Life/Learning Skills

cereal from

As you can probably infer from the science links on my sidebar, I’m interested in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and so on. I enjoy reading about issues like how sleep and nutrition affect your ability to remember, react, and make good judgments. Unfortunately, many of our students (well, and many of us!) have bad habits that have a negative effect on learning and thinking. Aside from issues beyond their control, many of them could do better and don’t. They don’t know these things affect their learning, or they don’t care. I’m not sure which it is, and I’m never really sure whether students are likely to react positively to a teacher bringing up lifestyle issues in a class or a tutoring situation, particularly when it’s an ESL teacher and not a biology teacher!

Prolific English education blogger Larry Ferlazzo has bitten the bullet, though. Check out his post “‘Will Sleeping More Make Me Smarter?’ — A Lesson I’m Trying This Week,” in which he’s decided to actually tackle the issue of lack of sleep among high school students, a population that’s especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation and especially prone to it. I like the way he’s approaching it, and I think he has the potential to reach at least a handful of students who may be staying up voluntarily (or thinking they have to stay up in order to study more, but studying fruitlessly).

One of the issues I’d like to approach with my clients and students is that of nutrition. I’ve actually tackled it briefly once, with a group of students who were studying for the GRE when they were not at all ready for it. Since it wasn’t possible to bring them into a high GRE score range using conventional methods in the short period of time I had with them, I tried to give them as many peripheral boosts as I could. (Any port in a storm!) One of the tips I gave them was the advice to get in the habit, right away, of eating a breakfast with protein and fiber every day, and to not go to the exam hungry. I haven’t revisited it with students since then, but there’s lots of research indicating that I should.

I found out via Danny Choo’s website that less than 10% of the Japanese population regularly eats breakfast. Of my Japanese friends who do eat breakfast, a typical example is a piece of white toast and a cup of black coffee, which is not really “brain food.” (By the way, Choo is the Dancing Stormtrooper of Youtube fame.) Choo linked to a Ministry of Agriculture program trying to encourage Japanese kids to eat breakfast, with tons of statistics showing that not doing so increases agitation, decreases motivation, lowers test scores, and so on. I don’t know if the program is working, but that kind of information tends to be more impressive to many people than just finger-shaking and repeating “It’s good for you!” So I suspect I need to dig out the studies I’ve read before and boil them down to something easy to understand. The only thing is that I’d like to do it without focusing too much on grades and test points, because that is really not the point of language learning. But if that’s all I can find, that’s all I can find.

However, I don’t want to come off as trying to “mommy” my students and clients. That’s not going to be received well regardless of whether it’s the teens (naturally resistant to mommying) or the forty-somethings (who wouldn’t like being mommied by someone younger than they are). I also need to be careful to not make this a matter of “my way is better than your way”–although to be fair, Japanese people used to eat breakfast more than they do now. And the old-school Japanese breakfast of fish and miso soup and so on is pretty good brain food: much better than toast and coffee. I won’t be telling them that, either, because people never like to hear some outsider lecturing them about their own culture! So clearly, this needs to be handled very carefully if I decide to tackle it…maybe with a reading and discussion exercise, or something.

Anyway, have you ever gone into this territory with your students or clients? What did you talk to them about–sleep? Nutrition? Time management? Something else? How did you handle it? How was it received? I’d love to know. Or do you think this is simply hands-off territory, even if sleep, nutrition, etc. can increase long- and short-term memory retention, reaction time, and other neurological processes strongly related to successful language learning?

(Also, what IS the term for these factors? I’m sure there is one, but I can’t seem to remember it, and no one on Twitter seems to know, either. Google only gives me “out-of-school factors,” which doesn’t seem right. I’d like to make a tag once I figure out the term!)





8 responses to “Life/Learning Skills”

  1. Karenne Sylvester Avatar

    This is a fascinating post and something you don’t read everyday. I’m also quite interested in the sciences although perhaps not to the same extent as you are.

    As a child my parents made us eat fish just about everyday for breakfast and sometimes I feel a bit stupid about saying it, but I think it’s one of the reasons I have a really good memory.

    I mean a really good one (oh that sounds like blowing trumpets but let’s put it this way I can remember images or emails for months or even years).

    A while back I was having a conversation with a mother-friend of mine and she was complaining that her son was turning into the school bully. She was incredibly upset about this phase he was getting into – he was such a good kid and now having entered real school he kept acting up and even biting kids.

