We find ourselves in something of a paradoxical education landscape. On the one hand we are learning more and more about the science of learning. Neuroscience is pushing the boundaries of the known world on a near daily basis. As a result, our knowledge about working with a variety of minds continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Yet, numerous policy mandates bent on increasing “achievement” (as often measured by reading and math scores on standardized tests) require that we minimize the amount of time spent on some things that actually lead to increased learning.
In effect, we have removed tires from cars we want to go faster and farther.
Take exercise for example. We know that exercise is very good for cognitive functioning — in youth, adults, and especially so in the elderly. However, there is a significant decrease in the amount of time given to students for recess, PE, and other active engagement.
The result isn’t just that we increase the risk of childhood obesity, we also reduce access to physical activity for students who need it for their own intellectual and physical well being. We are, consequently, leaving students behind.
However, the need to help all students reach their potential does not translate into a need for more seat time. Quite the opposite in fact.
Educators know this. A student who is challenged in sustaining attention can find success through more active learning opportunities. Students who are lethargic or low on energy can get pepped up with a few in-class movement activities. These are tried and true tricks for most educators.
What happens, though, when the decrease in activity is systematically mandated and increased expectations become the norm? Should teachers just become accomplice in denying students the physical activity they need? Not likely.
Former 5th grade teacher, Laura Fenn, found herself more and more troubled by the lack of activity and the resulting negative consequences on her students — both in terms of health and engagement. Through a clever use of technology, she found a way to meet both needs: activity and learning. In a recent blog post on Q.E.D. Foundation’s blog she wrote,
I witnessed an increase in the weight of the students at school and a decrease in the time allocated to physical activity. Knowing how much I enjoyed going for a walk while listening to podcasts after school and on weekends, I thought that maybe my students might enjoy doing the same. I scoured the Internet for educational podcasts that were *somewhat* related to our curriculum, and I loaded up a class set of mp3 players. My students would get some fresh air and exercise, but I could also convince my principal that we weren’t sacrificing any instructional time.
She went on to report,
Away we went–walking, listening and learning. My students went nuts for the walking program—they thought they were getting out of something, but in fact, they got so much more: they returned to class in better moods, more focused, and more productive. The best surprise was how effective walking while learning was for my non-traditional learners. I had several ADHD boys who struggled in class simply because they poured every ounce of energy they had into trying to stay out of trouble. While we walked, they could jiggle and wiggle as much as their bodies needed to, so their minds were freed up to absorb the content they were listening to. I also had autistic students and dyslexic students who, for the first time in their academic career, regularly started participating in class discussions after our walks. Kinesthetic learning was a preferred style of learning for these children that they didn’t know about.
We can tell our students all about different learning styles until we’re blue in the face, but until a child experiences a style of learning in which s/he succeeds, the words are empty. To witness a child enjoy feeling smart is like no other joy that a teacher can experience.
Since making this discovery, Laura has since left the classroom and is now co-founder and Executive Director at The Walking Classroom, working to provide other classrooms and schools with podcasts and mp3 players aligned with the Common Core State Standards. One very encouraging outcome of her endeavor: others are reporting similar findings and increased levels of engagement. (You can learn more at The Walking Classroom.)
Where else are innovations meeting the needs of students in creative and inclusive ways? What other programs might we highlight?