Book review: When by Daniel H Pink

Synthesised studies of monumental significance

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When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing

Daniel H Pink

Canongate Books

272 pages, £20


ISBN: 9781782119883


Daniel H Pink is a phenomenal populariser of research. He has a rare gift for synthesising scientific, psychological and sociological studies and showing their radical relevance to work, society and schools through engaging storytelling.

In one of his previous bestsellers, Drive, he showed why cash incentives don’t motivate people who have cognitively stimulating jobs. Pay them enough in the first place to “take money off the table”, give them autonomy, and support their development and purpose, he argued. They will do the best job they possibly can. This is as true of business, Pink claims, as it is of schools. Counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, undoubtedly, but the findings have been extensively replicated.

When is no less expansive in scope. Pink wants us to rethink the way we organise our days, based on two years of investigating chronotypes, circadian rhythms and “chronobiology”.

Here’s a headline of monumental significance for you to play with: 20 per cent of “cognitive variance” on standardised tests is because of the time of day you sit it. A study of 2 million Danish schoolchildren showed that the difference between taking the test in the morning and the afternoon was equivalent to the impact of two weeks of missed school. (Morning tests win.)

We all follow a pretty similar rhythm of cognitive highs and lows during the day: we start off quite high, and then continue to improve, peaking about a third of the way through our waking hours. We then dip dramatically, but recover strongly later before the cycle ends. This holds for most of us, even if our cycles start at different times.

Here’s Russell Foster, an Oxford neuroscientist: “The performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effect on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol.” So, to equalise opportunity, we either give the morning kids a glass of wine, or we put the afternoon tests in the morning. This matters.

Regular breaks of decent length help cognitive function to recover. Nothing beats a nap, which is music to my ears: I’ve been diving under the desk for 10 minutes in the afternoon for years – don’t tell the head.

Broadly, we’re better at “analytic” tasks during the early part of our cycle and stronger at creative and “insight” work during the middle period. So that’s maths and science in the mornings please, then arts and humanities built around naps in the afternoon.

The idea that we’re not at our best in the latter stages of the day seems to fly in the face of the evidence, assuming we’re not suffering from sleep deprivation.

Circadian rhythms

On which subject…Circadian rhythms shift dramatically during the teen years and early twenties. The average mid-point for a teenager’s biological sleep cycle is 6am. We’re routinely waking them up in the middle of their night.

This notion is not new and creeps into the press occasionally. Some bold schools have done something about it. Hampton Court House, for example, has shifted its sixth-form start time back dramatically.

Pink cites evidence from the US that seems to point pretty unambiguously to the fact that even relatively modest shifts to a later start lead to improved academic performance.

Pink’s attention to schools and education is only a small part of When’s compelling whole. There are, however, other potential inferences for educationalists to draw from his meanderings.

His description of the synchronicity of the dabbawalas of Mumbai, who deliver 200,000 lunches a day with unerring promptness and without the aid of technology, leads to speculation about the power of collective identity and the importance of a sense of spiritual purpose. Traditionalists will raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that the dabbawalas’ shared uniform is an integral part of their collective success.

Others might be more interested in the claims made about the power of touch – the frequency of which, we learn, is correlated to the cooperativeness of teams, which leads to better performance. The astonishing claims for the panacean benefits of collective singing will have directors of music scurrying to headteachers’ offices across the land. That’s if there are any directors of music left.

Time will tell whether Pink’s reading of the evidence is borne out, but his synthesis is more than worthy of our attention.

Alistair McConville is deputy head of Bedales School, Hampshire

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