• The Spark

Timing Is (Almost) Everything: How the New Science of “When” Can Improve Our Schools

Author:  The Spark Staff  | 06/26/2017

Why Is “When” Critical to Success?

This is the question best-selling New York Times author Daniel Pink set out to answer in his forthcoming book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (December 2017). Working with a large team of researchers over two years, Pink examined the impact of timing on a full range of life situations. Some 5,000 attendees of the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference were treated to a sneak preview of Pink’s eye-opening conclusions during his riveting keynote address. While Pink applies his findings across many domains in life, for this audience he provided 6 lessons from the science of timing that are useful for educators:

Daniel Pink MSC
  1. The hidden pattern of the day profoundly affects performance.
    Pink shared that most people experience a “peak-trough-rebound” effect throughout the day, which explains why student test scores are proven to decrease significantly with every hour later in the day the tests are administered. He went on to specify that elementary students do better on analytic tasks during the peak times and better on creative tasks in non-peak hours.

    The takeaway? Move analytic tasks to morning!

  2. We underestimate the power of breaks.
    First citing a non-education-related example, Pink shared a study of parole judges in Israel whose decisions were significantly more lenient each time they had a break—indicating that timing has an enormous effect on the lives of certain inmates. He then cited a Danish study showing the importance of breaks in school achievement, in which students who had a 20- to 30-minute break before tests performed significantly better than those who had no breaks.

    The takeaway? Science tells us to look at breaks as part of learning. Recess is an integral part of education. Give students—and teachers—a break (cue audience applause).

  3. Beginnings matter more than we realize.
    Pink began this section by asking what if there was a virus that caused a tendency in our children toward obesity, depression, and likelihood to engage in risky behaviors? When he pointed out that the “virus” is an early start to school for 14- to 19-year olds, whose physiology has naturally shifted by a couple of hours, the educators in the room nodded knowingly. It has become common wisdom that moving the start time for high school by only 45 minutes to an hour later improves attendance, grades, graduation rates, and motivation and reduces impulsivity and even car crashes. Yet, he pointed out, the average start time for high schools is still 8:03 am, meaning that many start at 7:00 am.

    The takeaway? While it may seem like a daunting administrative disruption, the minor shift in high school start time would have proven, far-reaching benefits.

  4. Sometimes midpoints bring us down, oftentimes they fire us up.
    After pointing out that there is no evidence that “midlife crisis” is an actual event, Pink went on to acknowledge that there is evidence that humans (and apes) experience well-being slumps in mid-life, after which they are fired up into older age. He also noted that teams working on a deadline typically start slowly, then experience an “uh-oh” effect at the midpoint, at which time they move into high gear.

    The takeaways? Be aware of midpoints—they have a huge effect on human behavior. Teach students to use the midpoint as a spark. Imagine that you’re a little behind—it might give you a boost!

  5. Synchronizing makes us feel good; feeling good helps a group’s wheels turn more smoothly.
    Describing how children who participated in a “clap and tap” game engaged better and were more likely to help each other by working in sync, Pink went on to proclaim, “choral singing might be new exercise.”

    The takeaway? To boost mood, increase health, and increase prosocial behavior, help kids synchronize.

  6. Endings shape behavior.
    To illustrate this point, Pink polled the audience by asking who prefers to hear the good news first in a “good news/bad news” scenario. He then shared the evidence that, given a choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate. This led to the question, “what are teachers doing to celebrate endings?” One moving example he gave was of a teacher who asked his high school seniors to write letters to themselves, which he mailed to them five years later.

    The takeaway? Use endings as meaning makers; give students a lift at the end.

As the title of his book implies, Pink’s work is backed by science; but it’s safe to say that the educators in attendance had enough collective research to take these six important lessons to heart.

His ultimate takeaways?

  • We don’t take “when” decisions seriously.
  • The evidence shows that these six points are fairly easy ways to make big differences.
  • Educators can lead the way in a world where we make smart decisions about timing in ways that lift us all up.
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Daniel Pink presented the Opening Keynote Address at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 25–28.


  • chris said:

    7/26/2017 12:31 PM

    Loved Daniel Pink's keynote. His emphasis on the "when" of changes occurring came to me when I needed to be challenged the most. Our leadership team used his book "Drive" several years ago to help drive our culture of expectations in our middle school. The end game of that event was our school climbing the rankings to first in our state, and just this last year the middle school was yet again recognized as being number one in our state. Along with the middle school our high school was recognized by U.S. News and World Report as the number one high school on our state as well. So as you can see Mr Pink's thought process and writing have helped to drive our improvement as well and we are looking forward with great excitement for his next book about the importance of when.

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