Thinking Flexibly about Schedules

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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I was listening to Fast Company’s podcast featuring Dan Pink in which he describes that if you’re an employer, you might want to consider adopting a flexible approach when it comes to setting working hours. Not just because it’ll make you a good boss, but because doing so can do wonders for office productivity.

Dan Pink outlines that there are three stages throughout our working hours: peak, trough, and recovery.  If you want to dive into this in more detail, check out his interview with Scientific American.

Stages Description Type of Work
Peak Optimal time to focus and avoid distractions Analytic
Trough Most sleepy and prone to distractions Routine or administrative
Recovery Mood is high but our focus may still be low Creative or iterative

He contends:

The trouble is that often we often don’t do the right tasks at the right time. We think questions of “when” are less important than questions of “what,” “how,” and “who.” So we squander our peak answering email, then try—often unsuccessfully—do our deep work during the afternoon. That’s a mistake. Research shows that time of day explains 20 percent of the variance on human performance on cognitive tasks. So timing isn’t everything. But it’s a big thing.”

Stunning but also common sense — understanding yourself better to improve performance.

What are the implications for our high school students?

There have been numerous sleep studies for adolescents with findings such as these from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence — meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm.
  • Teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best. Most teens do not get enough sleep — one study found that only 15% reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights.

The impact of being chronically sleep deprived? Studies show that lack of sleep limits your ability to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems.

This lines up with my unofficial adolescent research of my two teenagers who struggle to wake up to get ready for their high school start time of 7:20 am as well as my time as a high school teacher when my sleepy block 1 students became more productive and engaged later in the morning.

How can we move toward a more sane approach that lines up with research?

What students can do…

  1. Reflect on the chart above and then ask the following questions — When is my most productive time of day? Then consider, what type of task does this require? How can I use what I know about myself to pair the task with level of thinking expected?
  2. Build in regular breaks to clear your head.
  3. Take advantage of your peak times.

What teachers can do…

  1. Be a model for learners. Take a questionnaire with your students (click here for an example) and talk through your results. What are the implications?
  2. Offer regular breaks (every 20-30 minutes) during class to give the brain time to assimilate new learning. Think about it as an “intermission” in order to recharge synapses in the brain. This blog post by neuroscientist and educator Judy Willis describes in more detail.
  3. Take to heart the wisdom of what Dan Pink said about when vs. what, who, and how— oftentimes when we try to schedule time with students, we focus more on availability rather than optimal time based on what the task requires. For example if you are trying to confer with students about examining their work and determining next steps, make sure that they come with a prepared mind. You can make this more likely by having flexibility in the conferring time as well as designing a form that they are expected to reflect on before they sit down with you.

What systems can do…

  1. Consider a rotating schedule so that that first block or period doesn’t always take that early morning time slot.
  2. Consider a flexible schedule so that students can engage in virtual learning as a complement to physically showing up for a given class every day. C
  3. Consider designing spaces where students can take a cognitive break — opportunities to clear their head through physical activity, settling down using breathing / mindfulness techniques.
  4. Consider in engaging students to better understand their own time patterns through a questionnaire and what students can do to advocate for themselves based on what the results show.
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