Recently I had the great pleasure of watching Horizon’s programme on sleep, presented by Michael Mosley (here it is if you are a UK based TV licence payer – well worth the time). There are all sorts of amazing and beautiful insights into how sleep works, including the MRI scans that show, for the first time, the lyrical process through which fluid pulses through our brain during the deep sleep phase to clean our brain of amyloids and other waste products built up over the previous day’s activity.
There are also some great stories of volunteer participants seeing their sleep improve, including one person who gets to sleep 10 hours unbroken for the first time since they were a young teenager (the tip she followed? Don’t try to get to sleep for longer than 15 minutes – if you’re still tossing and turning after that point, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy again).
A couple of years ago I fell in love with the emerging science of sleep when I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I paid particular attention, and I would urge you to as well, to the role that sleep plays when it comes to learning. And it’s not just learning new knowledge, but also skills, habits and ways of behaving.
So in the Horizon programme (at about minute 32 until minute 38 if you want to jump straight to this part) I was so excited to see the presenter, Michael Mosley, conduct his own fascinating experiment. On day one, he attempts to get to the centre of the world famous maze at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. It takes him just shy of 30 minutes. He takes no notes and is not following any conscious plan. He is told to come back the next day having had a normal night’s sleep.
The next day he attempts the maze again. This time, still without following any conscious plan, he completes it in just 6 minutes.
There follows an important explanation about how during his day one attempt, his brain was subconsciously identifying and flagging certain short term memories as being of likely interest. During sleep, something wonderful happens: the brain looks for the short term memories that have been flagged as “of interest” and then works on them, connecting them, processing them and organising them in case they will be useful in the future.
And of course, the next day, they were useful. By unconsciously piecing together the memories that mattered while he slept, and processing them so that they were useful, Michael Mosley needed just one fifth of the time he originally took to complete the task.
In summary, the phrase “sleep on it” has real, scientific significance. By allowing our brain to work on things that have happened in the day, sleep allows us to process and consolidate what would otherwise be misunderstood, disregarded or discarded.
For learning programmes, the conclusion is obvious: make sure learning programmes run overnight. Instead of running a full day session on one day, it is much better – so much better – to do an afternoon followed by a morning, with a sleep for participants in between the two sessions. This allows participants in the first session to take on information and/or practice new skills, then their brain can make sense of it all overnight, so they can come back in the morning to follow up, to go deeper and to truly embed what they are learning. If you can’t incorporate a sleep, then make sure there are opportunities for follow up and engagement after at least one sleep has passed (although there is evidence to suggest that you need to do this within two or three sleeps or the base material begins to fade).
This, of course, requires those designing learning programmes to pick a fight with and beat the tyranny of the calendar that says that somehow organising people to be together for one full day is easier than organising an afternoon followed by a morning.
If you are still in doubt, ask yourself why residential training courses are seen as a gold standard. Perhaps it is because they take people fully away from their environment; perhaps the socialising in the evenings do break down social barriers and forge new, valuable relationships; but it is mainly, on the basis of this evidence, because they incorporate sleep, and all the learning powers that sleep confers, into the heart of the learning process.
Despite the strong evidence, I recognise that building sleeps into your learning programme is, for now, still not accepted wisdom. Nonetheless, I believe anyone designing learning programmes should think about whether and how they harness the incredible power of sleep. This is why it is a ‘must ask’ question in The Learning Canvas, the tool I use with clients to help them design and deliver learning programmes. It always sparks interesting conversations. I don’t push clients on it though, yet: I suggest they sleep on it.