Food for Thought - Steve Barkley

Food for Thought

I have just started reading, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.   I have had it recommended to me by several folks. The author explores two brain systems….One which is fast, intuitive, and emotional and the second which is slower, and more deliberate and logical.  As I read I find myself connecting his reports of studies on the mind to daily issues we face in schools.

Early on in the book Kahneman explores how mental energy….being involved in a task that requires difficult cognitive reasoning and self control….causes a drop in the blood’s glucose levels. He suggests that it is analogous to a runner drawing down glucose stored in her muscles during a sprint.

This drop in glucose is labeled as ego-depletion… from the work of Roy Baumeister

 Ego depletion-  refers to the idea that self-control and other mental processes that require focused conscious effort rely on energy that can be used up. When that energy is low (rather than high), mental activity that requires self-control is impaired. In other words, using one’s self-control impairs the ability to control one’s self later on.

Buameister conducted studies where participants completed activities that would call on the second (slow-thinking) mind to conduct self control over the first mind’s (fast-thinking) tendency to make an intuitive decision causing ego- depletion. Participants were then served lemonade sweetened with glucose or Splenda and then given a second ego- depleting activity. Those who received the glucose did not show the deterioration of performance as those with the Splenda did.

More stunning for me is a study in the book involving a group of parole judges in Israel. These judges spend the entire day reviewing cases quickly (about one every 6 minutes) and deciding to deny or approve for parole -definitely an ego- depleting challenge. Tracking the decisions made with the times of breaks and meals, the researchers uncovered that the largest approvals are granted following food breaks and meals and the approval percentage drops to almost zero just before the next break.

“The best possible account of the data provides bad news; tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying request for parole. Both fatigue and hunger probably play a role.: (Kahneman pg. 44)

While reading the above I wrote, “Wow!”, in the column of the text. Thoughts about school schedules and policies ran through my mind:

#1 How many high school math teachers have I heard complain about the struggles of a last period math class or fifth grade teachers wanting more effort from students scheduled for the last of four lunch periods with no “snack break” all morning?

Reported in Science Daily – Glucose enhances learning and memory … “For schoolchildren, this research implies that the contents and timing of meals may need to be coordinated to have the most beneficial cognitive effects that enhance learning.”

I realize after the study on the judges that teacher effectiveness last period of the day when the teacher had a 10:30am lunch could be impacted by ego-depletion.

#2  I’m now considering the value of schedules I’ve encountered in some international schools where times between classes is more like 10 minutes and a more informal campus allows students access to a cantina where snacks and drinks are available.

When I survey  teachers during my learning styles workshop, most report that gathering food and drink is step one for them when preparing to study at home yet many schools forbid food in the classroom.

#3 Many educators have complained about the scheduling of professional development or important planning meetings for teachers from 3 to 4 PM. Ego-depletion may be blocking the critical work needed to improve student success. At a minimum snacks need to be part of the professional development budget.

Interesting food for thought…designing greater flexibility into schools and providing the knowledge and opportunity for learners to manage conditions that maximize their potential should be our goal.

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One Response to “ Food for Thought ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    Your article reminded me of the backwards design of our school schedules. Research indicates that high school students are apt to learn more later in the morning and elememtary students earlier. Our school schedules are just the opposite- beginning early for high school students and later for elementary students. Trying to change those schedules is like trying to change to year round schooling. The agrarian age is still victorios and sports schedules win out over academic priorities.

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