Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Timing out

One of my ongoing frustrations when I was a teacher was the failure of the educational community to use the latest scientific research to guide our approach to pedagogy.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised.  We here in the United States have made a national pastime out of ignoring scientific research -- climate change and the safety/efficacy of vaccinations being two of the most obvious examples.  Still, it was maddening to see things like high school students struggling in Spanish I when if we put our resources into bilingual education in preschool, kids would learn a second language as easily as they did their first.

And research into the window of opportunity for language learning has been around for thirty years.

Another example was the subject of a paper this week in Nature: Human Behavior.  In "Interplay of Chronotype and School Timing Predicts School Performance," by Andrea P. Goldin, Mariano Sigman, Gisela Braier, Diego A. Golombek, and MarĂ­a J. Leone, of Universidad Torcuato di Tella (Buenos Aires, Argentina), we find out that people tend to have chronotypes -- natural biological clocks that time our highest and lowest alertness -- and that when schools run counter to a student's chronotype, it drastically impacts performance.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Robbert van der Steeg, Eternal clock, CC BY-SA 2.0]

I know this from my own experience.  I'm naturally a lark -- up with the sun.  Often earlier, even.  My morning classes in college (and teaching morning classes during my career as an educator) were easy for me.  But I have a slow fade after lunch time -- and by a time that for many people is Evening Party Time, I'm ready to be curled up in bed with a good book.

I literally haven't slept past eight o'clock in maybe twenty years.  And staying up past ten PM?

Not if you want me to be halfway coherent.

But I was painfully aware that a lot of students seemed to be on the opposite schedule.  Trying to get them to learn biology first thing in the morning (hell, trying to get them to stay awake) was an ongoing challenge.  And I can't tell you the number of students who told me that they stay up regularly till three AM -- not because of homework or social media (although those did tend to fill the wakeful hours), but because they were wide awake and going to bed earlier than that would be an exercise in frustration.

So it's a double whammy.  We take kids who are naturally night owls, make them get up early (depriving them of much-needed sleep), and then expect them to perform optimally on intellectual tasks.

Goldin et al. pull no punches about this:
Most adolescents exhibit very late chronotypes and attend school early in the morning, a misalignment that can affect their health and psychological well-being.  Here we examine how the interaction between the chronotype and school timing of an individual influences academic performance, studying a unique sample of 753 Argentinian students who were randomly assigned to start school in the morning (07:45), afternoon (12:40) or evening (17:20).  Although chronotypes tend to align partially with class time, this effect is insufficient to fully account for the differences with school start time.  We show that (1) for morning-attending students, early chronotypes perform better than late chronotypes in all school subjects, an effect that is largest for maths; (2) this effect vanishes for students who attend school in the afternoon; and (3) late chronotypes benefit from evening classes.  Together, these results demonstrate that academic performance is improved when school times are better aligned with the biological rhythms of adolescents.
And I strongly suspect that the effect this research will have on the educational community is... nada.

My wife has a poster in her office showing a dude hauling ass in the annual Pamplona Running of the Bulls, a thousand pounds of snorting animal right behind him.  The caption is: "TRADITION: Just because we've always done it this way doesn't mean it's not a really, really stupid idea."

To which the educational establishment of the United States tends to say, "Oh, well, too bad."

The most frustrating thing is that apparently it doesn't take much of a change to make a difference.  Bumping school start times ahead by an hour -- so from eight to nine AM, in the school district where I taught -- was shown to improve daytime alertness and the quality/length of sleep in adolescents in a study done six years ago.  It still wouldn't be optimal for students who are really night owls, but at this point any gain at all would be an improvement.

But given how most schools have responded to thirty-year-old research on language learning, the Goldin et al. study will probably be filed away with lots of other research, in a folder labeled, "Well, It Would Be Nice, But..."

Along with recommendations to our federal government for halting climate change and mandatory vaccination programs.  Seems like it's an uphill battle for most things these days.


This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is a dark one, but absolutely gripping: the brilliant novelist Haruki Murakami's Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche.

Most of you probably know about the sarin attack in the subways of Tokyo in 1995, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult under the leadership of Shoko Asahara.  Asahara, acting through five Aum members, set off nerve gas containers during rush hour, killing fifty people outright and injuring over a thousand others.  All six of them were hanged in 2018 for the crimes, along with a seventh who acted as a getaway driver.

Murakami does an amazing job in recounting the events leading up to the attack, and getting into the psyches of the perpetrators.  Amazingly, most of them were from completely ordinary backgrounds and had no criminal records at all, nor any other signs of the horrors they had planned.  Murakami interviewed commuters who were injured by the poison and also a number of first responders, and draws a grim but fascinating picture of one of the darkest days in Japanese history.

You won't be able to put it down.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

No comments:

Post a Comment