There is a documented connection between physical activity and cognitive function. Two studies published by Psychology Today in 2014 found that physical activity can improve cognitive function over the course of people’s lives. One study from the University of Minnesota determined that young people who run or participate in aerobic activities maintain high level thinking and memory skills into middle age, and a second study from Finland found middle aged people who are active protect themselves from dementia as they grow older.
This research demonstrates a positive relationship between physical activity and cognitive function, something that is especially important in kids. This connection is tied to hormonal balance, the release of cortisol levels, dopamine, serotonin and the rest of the feel-good and alertness hormones that are important to survival and learning.
The brain/body connection is very well established, and physiological research also shows that thoughts and ideas can be triggered or suppressed based on too little or too much physical activity. What is both interesting and odd is that there seems to be so little recognition of the brain/body connection in the methods of how we teach kids.
They traditionally have been told to sit, be still, and learn in a passive, one-directional way, although that is changing. Today there is more collaboration and active learning modalities implemented in schools than ever before, even though the basic model is still the “sit-and-get” modality.
Developmental and physical mechanisms
In cognitive assessments, educators are looking at factors such as intelligence, and perceptual skills in areas like verbal tests, math tests, and memory. These are categorized as learning or development mechanisms. A second category is physiological mechanisms. An interesting and important-to-note takeaway is that physical mechanisms serve to get more blood, and obviously more oxygen, to the brain. More blood and oxygen to the braincauses structural changes to neurotransmission and the central nervous system around triggers like intellectual arousal, for example.
Physical activity impacts learning and developmental mechanisms through these changes in neurotransmission and through concepts like social-emotional learning which primes kids to be better learners because of feelings of security and safety. Bringing physical activity into the learning environment helps create social-emotional learning and helps kids become mentally prepared to a master a skill or memorize something.
These two systems work together. The interplay between the physical activity and the emotional response to that movement, when there’s the optimal amount of physical activity – not too much, not too little – there’s a cascade of positive effects that increases cognition rates and primes kids to become better learners.
In the 1930s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget unveiled his theory of cognitive development for kids that outlined how kids experience discrepancies between what they know and what they discover on their own. Children are well-adapted at constructing their understanding of the world based on what they experience to develop a mental model of the world. That model is constantly changing as kids process more. Piaget’s theory explained that kids can’t really make that mental model without being physically involved in the learning environment. One painful example would be falling off a bike and skinning a knee. That is an important learning experience for a child, and a huge part of teaching the risks associated with riding a bicycle. Piaget argued that kids can’t be coddled or held with velvet gloves, but rather they have to be allowed to out, be physically active, and embrace the world.
Impacting the learning environment
What does this mean in the learning environment? The typical design is very computational, very sensible. It’s all squares and rectangles from doors and windows to classroom layout because it’s easy to design from an engineering perspective. Of course, the world isn’t computational at all. It’s very fractal. No two trees look exactly alike. Leaves are all different. The natural world is the exact opposite of the learning environment of the typical school.
One obvious solution is getting outside and being exposed to the sun, trees, and grass. Some schools are taking this idea to heart and creating outdoor classrooms and learning environments. Of course, this is not always possible or even preferable.
One way to make learning more physical is through classes like art, sciences, and makerspaces where the outcome isn’t a written answer, but instead a physical representation of the answer requiring a hands-on response.
School furnishings can also have a physical impact on the school day. For example, a sit-stand desk that lets learners choose between the ability to stand for part of the day or sit at the desk like they would in a typical classroom. Chairs without backs means kids have to engage their core, stomach muscles, and thoracic spine creating an automatic brain/body connection to the simple act of sitting.
Another is a fairly traditional looking chair with a very flexible back. This allows kids to fidget. These micromovements are a form of physical activity. Learners can sit in their chairs and bounce and exert some physical engagement which will prime cognitive performance.
Naturally, physical education and sports are important aspects of getting kids physically active at school, but there is plenty of opportunity for physical activity in the standard, day-to-day classroom. When kids have the ability to move, work with their hands and be collaborative, they become more willing to engage in content and their cognitive ability improves.
