Isaac, my friend Stephanie’s son, didn’t know that he was supposed be walking by the time he turned one. He continued to scootch around on his butt for another year until he decided, 5 days before his second birthday, that it was time to get up and walk. And he did. Just like that, with no warning that that would be the big day. His timing for this feat “late” according to textbook timelines.
Timelines and timetables are ubiquitous in our modern lives. It would be difficult to imagine life without them but we forget that they’re concepts we invented.
Timetables make a lot of sense for trains and planes. When tons of steel is hurtling along a track or when a metal tube is speeding through the sky, accurate timing of their movement is crucial. A split second mistake could court disaster.
Keeping track of time is also important wherever time is money, whenever it would be a waste of money to spend time on the trivial, when efficiency could produce more profit.
But tabling time in schools only makes sense if we ignore the fact that students’ development doesn’t stick to a timeline. And that we cannot predict the date and time that actual learning will happen.
And even though we know from research that no child follows the textbook timeline for development, we ignore this fact in schools. As Ken Robinson says, we age-batch children in schools as though the date they were born was the most interesting thing about them. We’ve been doing this for so long that it seems completely natural to do so. But really, it’s a strange thing to do.
Another quite strange thing we do in schools is to start school at the same time that the working day starts, as though children’s brains are just machines that can be made to work when the clock strikes 8am. This too seems to be quite a normal thing, but only if you ignore the fact that our students have bodies that follow a rhythm that is much older than the oldest clocks ever invented: a body clock that follows a circadian rhythm.
Like other natural organisms, our students’ bodies respond to cycles of light and darkness, with various biological processes happening at different times of the day and night. When children become teens, this circadian rhythm shifts so that there is a delay to when the sleep phase begins. Instead of kicking in at 9pm, it does so at 11pm.
We also know that teens need at least 9 – 10 hours of sleep each night.
It should therefore not be surprising that teens are so sleepy when they arrive at school at 8am.
We could continue to ignore their discomfort and continue to expect them to be alert at 8:00am to begin “working”. We could implore them to pay attention at that time even though we know from research that they will be more alert at 10am, when their circadian rhythm switches to processes that increase alertness. We could continue to impose our abstract concepts about time onto the natural development of our children.
Or we can choose not to.
I choose to respond to my students’ circadian rhythms.
After years of feeling awful about trying to get my sleepy teen students’ attention in the morning and in the afternoon, I’ve come up with a way to structure my school day that is an integration of my students’ circadian rhythm and the fixed boundaries of our school’s timetable.
This is how I do it…
I teach in a school of about 1400 students of about 69 ethnicities. The school day is divided into 4 blocks that are each 77 minutes long and that rotate over the course of the semester. So I may see students for a particular course in the mornings for 4 weeks and then in the afternoons for the 4 weeks after that and then back again to the mornings. This switching from mornings to afternoons happens 3 times a semester for each course that I teach.
Timetables at our school are complicated. We have 4 timetable versions running simultaneously. We have students on a 5-month semester timetables and also students who are in classes for the whole school year. Within those broad frameworks, we have the regular secondary school type of timetable where students move from class to class.
But students in co-op classes stay in one classroom with one teacher all semester. And Career Preparation students have half a regular day and half a co-op day. Both Co-op and Career Preparation students study academic courses and also go out on 6 weeks of work experience in the community.
To accommodate these 4 kinds of timetables and the students going out on work experience, course times rotate through the semester. For example, an English 11 student would have her class in the mornings for half the semester and in the afternoons for the other half.
The first block of the day starts at 8:25am, when my teen students are still in the process of waking up, so we have what I call a “soft start” which means that I don’t strictly monitor any latecomers for the first 30 minutes. The rest of the block is spent on activities that give me a gauge of student learning experiences and progress.
The second block that starts at 9:51am is for presentations or lectures. This is prime time for teens to focus and to concentrate without too much effort. And I take full advantage of that small window to teach that part of the curriculum that must be “delivered”.
After the second block of the day, students have a 40 minute lunch.
During the third block,which begins at 11:59am, students are engaged in team-work activities that include project based learning and experiential learning. Sometimes they prepare presentations or participate in a game or simulation.
The last block of the day starts at 1:25pm with a 15 minute nap or a meditation. At this time of day, my students are exhausted and overfilled with information being delivered to them. It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles I decorate curriculum content with, they can’t focus on what I’m saying. Having a short nap gives their sleep-deprived brains a boost of energy to work independently until the end of the school day at 2:46pm.
Back to my friend Stephanie and her children. She wishes that Isaac and his sister Alice (6 years old) could sync their circadian clocks with hers. She often works at night and so sleeping in late is something she’d love to do, if her children would let her. But Isaac and Alice are neither bound by the expectations of what should be happening at 6am each morning, nor the expectations of timelines of development. Whereas Isaac is a “late” bloomer, Alice has jumped ahead in her development.
Developmental timelines indicate that Alice should only be capable of understanding abstract ideas and hypothetical situations when she turns 11 years old. Her mother wishes this was so because then she would have another 5 years of peace without Alice’s sophisticated arguments when she wants to get her way.
A recent example was when Alice was extremely unhappy about the family’s plans to move to New Brunswick. She told her mother that she was really disappointed to have wasted all the time she had invested in making friends here in British Columbia. She didn’t want to start all over again, investing more time in order to make friends in Moncton.
What strikes me most about Alice’s argument is that at six years old she has already adopted cultural values regarding time as a commodity that should not be wasted.
But I also wonder about what happens to children like Isaac and Alice in schools when who they are is completely out of sync with what timetables and timelines expect of them?