Monday, July 5, 2010

Cutting Edge Science Proves High Schoolers Like to Sleep-In

Sometimes state-of-the-art science comes up with something totally unexpected - like quantum mechanics for example. Other times it comes up with something anyone who has ever been 16 could tell you. From Scientific American's summary (which can be heard at the bottom of this post):
[R]esearchers evaluated 201 Rhode Island high school students whose school pushed back its start time from 8 to 8:30... After the delayed start, the percentage of students who said they got at least eight hours of sleep a night jumped from about 16 to 55 percent. Class attendance improved, and there were fewer visits to the health center for fatigue-related complaints. Plus, the number of students who said they felt unhappy, depressed, annoyed or irritated dropped significantly.
First of all, I taught a 50-minute early-morning religion class for high school students starting at 6:10 AM, so I can only imagine what it would have been like to have started my class at 7:30 AM. Second - and I say this as a devoted morning person - if everybody including scientists think it's better to start school later, why don't more schools do it?


  1. I think many educators and scientists agree that an extended break in summer having it's basis in an 18th century agrarian culture is counter productive and makes our students less competative. We still do it.

  2. I think the real point is that there are more factors at work here than just what the students want or what is most effective for their school-related education. Like Stan said, tradition can be very forceful in this type of system. However, there are other things to consider.

    For example, if they start half an hour later, they also end half an hour later. Most high school students have after school jobs -- pushing the school day back half an hour forces everyone else to accommodate these changes too. Also, most students participate in extracurricular activities and many parents are already frustrated at how late those keep their children busy. Also, when 8:30 becomes the new 8:00, is it possible that the students would just stay up even later to get their homework done, thus forcing them to sleep in even later. Will the old problems just re-surface again in a year or two, just at a later time? Will the school then need to start at 9:00 to get the same effects? I would be interested in seeing a longer-term study.

    I agree, this seems like a great idea, and if it really does work, that's great -- go for it. However, I also see a lot of other factors to consider here. Even if something is a great idea, change can be difficult. That's probably why more schools are hesitant to try it.

  3. Yeah, I'm with Bill on this. I suppose we can use science to show just about anything we want.

    There is something embedded in this post, however, that I have often wondered about. As an engineer it doesn't mean that much to me, but I think you guys would be. Are the social sciences really science? If so, in what way? If not, in what way? Are engineers and mathematicians scientists? Personally, I would say yes to both question because it is really the use of the scientific method that makes one a scientist. But I admit, there is some differentiation to be had. Hmmm, I smell a post in here somewhere!

  4. Do we really need cutting edge science to prove it? Isn't it pretty obvious that they want to sleep in?

  5. It's quite obvious that they want to sleep in. It's also apparent that letting them sleep in has some substantial benefits, at least in the short term. What you really need good science to see is what is the optimum system, considering all the many aspects of the problem. (And there are many.)

    In response to jmb275, I definitely think social scientists are scientists. The trouble is (and it is the same one with engineers) that when you deal with real systems (like real people in a real school system with real families and real lives), things become exponentially more complex. This is the same reason that knowing physics theory doesn't always help you in the lab -- it can give you some amazingly good insight, and there are times when it works perfectly, but not always. Sometimes you really just have to find something that works.

    In a couple of older posts, we discussed different philosophical systems, "purity" of various scientific fields, etc. Sometimes I think we do ourselves a disservice trying to overly "purify" science. Sometimes it can be useful, like when we talk about how an object moves neglecting the influences of friction and air resistance. Other times, it renders the question completely meaningless, like when we talk about how a person acts neglecting the influence of a family or a society, etc.

    This is what can often cause physicists and other scientists to question the "scientific-ness" of social scientists. We chide them for their field being so much less "pure" than ours, when the real issue is that their job is so much more difficult (in fact, probably impossible to do at the same level of precision) and correspondingly so much more useful. The lack of so-called "purity" is the strength of social science, not its detriment. However, like in cases like this, it is also what makes it so difficult. (Sorry, getting off my soap box now.)

    Anyways, I think this was a great post and a useful study. I am interested to see what becomes of it. I hope it can be used to help a lot of people.

  6. jmb275,

    I think you can break fields into applied and research arms. Much of engineering is applying known scientific principles. However, there is plenty of research in engineering fields that explore new concepts. Of course, this may be applied to so many different fields.


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