This week’s vlog is about the connection between physical activity and learning in the classroom and the research behind this. Learn from Mark Hubbard, Paragon’s President, and stay tuned for our upcoming vlogs and blogs.These blogs and vlogs are aimed to help K-12 schools create environments that foster active learning and enable it to flourish.
Watch now, and tell us what you think in the comments section below. Be sure to keep up with us on social media to stay updated on new insights from our team!
Come back next week when Mark discusses Sensory Ergonomics.
Are you a school looking to transform your learning spaces?
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Each week, Mark Hubbard Paragon’s President, will be posting a 2-minute vlog that aims to help K-12 schools create environments that foster active learning and enable it to flourish. We are calling the vlog series, “Transforming K-12 Learning Spaces”.
This week’s vlog is about Collaborative Learning. Watch now, and tell us what you think in the comments section below.
Come back next week when Mark discusses Sensory Ergonomics.
In this week’s transforming K12 learning spaces vlog we will continue to explore how learning space design affects student success, but this week we will put the emphasis on design elements such as color and texture.
How the elements in our environment affect us emotionally is referred to as “sensory ergonomics,” and it’s just as important as physical comfort.
Factors such as color and texture can affect a student’s mood significantly, and decades of research suggest this can influence a student’s ability to focus or succeed.
Next week’s topic is about Redesigning School Libraries. Mark will discuss how to transform traditional school libraries into vibrant 21st century learning centers.
Thank you for joining this week and as always, thank you for supporting Paragon Furniture.
Making the shift to active learning can be a big transition for many teachers, especially if they have been lecturing for their whole careers.
For one thing, it involves giving up some degree of control over their classroom and transferring ownership of the learning process to the students themselves—and this shift can be accompanied by a profound sense of loss.
Teachers with little or no experience in leading active learning strategies might find it somewhat intimidating to try a new teaching style. They may feel anxious about looking vulnerable in front of their students if something goes wrong.
These are legitimate concerns stemming from genuine emotions. Introducing change of any kind often makes people uncomfortable, and when you add in the fact that teachers are performing their jobs in front of an audience every day, that anxiety becomes even more magnified.
Leading a successful transition to active learning requires understanding and addressing the emotional implications of this change for teachers. Here are three important change management strategies that can help K-12 leaders do this effectively.
- First, Clarify the purpose. Make sure all staff members understand why you are asking them to make the change, and how it will help them become better educators.When they understand the benefits of doing so, and how active learning can engage students and lead to independent thinking and deeper learning, teachers will be more likely to try it in their classrooms.
- Next, Provide direction. When you give teachers a clear road-map for change, and you communicate and support them throughout the process, then you remove some of the barriers that might discourage them from trying—such as anxiety that they won’t know what to do or how to do it.
- Lastly, Apply pressure and support. Pressure is anything that makes it harder for teachers to continue doing what they were doing, and it can range from simply asking them to change, to making the new behavior a part of their professional evaluation system. Support would be anything that makes it easier for teachers to try something new, such as bonuses, incentives, training, or even overt permission to take risks without having to be perfect.
In Paragon’s resource guide entitled, “How to Lead Active Learning in Your Schools“, you can read more about making the shift to active learning and how to manage the change with teachers and students.
In the survey, K-12 leaders said active learning is more engaging and effective than a traditional lecture-based approach to instruction, and it also helps build teamwork and other 21st century skills that are needed for success in the workplace.
A separate survey of company executives by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that working well together as a team to make decisions and solve problems is the No. 1 skill that employers most value among new hires—and active learning helps students develop this critical skill.
Want further proof? A study published by the National Academy of Sciences confirms the benefits of active learning on student achievement.
The study compared the performance of students in undergraduate math and science classes under traditional lecturing versus active learning.
It found that average scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections—and that students in classes with traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes with active learning.
What’s more, active learning gives students opportunities to move around during class, which delivers both academic and health-related benefits.
Movement increases blood flow, which awakens our cells and stimulates our brains—so students feel more alert and can focus better.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that physical activity “can have an impact on cognitive skills, attitudes, and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance. These include enhanced concentration and attention, as well as improved classroom behavior.”
