Daniel Pink’s FETC keynote urges schools to rethink schedules

Why students do better at math in the morning and are more creative later in the day, and why breaks are crucial
By: | February 10, 2020
Breaks during the school day are essential, and should be seen as part of learning, not as deviations from instruction, bestselling author Daniel Pink said at his opening keynote Wednesday at the 40th Future of Education Technology Conference®.Breaks during the school day are essential, and should be seen as part of learning, not as deviations from instruction, bestselling author Daniel Pink said at his opening keynote Wednesday at the 40th Future of Education Technology Conference®.

The traditional school schedule fails to take advantage of the natural, daily cycle of a student’s cognitive abilities, which research shows are highly analytical earlier in the day, fall into a trough around noon, and become more creative later in the day.

How school leaders could arrange instruction to improve student performance highlighted bestselling author Daniel Pink‘s opening keynote at the Future of Education Technology Conference® Wednesday.

“It’s not only a logistical issue, it’s a pedagogical issue,” said Pink, whose latest book, When, examines the impact of the time of the day on everything from education to medical care to business and jury decisions. “Kids who have math in the morning do better. And the downdraft of having the wrong schedule hits lower-income and more vulnerable kids harder, and the updraft of fixing it helps them even more.”


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Pink suggested, for instance, that school leaders try to schedule math for all students in the morning, even if that means doubling up classes or teaching the subject on alternating days. Creative subjects, such as music, arts and theater, should take place later in the day when the mind rebounds, but is inclined toward looser, more open-ended thinking.

“We have to be much more deliberate and intentional in the when of school,” Pink said. “The schedule isn’t about convenience and logistics; it’s about learning.”

Another critical issue is school start times for high schools students. In many districts, of course, high schools start before 8 a.m. and elementary schools begin around 9 a.m.

District leaders should work to swap these schedules because research shows that traditional, early start times contribute to teen depression, lower academic performance, higher risk of unhealthy behaviors and weight gain, he said.

Districts that start high school later are seeing higher test scores, lower dropout rates, less depression and fewer teen car accidents, he said. “Beginnings matter more than we realize,” Pink said. “We’re putting teens on buses at 6:30 in the morning—that’s tantamount to waking them up in the middle of the night and kidnapping them.”

Finally, all students—and adults—perform better when they can take breaks during the day. One study found that students who didn’t take a break before beginning a test performed at the same level as a student who’d missed two weeks of school and whose parents had less education.

A break before a test gave students a boost equivalent to having had an additional month of instruction and more well-educated parents, Pink said.


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Research also shows that when it comes to breaks, moving beats stationary; social beats solo; and outside beats inside. Breaks are also more beneficial when students—and adults—detach themselves from phones and technology, and don’t talk about school or work.

The upshot is that schools should not only maintain recess but try to expand it. Recess improves students’ executive functioning, resilience, emotional self-control and positive classroom behavior, Pink said.

“Don’t think of breaks as deviations from learning; think of them as part of learning,” he said. “We should fight for recess—not as nicety, but as a necessity.”


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