With so much pressure on subjects within schools, giving certain subjects less time and attention can be all too tempting, but Caroline Sherwood warns of the dangers of reducing PE activities, advocating how students can exercise during other subjects.
Teaching secondary English is ever-changing, rigorous and increasingly more demanding; colleagues across both secondary and primary classrooms are facing new challenges and ever-expanding accountability for student outcomes. PE can become the victim of English and Maths pressures: students are removed from their PE lessons to receive additional English or Maths intervention. However, instead of being advantageous for students, we could be sabotaging and undermining their cognitive abilities.
Public Health England’s ‘The link between pupil health and well-being and attainment’ 2014 report stated that “children and young people who are aerobically active have higher academic scores… pupils engaging in self-development activities (including sport, physical activity) achieved 10-20% higher GCSEs”.
University of British Columbia researchers found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for long term memory – in particular declarative memory; purposely recalling facts. Retaining and retrieving facts, dates and quotes is now essential for students’ closed-book exams in English. By denying students aerobic exercise – the type which raises their heart rate – we are withholding the opportunity for them to grow the area in the brain involved in memory: it’s counterproductive. Studies (‘The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities’, Gomez-Pinilla & Hillman, 2013) have suggested that people who exercise have a stronger pre-frontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory.
Exercise is known to improve executive functions, which are your higher-level thinking skills. The students who are traditionally removed from PE for intervention are typically those being pushed for the C grade or equivalent. It is these very students who need the aerobic exercise the most in order to strengthen their executive functions. Potentially, these students’ academic vulnerability is exacerbated in a bid to improve it. For superior cognitive performance, which is undoubtedly what we want for all our students, they need to be exercising: exercise supports success at school.
The two most important fuels for the brain are oxygen and glucose. Unstable glucose levels, whether too high or too low, are linked to weaker cognitive and behavioural outcomes (Wang, Szabo, & Dykman, 2004). Terrence Dwyer found that exercise improves classroom behaviour and academic performance (Dwyer, Sallis, Blizzard, Lazarus, & Dean, 2001). The resulting energy boost after exercise is thought to increase motivation, concentration and effort in the classroom. The students who don’t always get it right, who find themselves losing their activity time during break and lunchtime, are the students who need the physical movement and exercise the most. A lack of physical activity can lead to students being unable to control their impulses and also to feelings of annoyance: behaviours which are undesirable in the classroom. An absence of exercise undermines school behaviour and expectations.
Indirectly, exercise also improves mood and sleep, reducing stress and anxiety. We understand as classroom practitioners that issues in any of these areas can cause or contribute to cognitive impairment. Not only should we be protecting – and valuing – our students’ time in PE, but we can also help increase oxygen to the brain (which may enhance its ability to learn), alter neurotransmitters and encourage structural changes in the central nervous system in our own classrooms by exercising body and mind together; they are not exclusive.
- Find opportunities for students to move around the room – visit other peers and groups to share learning.
- Use confidence lines or continua when introducing new ideas and knowledge.
- Use circle games.
- Break up Learning with brain gym activities.
- Gallery walks: post texts (teacher and student created) and have students rotate in small groups around the room.
- Chalk walks: similar to gallery walks, students interact with the posted texts – commenting or critiquing, adding their own ideas or solving problems.
Being involved in physical activity can have both instant and longer-term benefits on academic performance. Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning and reduce inappropriate off-task behaviours (Active Education: Growing Evidence on Physical Activity and Academic Performance, 2015). Knowing the efficacy of physical activity in improving cognitive health, cutting back on physical education with the aim of improving academic performance is likely to be counterproductive.
Caroline Sherwood @Caroline_Alice_ is a Specialist Leader in Education and Women Leading in Education Champion with the Dartmoor Teaching School Alliance. She currently teaches English at South Molton Community College in Devon, is Pupil Premium Champion and Teaching and Learning Lead.