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What Things Would You Change About Your Classroom If the Sky Was the Limit? 

WRITTEN BY: Curtis Kelly     DATE ADDED: Jul 17,2009     EDITED BY: Patrick Bickford

The question is: “What things would you change about your classroom if the sky werethe limit?” I guess we are being asked to do a little environmental engineering to raise the learning potential? A year ago I would have suggested putting the desks in a circle, using natural instead of artificial lighting, or replacing the PCs with Macs; but after a year of listening to Brain Science podcasts, I knew the answer instantly: I’d take all the desks out, and… are you ready? … put in beds.

That’s right, beds. Some things we’ve discovered in the last ten years make it clear that the current dearth of learning comes from physiological deficits, including the biggest, baddest, learning disability of them all: sleep deprivation.

We have long known that sleep has an impact on cognitive function – learners that stay up all night lose everything they learned the day before – but the general public still misconstrues sleep as an option. Counselors might be telling students that an hour of sleep is worth more than an hour of study, but as Dr. Ralph Pascualy points out, mostpeoplestill think thatnot getting enough sleep is merely a matter of “toughing it out.”

It is not. We nowpretty much know that the first night of sleepis when learning goes from short-term into long-term memory. People tend to think of sleep as down time, but if you could take a peek at your brain while you are asleep, you’d be surprised. For most of the sleep cycle, you’d see neurons cracking away far more furiously than when you were awake. During the slow-wave phase of sleep, your brain replays everything you learned during the day, over and over again, locking in new connections through an amazing process of genetic change.  And there’s more: in the following nights, your brain reorganizes this new learning to integrate it into your existing knowledge. We learned from the late HM that memories roam for 11 years before finding homes, but even after onesleepfulweek, we move from just knowing to understanding. And even more: we also solve problems in our sleep. In one study, students were given math problems with a hidden shortcut for solving them. Three times more students figured the shortcut out after 8 hours of sleep than those in the non-sleep group.

"Even if we get lots of sleep, eat well, get along with our parents, and do everything else leading to mental fitness, sitting long hours in the classroom pretty much cancels it."

No sleep, no learning. And drastically. An all-A student who sleeps a little less than seven hours on weeknights and a little more than seven on weekends will drop from the top 10% of her class to the bottom 10% of those who do get sleep. With a few all-nighters, she’ll start showing the same symptoms as someone with Alzheimer’s. Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, puts it simply: “Sleep loss means mind loss.”

Are your students getting more than seven hours of sleep? With cell phones, Web surfing, and the teen-normal hormone-regulated shift towards owlishness, probably not. When I ask my students how much sleep they get, six hours is the most common answer. Unfortunately, the data shows that only six hours of sleep for five nights straight leads to 60% loss in performance. That is SIX-AUGHT, ladies and gents!  In terms of impact, no graded reader or info gap caneven come close.

Nor should we underestimate naps, which contrary to popular belief are not a side effect of insufficient sleep. NASA found that pilots who napped for 26 minutes performed 34% better afterwards, and other studies have found boosts like these last up to six hours.

So, beds it is… Um. Wait a minute. Some hands have popped up in the back. You, sir. (inaudible) I understand your point. What we really need to do is to get them to sleep more at home. . . Ma’am?  (higher inaudible)  Yes. You’re right. My beds-in-classrooms solution prevents the deterioration of learning potential; it does not augment it, but please, I’m not done yet. There is one more thing I am putting in my classroom: treadmills!

Even if we get lots of sleep, eat well, get along with our parents, and do everything else leading to mental fitness, sitting long hours in the classroom pretty much cancels it. It is not what we are built for. As Read Montague puts it, our brains “evolved on legs, and that makes all the difference.”  For millions of years our ancestors walked 10-20 kilometers a day. These strapping athletes actively worked the environment to survive, while those who just sat passively got eaten. It makes sense then, that our brains evolved to work optimally when moving, not when sitting, and science has found just that. Most of it has to do with blood flow.

Our brains burn up blood-supplied glucose at ten times the rate of other body parts, and pump out glutamate and other deadly toxins. As long as our blood keeps pumping through, these neuron busters get carried away in the oxygen, but if not, they accumulate. Cognitive function suffers and we age prematurely.

But there is more. When we exercise, our brain also releases neurotransmitter mood shapers like dopamine, norepiniphrine and serotonin. Even just a little exercise gives learners better focus, higher motivation, more confidence, and less impulsiveness, in other words, the Holy Grail of classroom behavior.

And more: with exercise, our brains release neurotropins, like BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), at two or three times the normal level (and marijuana-like cabbinoids too). Harvard’s John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle Growth” (a kind of fertilizer) for the brain. This chemical helps everything related to brain growth happen, including the increase of stem cells that become new neurons. Exercise is, by far, the single most powerful way to maintain and increase the brain’s plasticity, which means the ability to learn and change.

A recent study with 5,000 children over three years found that 30 minutes of exercise, twice a day, led to higher grades across the board, especially for girls, and especially in the subject area of . . . brace yourself  . . . math, which is tied in directly to executive function. Or consider the case of Mikey, a 10 year-old who took Ritalin to control his severe attention disorder, ADHD. One day, he went to the school principal – actually, his Mom– and got permission to do daily exercise instead. He swam his way to recovery, and then, on to fourteen Olympic Gold Medals. His name?  Michael Phelps.

It does not take a lot of exercise to make oneself smarter. Even short walks help; even couch potatoes who fidget do better. So how are we using these new discoveries to improve education? We are not really; in fact, just the opposite. We are cutting PE classes and recess times, buying buses to haul students, and plopping our kids down in front of computers at home. This is neither human nor humane. As John Medina writes, “I am convinced that integrating exercise into those  eight hours at work or school will not make us smarter. It will only make us normal.”

So that’s it, my fellow educators; beds and treadmills to make happier, healthier learners who all score in the top 10%.


Curtis Kelly (EDD) is a specialist in adult education, writing and speaking instruction, and brain-based learning. He has given over 250 presentations and written 17 books, including "Significant Scribbles", "Writing from Withinand the "Active Skills for Communication" series.  Mr. Kelly has granted Englipedia permission to host this article.



This page was last modified on Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:55:45 PM