How Schools Can Spend Time More Wisely: 4 Big Tips From Daniel Pink

By Alyson Klein — May 13, 2019 6 min read
Best-selling author Daniel Pink breaks down how schools can improve the use of time during a keynote address at Education Week’s 2019 Leaders to Learn From event.
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School and district leaders love using research to decide which curriculum to adopt or what kind of professional development to offer.

But educators—and professionals in just about every other field—often ignore research when it comes to thinking through how to use another precious resource: Time.

In fact, almost everyone, including K-12 leaders, think timing and scheduling is an “art,” said Daniel Pink, the best-selling author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. But really, it’s a “science.”

That’s the message Pink delivered to K-12 district leaders at Education Week’s Leaders to Learn From event this month. And it is a message he will likely continue repeating until people start paying attention.

“When we make our timing decisions we tend to make them based on intuition,” Pink said. “We tend to make them based on guess work. That’s the wrong way to do it. We should be making them based on evidence.”

And there’s a ton of research that shows how key timing is outside of education. For instance, you’re much more likely to get better medical care in the morning, since doctors are more prone to make mistakes in administering anesthesia or prescribing unnecessary antibiotics later in the day. And on a different note: Divorce filings spike at certain times of the year—March and August to be exact, Pink said.

So what does the research on timing suggest for K-12 educators? Here are four big takeaways.

Move tasks requiring extensive analysis to the beginning of the day, unless you’re dealing with high school students.

Most people—teenagers are a big exception—are more likely to be in a good mood in the morning. Then mood begins to dip, hitting a low around 3 to 4 p.m. And it picks back up in the evening, according to research by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning psychologist that Pink cited.

That bears out in schools, too, Pink explained. In Denmark, students were randomly assigned to take a computerized test at different times of the day. It turned out the students who tested earliest in the day had a huge advantage. In fact, taking the test just one hour later caused a decline in scores similar to the effect of slightly less household income, lower parent education, or missing two weeks of school, according to National Academy of Sciences research.

And a separate study of the Los Angeles Unified School District found that kids who took math during the first two periods of the day had higher grades and did better on state math tests.

“We think of scheduling as a logistical exercise but it’s not just a logistical issue, it’s a pedagogical issue,” said Pink at the Leaders to Learn From event May 3. “Elementary school students who take math in the morning, learn more math.”

There are exceptions, of course. Some people are “larks”—meaning they are sharpest in the morning, and don’t really recover later on. Larks make up about 15 percent of the population, Pink said. Another 15 percent or so are “owls,” who peak way later in the day. Everyone else is somewhere in the middle.

What that means for educators: If you’re scheduling classes for elementary school children, try to front-load the analytical tasks, like math or report writing, anything that requires kids to put their heads down and concentrate. Later in the afternoon is a great time for brainstorming and creative work. The middle of the day is best for “administrative tasks” (Think answering routine emails for grownups). Shifting the schedule this way delivers bigger bang for the buck for vulnerable groups—like children from poor families—than it does for other kids, Pink said.

Daniel Pink Recess 2019 1173526223

Want better academic performance from your students? ‘Give ‘em frickin’ recess.’

Americans in general—not just educators—underestimate the value of a break, Pink said. But research shows that if you give children 20 or 30 minutes to run around before a test, their scores go up. And low-performing students are most likely to benefit from the pause.

Even a short break—say, a one-minute stretch—beats no break at all, Pink said. To get the most benefit, a break should be taken outdoors, with other people, and away from your typical working environment.

In other words, the best possible break sounds an awful lot like recess.

“Certain policy remedies are, ‘in order to improve test scores, we need to get rid of recess. Recess is soft. Recess doesn’t lead to high performance,’” Pink said. “That is just empirically wrong. It’s flatly wrong. Everything we know about breaks suggests the opposite.”

Recess needs to be a priority in the schedule, just like any other subject. And the argument needs to shift from recess as a way to build social-emotional skills to recess as a means to boost academic outcomes.

“We should fight for recess not as a nicety, but as necessity,” Pink said. “If you want kids to perform better, give ‘em frickin’ recess. This is not about being nicey-nice. Recess makes them better at classroom learning.”

Daniel Pink Late Start 2019 1283210991

Starting the high school day later is ‘a giant pain’ but ‘the right thing to do.’

Remember that statistic that most people do their best work earlier in the day? Throw that out the window for teenagers, who for the most part are more likely to peak later in the day and be sluggish in the morning.

That has big implications for high school start times. In fact, research shows that starting school too early for high-school students can lead to weight gain, depression, lower academic performance, and just generally undesirable behaviors, like smoking tobacco or using illicit drugs.

The solution: Push back that opening high school bell. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

This is all easier said than done, Pink acknowledged. Rearranging high school schedules means monkeying with sports practices, buses, and parents’ schedules.

But it’s worth it, Pink said. And it’s ultimately not even that pricey. In fact, a study of North Carolina’s Wake County school district found that it was one of the most cost-effective ways to improve student performance. The most disadvantaged kids get the biggest boost.

Pushing back high school start time is “a giant pain….except it’s the right thing to do,” Pink told the school district leaders.

Daniel Pink Choir 2019 488313722

Want nicer, more inclusive kids? Consider mandating choir practice.

Or at least try out some clapping games. Or line dancing. Or maybe rowing practice, if you’ve got a lake and some boats handy. Anything that gets kids moving together in a synchronized way.

That’s because children aged 4 to 6 are more likely to smile, engage in eye contact, help out their teacher, or befriend children who aren’t exactly like them after they’ve participated in some sort of synchronized activity, said Pink, citing research from the Journal of Developmental Science.

“There’s this incredible thing that goes on that after synchronized activity, kids engage in more pro-social behavior. Kinder. More open,” he said.

Choral singing may be the standout here: It calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels, increases sensitivity to others, and even reduces the need for pain medication and makes it easier for people to fight infections, Pink said.

“The benefits of choral singing are outrageous. It is shocking,” he said. In fact, in terms of benefits, it’s up there with exercise and meditation. “It is more powerful than you could ever imagine.”

The takeaway? Schools might want to consider making choral singing mandatory for all students, or at least letting the tone-deaf ones join choir if they want to, Pink said.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as How Schools Can Spend Time More Wisely: 4 Big Tips


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