    I said, being the non-Mommy type – all the other women who are mothers wouldn’t dare add their opinions (:-)), what’s the biggest change in your schedule.

    She sighed.

    We’re racing out of the house every morning. We grab a pretzel on the way to school – it’s all so hurried.

    I told her about how my parents fed us fish. I said, well, it doesn’t have to fish but how about getting up early for a week or two and making the old fashioned type breakfasts that Mum’s used to make before cornflakes took over… you know, meat -eggs, porridge, fruit.

    She was skeptical – or rather the other Mommies were (and one Daddy who insisted on the value of Special K)…

    but she tried it.

    It worked.

    I mean it seriously worked. Her son is calmer, concentrated, enjoys school and stop bullying!!!

    Anyway, those are my thoughts – enjoyed my visit to your blog and your thought-provoking (comment inspiring) post – I’ll definitely be back!


    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Karenne, wow, that’s fortunate that you grew up eating real brain food! And yeah, I get quite cranky when I don’t eat, and I can just imagine that really might be a cause of bullying. Good call on speaking up there.

      Cornflakes are something I reserve for a snack; honestly, the real nutrition there is mostly in the milk. Something with whole wheat or oats is a bit better, but you still need fruit and so on, and a little fat is necessary both for satiation and for the brain. I actually need to start doing better in the morning. I’ve gotten lazy again (whole-grain cereal and organic milk, and maybe a banana)…

  2. Clarissa Avatar

    Here’s another comment from my friend J. F., posted on the Facebook feed of this blog. Reposted here with permission: “I deal with issues like this at adult school, we categorize it as ‘life skills’ and can also be sold as work success or school success. I might mention it in college but would handle it differently. In the adult school I approached it with some readings and also a guided writing exercise. We listed ways to be organized and on time, and things that prevent us from being organized and on time. Then we brainstormed solutions and that type of thing. Nutrition is something most people know what is right and wrong, but reading a scientific article and then responding would allow them a new way to reflect on the bigger picture while learning new vocab too.”

  3. Adam Avatar

    I still can’t get over so few Japanese eating breakfast.

    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Yes, that surprised me too. I don’t know if it’s completely accurate, but it’s true that very few of my Japanese friends report eating breakfast. I think only the one who’s currently acting as a housewife (due to her visa) does. Something like 60% of Americans eat breakfast according to the quick studies I googled up; a lot of women and girls don’t because they (erroneously) think it’ll help them lose weight. Of course, a lot of Americans are eating a pretty lousy breakfast that’s mostly sugar–artificially sweetened yogurt and so on.

      Anyway, if it’s true, I feel bad for any teacher who teaches class before lunchtime…

  4. Eric Avatar

    Is good nutrition and sufficient sleep the key to learning … English?

    You’ve nailed two biological barriers to many adult and college students performing at peak levels. In the United States, the federal government has released some rather stunning statistics over the last few years on sleep deprivation. Did you know that more car accidents are from lack of sleep than excessive alcohol or cell phone use? Also the government estimates that over 40% lack adequate sleep. Finally, a principal reason for both the subsidized breakfast and lunch programs in K-12 remains research linking lack of breakfast to an inability to concentrate among youth. In short, both these biological factors remain real, persistent problems – at least in the United States.

    How do I deal with this in the classroom? I nudge them to sleep at least six hours just to pretend they are mere mortals. Sometimes I include sleep on the homework list. Sometimes I even encourage students to go see a doctor and make clear that President Obama wants everybody who might have the flu to stay home. Everybody includes all of us in this class. You and me.

    Students seem to appreciate the concern – even if they fail to follow this simple advice!

  5. Alex Case Avatar

    I would (and hopefully will now that you’ve made me think of it) include it on a lesson on study skills generally, probably as discussion questions or a ranking task. You can also tie it in with grammar points:

    “If you got one hour more sleep, how much would it increase your effectiveness of learning?” etc

  6. Neil Barker Avatar

    I teach adults here in South Korea, and most of them are fanatical about eating 3 square meals a day. One of the first greetings I get each morning is “Have you eaten breakfast?” It’s actually a translated phrase from Korean that’s used as a general hello sometimes.

    As for Korean students (who I think must lead the world in total hours of schooling per year), I’m not really sure. In a former life, I was an English teacher at an academy in Seoul, and if I remember correctly, most students ate a bowl of steamed rice, a few side dishes, and maybe some soup.

    I have to admit it though, I’m like the Japanese mentioned in the post, I usually survive (thrive?)on a few cups of black coffee with a pastry or piece of fruit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *