Swedish school hopes bright classroom lights boost student performance

A school in the far north of Sweden thinks it might have a found a way to boost students' performance in the dead of winter: Stimulate them with bright, intense classroom lighting.

A story in The Guardian reports that the Dragonskolan secondary school in Umea last month installed 'full spectrum electric light' to see whether it would overcome the sluggishness that plagues the students during the dark of winter, when 'daylight' lasts only a few hours and the kids rise long before the sun does. The Guardian writes:

The school, which has 2,000 students aged 16 and upwards, is something of a pioneer in using this simple technique to try to boost performance. Light tells the brain to halt production of melatonin – the hormone that makes you sleepy. In the morning, it stimulates the circadian system, resetting your biological clock. Without that stimulus the body delays by a few minutes every day the signal that it’s time to wake up.

There's no guarantee that the lights will have the desired effect. As the story notes, there is little scientific evidence to prove that it will, even though people have been postulating and experimenting over the years.

But so far, the youngsters like it.

'The new lights in the classroom fool you into thinking it’s a sunny day – I think that shows it's actually working,' says one student, 18-year-old student Henrik Anrell.

Douglas Nilsson,18, who routinely falls asleep on his morning bus rides, adds that under the new lights, 'it feels like I am waking up.'

That makes sense to Dr Mariana Figueiro of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the state of New York, who points out that a brightly lit room can act like a dose of caffeine. Figueiro is working with Sweden's Energy Agency on an app-based system that regulates light in homes to appropriately stimulate peoples' circadian rhythms throughout the day.

Light stops the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes people sleepy, and kick-starts the circadian rhythm. 'Without that stimulus the body delays by a few minutes every day the signal that it’s time to wake up,' says Figueiro. 'If you accumulate that delay over the winter you become out of sync, like jet lag basically. So it’s very important to get that signal in the morning to reset your biological clock.'

(Different wavelength light also has different effects. Many studies have pointed out that an excess of blue light at bedtime, such as that emitted by laptop and gadget screens, is suppressing melatonin and undermining our sleep).

Some schools have worried that bright lights might make kids too hyperactive, the story notes.

But supporters note that studies in various countries have shown that exposure to daylight in classrooms boosts performance, and that schools should thus consider the potential for using artifical light as well.

He hopes for some reduced sickness absence, and perhaps also better academic performance. But the main thing is the students and teachers enjoy the bright new teaching environment.

“It might not make any difference, but then again it might, so why not give it a shot?” asks Dragonskolan head teacher Stellan Andersson.

The jury is still out on this, but it does seem worth a trial.

After all, detective films have long taught us that intense bright lights can get close-lipped thugs and reticient rerpobrates to yammer. Couldn't they have broader stimulative effects? If they helped foster learning, that would be something worth talking about.

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Photo is from Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock

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