give them more recesses, not fewer. But the other thing that I think is pretty clear from the evidence is that we should be doing analytic kinds of work, like math, reading and writing, in the morning, and other kinds of classes, like music and art and maybe even PE, in the afternoon.

I would encourage young elementary schools to really think about having a choir. Many schools do. But I think it’s actually more powerful tool than most of us recognize. But again, I find that kids in school are so, so, so, so tightly scheduled there’s no give in any case, because we think of breaks as a deviation from the school. We think of breaks as like a snow day where they’re not learning anything—when in fact, breaks are a part of their learning.

What are some of the high level takeaways that you hope that the teachers and education policy makers take away from your book?

Teachers and schools are all very focused on what we do. What are we doing to do? What are kids going to learn? How are they going to learn it? Who are they going to learn it with? What’s the right mix of teacher and classmates? Why are we doing this?

But we give short shrift to “when.” When are we doing all of these things?

The science is telling us is that these “when” questions have a material effect on people’s performance. If you look at the broader population, time of day explains about 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive tasks. So timing isn’t everything—but it’s a big thing and we need to start taking these questions of “when” much more seriously.

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