The NAPLAN-driven news that our kids are slipping academically has met with much handwringing and lamenting. There are calls from all corners for more school funding and better teachers and steps to decrease disadvantage. But there is a fourth element that the handwringers have neglected. I suggest that they look at our young people’s sleep habits. That’s because the core sleep periods consolidate much of what kids learn while they’re awake .
Facts at their fingertips
If we want our kids to maintain international academic standards, they need their basic academic facts at their fingertips. The human brain can only accommodate one effortful thinking task at a time. The system can dual-task, but only if one process is close to automatic. For example, you can have a deep and meaningful while driving a car (almost automatic), but you’d have to stop the conversation to reverse park (requires cognitive effort).
The bottom line is that the kids’ basic skills have to be at their fingertips; that is, retrieved almost automatically. It is only when basic information is retrieved quickly and easily that students can allocate their attention to higher order processing, like problem-solving, or making inferences, or writing in a meaningful way.
Much of the basic-skill learning requires a form of memory called semantic memory. It’s memory for facts – the sort that are donated at school, or acquired through Google searches. It’s the type of memory that encodes information like the names of capital cities, mathematical times tables, and tips for writing a narrative, aka story writing.
Take typical student James, in Year 9, for instance. His teacher has a hunch that he and the rest of the nation’s Year 9’s are going to have to write a narrative piece for the upcoming NAPLAN test.
The teacher begins by telling them that at key moments in the story’s plot, they should ‘show’, not ‘tell’. To do this, they should use metaphor instead of factual detail. They should describe their sensory and emotional responses to understate, and use imagery and strong verbs. She gives a student’s example: “ I can hear his dream shatter. His face shrinks with disappointment while I slowly die in his delusion.”
Not too tired for attention
James is motivated to do well in the NAPLAN so, if he’s not too tired, he’ll pay attention to what she’s saying. If he’s exhausted, her information will simply go over his head.
It’s a grey matter
But assume that he does somewhat attend to what the teacher says. As she speaks, he subconsciously encodes a number of sensory experiences that register in their respective parts of his brain’s grey matter, the cortex.
Fast and dirty online info
From the cortex, the sensory information is relayed to ‘working memory’, where James becomes conscious of what he’s thinking. Working memory allows James to keep the key information online for a few seconds. As the teacher delivers the information, James uses inner speech: “Show don’t tell, use metaphor, senses, imagery, strong verbs.” He does this quickly, so as not to lose it, because the information in working memory is fast: It’s quickly gained, easily lost if not rehearsed, and it’s easily bumped out by new information. You know what’s it’s like when you try to remember a mobile phone number long enough to dial it, and what happens when someone interrupts you while you’re facing the memory challenge.
The hippocampus hold
James can recall the information just after the class because when he first processes it by rehearsal, it is immediately reprocessed and represented in the “hippocampus“, a region that is closely connected to working memory. The hippocampus is thought to be an intermediate memory storage area; a hub that integrates and holds the information for longer periods; hours rather than seconds.
If James wants to remember the important information when he writes a narrative for NAPLAN in a few days time, he needs to further rehearse the information, and use it when he practices writing narratives. That way, the memories are stored and restored in his hippocampus.
Sleep strengthens semantic memories
At the same time, James needs to sleep well. During sleep, the neural networks of information in the hippocampus are reactivated a number of times, and distributed into the relevant areas in the cortex. At this point, the information is consolidated in long-term memory. The more James practices the information and the better he sleeps, the more opportunities there are for consolidation, and the stronger the memory becomes. In this way, practice and sleep hardwire his memories.
NAPLAN needs sleep
When James finally writes the NAPLAN test, the information that he needs is recruited from the different long-term storage areas. The memories are then reintegrated into a coherent knowledge framework in working memory. He draws on the working memory information to write a good narrative, using metaphor, emotions, good verbs and understatement.
If James doesn’t have enough good quality sleep, the information is unlikely to be consolidated well. Consequently, he won’t have the basic knowledge at his fingertips. He’ll have forgotten about using metaphor and strong verbs and understatement and feelings. He might tell, not show. And so, he may be like one of the thousands of Year 9 students who did poorly on the Writing task in this year’s NAPLAN.
NAPLAN? Kids need to sleep on it
The bureaucrats and academics have offered a variety of reasons why the NAPLAN results are poor: teacher quality, funding, disadvantage and more. They’re all good explanations. There is one explanation that they’ve omitted, however. We know that semantic memory – memory for facts – is consolidated during the core sleep stages. And here’s the snag: research indicates that James’ generation is not getting enough good quality sleep.
For information on how to get your children and teenagers to sleep better, check out: BUT I’M NOT TIRED! The nature of sleep and how to nurture it in children and teenagers.
Names, locales, people and incidents are have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or individuals is completely coincidental.