By taking a more active role in their education, students learn more while also taking ownership of learning process. As a result, they learn to become independent thinkers and problem solvers. As one teacher was quoted in the Washington Post:
“I USED TO THINK IT WAS GOOD TEACHING TO STAND IN FRONT OF A CLASS AND LECTURE AND HAVE STUDENTS QUIETLY DOING WORK ALONE AT THEIR DESKS, BUT I DON’T THINK THAT ANYMORE. (A GREAT CLASSROOM IS) A PLACE WHERE STUDENTS ARE DOING AS MUCH OF THE TALKING AND THINKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING AS THE TEACHER. IT’S A PLACE WHERE STUDENTS ARE TACKLING QUESTIONS AND PROBLEMS THAT ARE RELEVANT TO THEIR DAILY LIVES. THIS KIND OF CLASSROOM HELPS PREPARE STUDENTS TO BE THINKERS—AND THAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL A TEACHER CAN TEACH.”
Active learning is…
- More engaging: Higher student engagement is the No. 1 benefit of active learning, K-12 leaders say.
- More effective: 86% of K-12 leaders say active learning improves student outcomes.
- Helps build 21st century skills: 75% of K-12 leaders say the teamwork skills that students develop through active learning are critical for career success.
(Source: Center for Digital Education, 2016)
Active learning is an instructional approach in which students take an active and fully engaged role in their education, rather than sitting passively and absorbing information.
This might involve several different kinds of activities, such as class discussions, hands-on learning, collaborative group work, or other dynamic approaches to instruction.
Active learning is more engaging than just sitting and taking notes while a teacher is talking.
It’s more effective than traditional instruction, and it also helps build critical 21st-century skills that employers desire.
When students are actively engaged in their learning, they are thinking, creating, sharing, communicating, and constructing new knowledge.
They are also taking ownership of their education. For these reasons, active learning is replacing the old-school “sit and get” approach to instruction in many classrooms nationwide.
For active learning to be successful, however, a number of important elements must be in place.
For instance, teachers need to be taught proven strategies for leading active learning in their classrooms.
They need support structures to help them implement these strategies effectively, while overcoming their fears of trying something new in front of their students.
Collaborative learning, in which students work together to solve a problem or complete a task, is becoming more common in today’s classrooms—and for good reason.
The ability to work with others as part of a team is the skill that companies most desire among new hires, according to a recent survey. Collaborative learning helps students develop this critical skill.
But even beyond preparing students for the workforce, research suggests that collaborative learning offers a number of important social and academic benefits.
As students are working collaboratively on an assignment, they must explain their thinking to others in their group, which helps them develop their own understanding of the topic.
What’s more, students have an opportunity to learn from their peers and hear other perspectives that further advance their own knowledge.
They learn to think critically about these various perspectives, and they tend to retain what they’ve learned.
While the benefits of collaborative learning are clear, using this strategy in the classroom can be challenging.
Here is some advice on how to create a classroom environment that allows collaborative learning to flourish.
- Don’t be afraid to get messy. Collaborative learning can be noisy and might appear somewhat chaotic at times, with students discussing, debating, sharing, and creating in small groups. Teachers must learn to embrace this chaos, as it means students are engaged in active learning.
- Learn to give up some control. This can be hard for teachers who are used to having students sit quietly while they lecture. But teachers will find that when they give up some control over their classroom, they allow students to take charge of their own learning, which is ultimately what we want for our students—to be self-directed learners. And when teachers talk less, they have more time to listen, observe, and provide feedback to students.
- Set up your classroom to encourage collaborative learning. For students to work together, they must be sitting together. Don’t be afraid to rearrange the furniture to support collaboration. Flexible classroom furnishings, such as desks and tables from Paragon that easily can be arranged into multiple configurations, allow you to create groupings of various sizes and compositions to suit different types of projects throughout the year.
