To sleep, perchance to learn

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Joe Kirby

Joe Kirby
February 28th 2019

Joe Kirby is a teacher and deputy head who writes extensively on translating research into the classroom. Here he looks at how understanding sleep can help us make gains in helping students to learn and achieve.

Nature’s blunder?

Sleep seems like a biological puzzle. It makes animals conspicuously vulnerable. Is the land of Nod a spectacular blunder on the part of evolution?

All animals sleep in some way, even jellyfish. Cheetahs, the fastest land creatures on earth, sleep for up to 18 hours a day. So do most newborn babies, with the fastest growing brains on earth. Sleep is even more vital than food: animals die of sleep deprivation before starvation. Sleep must serve some evolutionary purpose, but what?

Fifty years of research on the sleeping brain has revealed useful insights. Sleep restores our brain and body cells.(1,2) Sleep consolidates our memories and our learning.(3,4) Sleep plays a vital role in our emotions, moods, decisions, cognition, health and immune systems.(2,5,6) Sleep regulates our metabolism, appetite and gut microbiomes.(2,7) Thousands of studies show that sleep enhances every major organ and every biological function, according to world-leading experts on sleep.(2,6)

Sleep deprivation

Sleeplessness increases our stress hormones and worsens decision-making.(8) Underslept people are more moody, irritable, tense and anxious.(9) Sleep deprivation impairs attention and inhibits learning.(10,11,12) The Great British sleep survey suggested that sleep-deprived people are five times more likely to feel lonely and seven times more likely to experience feelings of helplessness.(13) Sleep deprivation is linked with obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart attack and cancer.(2,6) It causes enduring damage.(14)

Teenagers are now chronically sleep deprived, researchers are finding. Teenagers should sleep for nine to ten hours, but many sleep far less.(15) Poorer neighbourhoods tend to be noisier, making a good night’s sleep harder for our poorest students.(16) Sleep deprivation makes teens more hostile, creates learning difficulties and impairs academic performance and has lasting detrimental cognitive effects.(17,18)

Sleep habits

Changing sleep behaviour patterns is hard, but sleep habits can be honed. A starting point is taking what we’ve learned from the science of sleep and sharing it with students. What have scientists discovered about how to get better sleep?

Sleep deprivation makes teens more hostile, creates learning difficulties and impairs academic performance and has lasting detrimental cognitive effects

Most important is to stick to a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (including weekends) helps. It’s hard to adjust to changing sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends can’t catch us up and makes it harder to wake up on Monday morning.2,6 Setting a bedtime alarm is also recommended by sleep experts.2,6

Science also tells us that caffeine and alcohol reduce sleep quality.(2,6) We should avoid drinking these things in the evenings.

Screens reduce sleep quality, too.(2,6,19) Three things we can do, then: plug our phone, tablet and laptop chargers outside our bedrooms; stop using screens an hour before bedtime; and get a non-digital alarm clock.

Possibilities in schools

How might schools share this research with teachers and students?

One possibility is a CPD session on sleep for teachers and tutors. As teachers, we could do with applying this research in our own everyday lives! It is particularly difficult for those of us with young children ourselves. Books like Go the F*** to Sleep testify to the importance of knowing how sleep habits help children get into healthy sleeping patterns.

Another option is an assembly on sleep from senior leaders to show why and how to improve sleep patterns. Or a parents’ assembly on sleep to share the advantages of a sleep schedule and the damage of sleep deprivation, screens, alcohol and caffeine drinks.

Or how about a simple sleep survey to identify students who admit to struggling with sleep deprivation? A final possibility is sleep nudges: messages sent to parents and even students to remind them of making changes in their sleep schedule, patterns and habits – perhaps to those who opt in to supportive reminders after self-identifying as experiencing problematic sleep.

Roger Federer, who has won a men’s world-record 20 Grand Slam singles tennis championships, sleeps 11 hours a night. Perhaps, as an Irish proverb has it, sleep is better than medicine.


1. Killgore, W. D. (2010) ‘Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition’, Progress in Brain Research 185 (1) pp. 105–29.

2. Walker, M. (2017) Why we sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams. London: Penguin

3. Ellenbogen, J. M., Payne, J. D. and Stickgold, R. (2006) ‘The role of sleep in declarative memory consolidation’, Current Opinion in Neurobiology 16 (6) pp. 712–22.

4. Fattinger, S., de Beukaelaar, T., Ruddy, K., Volk, C., Heyse, N., Herbst, J., Hanloser, R., Wenderoth, N., Huber, R. (2017) ‘Deep sleep maintains learning efficiency of the human brain’, Nature Communications 8: 15405.

5. Irwin, M., Mascovich, A., Gillin, J. C., Willoughby, R., Pike, J. and Smith, T. L. (1994) ‘Partial sleep deprivation reduces natural killer cell activity in humans’, Psychosomatic Medicine 56 (6) pp. 493–498.

6. Winter, W. C. (2017) The sleep solution. London: Penguin.

7. Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., Van Cauter, E. (2004) ‘Brief communication: sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels and increased hunger and appetite’, Annals of Internal Medicine 141 (11) pp. 846–850.

8. Harrison, Y. and Horne, J. A. (2000) ‘The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: a review’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6 (3) pp. 236–249.

9. Minkel, J. D. (2010) ‘Affective consequences of sleep deprivation’ [PhD Thesis], Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations 218.

10. Curcio, G., Ferrara, M. and De Gennaro, L. (2006) ‘Sleep loss, learning capacity and academic performance’, Sleep Medicine Reviews 10 (5) pp. 323–37.

11. Alhola, P. and Polo-Kantola, P. (2007) ‘Sleep deprivation: impact on cognitive performance’, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 3 (5) pp. 553–567.

12. Lo, J. C., Ong, J. L., Leong, R. L., Gooley, J. J. and Chee, M. W. (2016) ‘Cognitive performance, sleepiness, and mood in partially sleep deprived adolescents: the need for sleep study’, Sleep 39 (3) pp. 687–98.

13. Sleepio (2012) The Great British sleep survey: new data on the impact of poor sleep. Available at: www.greatbritishsleepsurvey. com.

14. Kurth, S., Dean, D. C., Achermann P., O’Muircheartaigh, J., Huber R., Deoni S. C. L. and LeBourgeois M. K. (2016) ‘Increased sleep depth in developing neural networks: new insights from sleep restriction in children’, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10 (1) p. 456.

15. Crowley, S. J., Wolfson, A. R., Tarokh, L., Carskadon, M. A. (2018) ‘An update on adolescent sleep: new evidence informing the perfect storm model’, Journal of Adolescence 67 (1) pp. 55–65.

16. Huffington, A. (2016) The sleep revolution: transforming your life, one night at a time. London: WH Allen.

17. Talbot, L. S., McGlinchey, E. L., Kaplan, K. A., Dahl, R. E. and Harvey, A. G. (2010) ‘Sleep deprivation in adolescents and adults: changes in affect’, Emotion 10 (6) pp. 831–841.

18. Short, M. and Louca, M. (2015) ‘Sleep deprivation leads to mood deficits in healthy adolescents’, Sleep Medicine 16 (8) pp. 987–93.

19. Chang, A. M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J. F. and Czeisler, C. A. (2015) ‘Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (4) pp. 1232–1237.