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Learning at 120 Beats-Per-Minute
October 13, 2016 | Volume 12 | Issue 3
Table of Contents
Move with Purpose: Four Approaches to Making Content Kinesthetic
Emerging evidence from neuroscience suggests that middle and high school educators would do well to question the traditional image of students sitting quietly at their desks and begin to incorporate more opportunities for exercise, movement, drama, and hands-on learning in the classroom.
Much of this new awareness centers around discoveries concerning the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain"), the ancient part of the brain at the back of the skull traditionally associated with muscular activity and motor control. More recently, scientists (Stoodley, 2012; Travis, Leitner, Feldman, & Ben-Shachar, 2015) have begun to link the cerebellum with language functions and with visual-spatial, executive, and working memory processes.
Four Ways to Incorporate Physical Movement
Although it makes up just 10 percent of brain volume, the cerebellum contains more neurons than the rest of the brain combined. In fact, there are 3.6 times more neurons in the cerebellum than there are in the neocortex. Because the cerebellum continues to develop during adolescence (Tiemeier et al., 2010), is not highly genetically controlled, and is thus susceptible to environmental influences (Giedd, 2002), secondary educators are well positioned to take advantage of the cerebellum's neuroplasticity by engaging students in physical movements that are integrated directly with higher-order thinking skills. Here are four ways in which teachers can capitalize on the brain's connection to physical movement to increase student engagement and academic achievement.
1. Provide Exercise Breaks During and Between Classes
A literature search (Strong et al., 2005) of nearly 1,000 studies on the relationship between exercise and the needs of school-age youth revealed that exercise results in improvements in academic achievement, attention, and classroom behavior and reductions in anxiety and depression. The authors recommend that students engage in at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical exercise that is developmentally appropriate, enjoyable, and varied.
Yet a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012b) revealed that only 2 percent of U.S. high schools required physical activity breaks in addition to P.E., and only 11.7 percent recommended this practice for all students. In middle schools, the numbers were only slightly higher, with 10.8 percent requiring physical activity breaks and 23 percent recommending the practice. In contrast, students in Finland—heralded for its high academic achievement in international rankings—are legally entitled to 15 minutes of free time every 45 minutes during which they can unwind and refocus (Faridi, 2014).
You can use your classroom space as a medium for moving and learning at the same time. Some ideas for several subject areas follow.
2. Integrate Drama into the Curriculum
Drama needn't be reserved for theater class; it can and should be integrated into every subject in the middle or high school curriculum. Anything that can be read or talked about can be acted out. A powerful way to use drama in the classroom is to have students create a tableau, or a fixed-frame living scene illustrating some aspect of the course content. Tableau can be used to
While students are still in their "frozen" positions, they can talk about their particular roles in the scene and discuss how the scene as a whole pertains to the broader themes of the lesson.
3. Use Physical Movement to Teach Specific Concepts
In my teacher training programs, I frequently demonstrate the importance of engaging secondary-level students in kinesthetic learning by acting out the physics concept of Boyle's law. I enclose the students in a circumscribed space, tell them to begin moving around randomly, and then inform them that they are molecules in a container. Then I begin to restrict the space in which to move (reducing the volume) while asking the participants if the "pressure" has gone up or down (it's getting crowded; the pressure is going up). Then I reverse the process and increase the space in which students are able to move (increasing the volume), and participants directly experience the "pressure" decreasing.
This little physical experience (Armstrong, 2009) conveys Boyle's law more effectively and engagingly than does the verbal definition: "For a fixed mass and temperature of gas, the pressure is inversely proportional to the volume."
Some additional ideas
4. Engage Students in Hands-on Activities
Most people associate "hands-on learning" with preschool and elementary school. Yet students' hands do not disappear when they reach middle school and high school, and research (Cook & Goldin-Meadow, 2006; Riskowski, Todd, Wee, Dark, & Harbor, 2009; Wilson, 1999) is clear about the value of using one's hands to improve cognitive performance and understanding.
One recent trend that encourages hands-on learning at the secondary level is the maker movement. Maker culture emerged about a decade ago, when a group of inventors, tinkerers, computer geeks, hobbyists, and artisans began to promote a "do-it-yourself" ethos for the digital age using recycled materials, electronics, 3-D printers, open source computer programs, and a potpourri of odds and ends to create useful products (Anderson, 2014; Hatch, 2013). The materials for such projects don't need to be elaborate: students can use string, mirrors, pipe cleaners, 3-D solids, D-Stix, and other hands-on manipulatives, for example, to learn geometry concepts. Websites such as www.instructables.com and www.makezine.com provide instructions for a variety of maker projects.
Hands-on learning is tailor-made for STEM courses, but there are many ways to integrate this physical approach to learning into non- STEM subject areas as well.
Students can leave their notebooks, textbooks, and other school paraphernalia behind when they leave home or school, but they take their bodies with them wherever they go. When educators engage students in learning through the body, they essentially inscribe knowledge into the very sinews of their physical being.
Anderson, C. (2014). Makers: The new industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business.
Armstrong, T. (2009). Multiple intelligences in the classroom (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012b). School Health Policies and Practices Study. Atlanta: Author. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/shpps/pdf/fs_overview_shpps2012.pdf
Cook, S. W., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2006). The role of gesture in learning: Do children use their hands to change their minds? Journal of Cognition and Development, 7(2), 211–232.
Faridi, S. (2014, June 24). Happy teaching, happy learning: 13 secrets to Finland's success. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/06/24/ctq_faridi_finland.html?r=2075860148
Giedd, J. N. (2002). Inside the teenage brain—Interview: Jay Giedd. Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/giedd.html
Hatch, M. (2013). The maker movement manifesto: Rules for innovation in the new world of crafters, hackers, and tinkerers. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Riskowski, J. L., Todd, C. D., Wee, B., Dark, M., & Harbor, J. (2009). Exploring the effectiveness of an interdisciplinary water resources engineering module in an eighth grade science course. International Journal of Engineering Education, 25(1), 181–195.
Tiemeier, H., Lenroot, R. K., Greenstein, D. K., Tran, L., Pierson, R., & Giedd, J. N. (2010, January 1). Cerebellum development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal morphometric MRI study. Neuroimage, 49(1), 63–70.
Travis, K. E., Leitner, Y., Feldman, H. M., & Ben-Shachar, M. (2015, April). Cerebellar white matter pathways are associated with reading skills in children and adolescents. Human Brain Mapping, 36(4), 1536–1553.
Stoodley, C. J. (2012, June). The cerebellum and cognition: Evidence from functional imaging studies. The Cerebellum, 11(2), 352–365.
Strong, W. B., Malina, R. M., Blimkie, C. J. R., Daniels, S. R., Dishman, R. K., Gutin, B., et al. (2005, June). Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth. Journal of Pediatrics, 146(6), 732–737.
Wilson, F. (1999). The hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture. New York: Penguin Random House.
Source: Excerpted from The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (pp. 95–105), by T. Armstrong, 2016, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2016 by ASCD.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 3. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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