- Set clear expectations, and pay attention to transitions. Learning to give up some degree of control doesn’t mean ceding control of your classroom to students altogether. Your transitions in and out of collaborative learning time are important, because they signal to students when it’s OK to talk with their peers—and when they should be listening to you. Start collaborative lessons by establishing clear guidelines; explain the task and your learning goals, including how students will be evaluated and the behaviors you expect from them. Then, turn students loose on the project. To bring the focus back to you, include a debriefing session at the end. And always make sure that students are following the rules for respectful collaboration while they are engaged in the project itself.
When students work together on group projects, they learn critical 21st century skills that will help them in the workplace—and they also develop a much richer understanding of core content.
But implementing collaborative learning in the classroom can be tricky. One of the biggest challenges is teaching students how to collaborate with their peers effectively.
Students cannot be expected to know instinctively how to work well with others. This is a skill that needs developing, like any other.
And as educators would do with any other skill, it’s important to teach the elements of successful collaboration explicitly before having students apply this skill on their own.
The interpersonal skills needed for effective collaboration include listening to others, respecting other people and their opinions, asking clarifying questions, communicating one’s own ideas clearly and concisely, trusting other members of the group, learning how to compromise, and managing conflict.
Students should know what each of these behaviors involves and how to practice it in their daily interactions.
Here are some ideas for developing these skills among students:
- Use conflict as a teachable moment.“Instead of seeing conflict as something that you must immediately step in the middle of and put a stop to, see conflict as an opportunity,” says the Association of American Educators (AAE). Help students learn to mediate their own conflicts, providing guidance where necessary but stopping short of imposing your own solution.
- Model effective collaboration for your students. “Set a good example for collaboration by working with other teachers and faculty members often,” AAE says. “Talk about your planning sessions and your experiences working with other teachers, and allow (students) to experience the rich interdisciplinary results of such collaboration. This way, they will see both the how and the why of collaboration.”
- Give students opportunities to build trust and rapport among their groups through icebreakers and team-building exercises.
- Reflect with your students after collaborative projects. Spend time wrapping up the task by discussing not just the project itself, but how students worked together. Highlight both good and bad examples of the collaboration you saw, always being careful not to call out or embarrass particular students.
Of course, creating a classroom environment that is conducive to collaborative learning is important as well. Flexible classroom furnishings, such as desks and tables from Paragon that easily can be arranged into multiple configurations, allow you to create groupings of various sizes and compositions to suit different types of collaborative projects throughout the year.
When the leaders of Ohio’s Pickerington Local School District decided to redesign their learning spaces to better meet students’ needs, they turned to the real experts for help: the students themselves.
In return, district officials received a wide range of classroom designs that are more engaging, inviting, and supportive of 21st century teaching and learning.
As director of instructional technology, Brian Seymour has been leading the district through a change in pedagogy. Pickerington has given every middle school student a Chromebook to support a style of blended learned that it calls “tradigital learning”—a mix of traditional and digital instruction that focuses heavily on cultivating the five Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and citizenship.
But Seymour and other district leaders realized their learning spaces also would have to change to support this shift more effectively.
During the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in San Antonio, Seymour described how including students in the design process has made a big impact.
One of the reasons Pickerington involved students in the design process is because the district tried purchasing new chairs in the past, but the students didn’t like them. “The last thing you want to do is buy new furniture and then when kids come in August, they hate it,” he explained.
Including students in the design process has encouraged them take ownership of their classroom spaces, which district leaders hope will lead to more investment in their education. What’s more, Seymour turned the project itself into a learning opportunity.
“We decided we would use this as a problem-based learning exercise with kids, modeled after the TV show Shark Tank,” he said.
Working in groups of four, students researched ideas for effective, flexible classrooms. “We didn’t give them a budget; we simply told them to be ‘reasonable,’” Seymour said. “Kids used 3D design software to map out their designs, and they had to present their ideas to the community.”
Each design had to include a teacher station area, a place for independent work, and a space for collaboration. The top designs were chosen by a committee of adults—and now the district is working to redesign the classrooms in every middle school based on these winning designs.
“We need to change our learning spaces to meet our kids’ needs,” Seymour concluded. “And we have to include students in this process. What do they want from their classrooms?”