One of the most thought-provoking comments at one of our recent workshops came from Cherese Brauer of KIPP, who was wondering about the role of rest and downtime in our students’ day- Particularly when the day is the necessarily busy day of a student in a school that’s trying to take kids not born to privilege and prepare them to succeed in college.
There’s a lot to do and the lurking anxiety that something you don’t do, well, it could be the thing that it turns out they really needed to learn.
Our minds and our words are often at: “Oh, one more thing about the Amendments to the Constitution…” just to make sure the kids know everything they’ll need to know.
So the days in our schools can be intense.
And Cherese was wondering, What about rest? When do the kids rest and how? Do they need periods of rest to retain their stamina? Do we overlook the benefits of rest to learning? And if we are going to rest how could we do that in a relatively structured way that makes it productive and accountable.
Musicians–and dancers?–have a rest position for example. Could there be a rest position, in school, say, that lets students read independently or write solo with more leeway but still some limits? You may let your eyes drift from the text but they should focus on blank space around the room rather than, say, focus on a classmate a few desks away. A structured and manageable version of down time.
“We all rest at work,” Cherese observed, meaning teachers. But we know how to do it and what’s within the norms. “The kids see that and they wonder,” Cherese noted.
Somewhere in here, I should note, Cherese’s questions have become my own and may or may not not represent her thinking. I don’t want to purport to speak for her. She asked a series of great questions and I’m not totally sure where my own flights of reflection based on those questions begin, but I found myself wondering: If we shaped norms for resting so that kids rested productively could we possibly use rest better in our schools. Could we move in and out of productive rest efficiently, accountably and simply? Could we then leverage the ways that rest might actually accelerate learning and define as a lifetime habit how you rest in a productive and just maybe disciplined way?
Here are some meanderings on rest:
It seems pretty clear that rest is often part of the learning cycle. Sleep for example is critical to encoding long-term memory. Athletes don’t grow faster when they train every day at maximum intensity. They need slow days and intense days.
In certain cases, the business sector is learning “Idleness is not a vice,” which Thomas Oppong recently wrote about in Inc.
“It is indispensable for making those unexpected connections in the brain you crave and necessary to getting creative work done.” Always on is not always maximally productive, he notes: “Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.”
I like that phrase “structured down time.” It’s not turn off and check out. It’s push back and look at the ceiling. That’s different from pushing back and socializing, say. Reflect but with wider rules for where the brain goes and what the body does. Let your mind go in a calm and disciplined way.
The brain in fact appears to have a “diffuse mode” where your mind wanders, vaguely on task but relaxed, and this diffuse mode can be critical to problem solving, creativity and connection of ideas… not to mention long term memory.
As one 2009 study put it:
Activity in numerous brain regions increases when our minds wander, according to new research. Psychologists found that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving — previously thought to go dormant when we daydream — are in fact highly active during these episodes.
Anyway I found myself thinking about this. Imagine reading a passage in History class. And then the teacher says: “Take two minutes to think and jot notes. You may work in rest position.” And then it’s ok to relax a bit more but because we’ve defined it there aren’t heads down on desks. We have a name for it so we can mark the beginning and end. It’s a body relaxed but alert to support a mind relaxed but alert.
Or what about: ‘Read to the end of the chapter on your own. You may use rest position.” The teacher has turn off the expectation of SLANT but turned on an alternative that says: You may have your book in your lap. Your eyes may wander from the book but should look at blank spaces and should not be engaging with anyone else in the room. Now I can allow a version of diffuse mode without having students confuse it for ‘expectations are off. And I can shift in and out of it easily and reliably.
Anyway I myself am sort of wandering diffusely with this observation. I thought it—‘rest position’ was an intriguing idea. Would love to hear about it in the comments if anyone else has been experimenting with this.