Falling Asleep in Biology

Posted on February 17, 2014


When I was in high school I used to fall asleep at my desk.

I’ve always had trouble staying awake when asked to sit still and listen. I still struggle with it a great deal, but luckily I’m rarely forced to sit still in the same manner that I had to do every day in high school.

In one particular class, Biology, I had so much trouble staying awake that my teacher forced me to stand up next to my desk while everyone else was seated. It was embarrassing, but that’s not the point of this anecdote. The point is more that if you really cared about my learning you would have suggested that I go take a nap. Of course that never happened in high school.

The other day while I was working at a Sudbury Valley School a student asked me to show him how to program a video game. I’ve been working on one in my spare time and he wanted to learn about it. As we got started, though, it became clear to me that he was exhausted. I turned to him and said, “you’re exhausted, take a nap and then we can pick this back up”. It seemed like the most obvious thing to do. Why would we force the learning when he was clearly exhausted and not going to learn very effectively.

A growing body of research confirms that sleep, especially in teenagers who naturally stay awake later and subsequently benefit from sleeping in later, is correlated with everything from depression, car accidents, and learning.

When we try to micromanage the days of students in order to maximize test scores we make it very difficult for students to respond to what their body needs from them. To eat when they are hungry, to sleep when they are tired, to move around when they have energy, etc. In doing so we are making it more difficult for students to use their time optimally and we’re creating less healthy environments.

I have to say it feels very good to be able to work in an educational environment where such common sense decisions such as taking a nap when you are tired can be made independently and without judgement. I know it never would have been possible in my high school.