The confessions of a maths teacher – how I slept my way to success

The confessions of a maths teacher – how I slept my way to success.

It may just be that all our work scrutiny, all that triple marking, all that group work and all those verbal feedback stamps have, at best, merely been tinkering around the edges, covering over the cracks, re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Perhaps we are ignoring the single biggest factor that could improve the learning and performance of the pupils in our care.


I’ve recently read “Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams” by Matthew Walker and it has, forgive the pun, opened my eyes.

I like to call myself a “healthy sceptic” – I’ve seen fads come and go all too often in education, and I ain’t going to believe something just because someone tells me it is so. But the author of this book has the credibility of being an expert in his field, and the copy is littered with well referenced research and sources. He’s done enough to convince this old cynic.

Sleep has an enormous impact upon learning. Anyone who has ever been in a classroom will, I think, recognise that a tired student is less receptive to learning. What I didn’t appreciate was the importance of sleep after learning.

The author explains (and backs up with scientific evidence) far better than I could ever hope to do how we need sleep after learning to fix new ideas and knowledge in our minds. To be rested before a lesson is not enough – we must rest (sleep) afterwards as well, else the value of the lesson is lost. You could teach the best lesson ever, but its value and impact will be significantly diminished amongst those students who don’t sleep well (and for long enough) in the nights (note the plural, not the single) afterwards.

He explores the different types of sleep (nonREM and REM sleep) and their different impacts upon retention and problem solving. It is a fascinating book, I urge you to buy a copy and read it for yourself.

So what can we as teachers do?

In the book, the author conducts (an admittedly unscientific) poll of friends and colleagues across countries and continents and discovers that no one ever had any lessons on sleep, or the importance of sleep whilst at school. In school, we regularly teach our students of the importance of a good diet, exercise, the danger of drugs and many other vices – think of your PSHE programme and all the above will feature, but “sleep hygiene” never makes an appearance. Perhaps it is time to start educating our pupils on the perils of too little sleep.

We can also help ourselves to more sleep, which will make us more effective in the work place, or in other words, better teachers (and, as a by product, will also make us healthier, more attractive, slimmer, more creative)

Some readers may be in exulted positions and thus able to make systemic changes to the school day. In the book, Professor Walker presents clear evidence that a later start to the school day improves results.

Reading the book, I have come to realise that my schoolboy academic success may not have been down to my hard work (if I’m honest, did I really work that hard?!) or any innate natural talent, but more due to a fluke of geography that had me live a mere hundred yards from the school gate, allowing me to roll out of bed at 8 o’clock ready for a 9am start. I literally slept myself to exam success.

Sleep – has ever anything that feels so good been so good?

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