While giving my daughter a tour of my alma mater last year, we wandered into my old engineering department and passed by one of the lecture halls I used to frequent. Peering through the glass door, I saw that the tiers of flimsy, vinyl-clad planks and jittery overhead projector of my day had been replaced with well-padded, ergonomic thrones and two (or was it four?) massive, flat-screen displays. Oh, my! How fortunate my successors are to enjoy such luxuries!
Science and technology have done wonders for the classrooms of the 21st century, and I marvel at the resemblance some of them have to the flight decks of interstellar spaceships. As much as our classrooms have evolved in the last few decades, an assumption at least 600 years old still underlies their design; one that our knowledge of the brain and physical development is suggesting we might want to question. What assumption is that? That learning is best accomplished while sitting in a seat.
Brain experts such as John Ratey, John Medina, and Wendy Suzuki have been reporting for some time now the positive impact of physical activity on the brain. Research on mice, the elderly, and children is consistent in its message: physical activity promotes–we might even say is necessary for–effective brain function. This suggests that there could be benefit in designing our classrooms so that our students are engaging their bodies at the same time they are engaging their minds.
Exactly how beneficial it would be to have our students moving rather than stationary has yet to be determined, but a study by Fengqin Liu and his team involving Chinese students at Dali University in 2017 found significant improvements in L2 ability for participants who were exercising while studying. The test group studied vocabulary while pedaling a stationary bicycle at 60% of their maximum heart rate. The control group studied the same material while seated at a desk. The result? An impressive increase of 15% in accuracy in semantic check exercises at the end of eight sessions. In addition, the test group’s response times were around 500ms faster than those of the control group. This is evidence that combining exercise with learning is good, not only for our cognitive abilities, but for our reaction speed, too.
My introduction to the mind-body-learning connection was not through the door of brain science, however. Rather, it came about thanks to a seminar on the physical development of children, organized by my daughter’s kindergarten in 2015. Our lecturer was Aya Saijo, founder of the Cosodate Coaching Association, and the highlight of the evening for me was the “Pyramid of Learning.” As the shape and layers suggest, each skill set is dependent upon the development of the skill sets beneath it. What struck me when I first saw it was the implicit dependence of a student’s academic and language abilities upon movement and the five senses. This was a radical idea .
 The experiments on mice are detailed in John R Ratey’s 2008 book Spark, on pp. 43-45; those involving the elderly and children are detailed in John Medina’s book Brain Rules on p.23 and p.27, respectively.
 The original Pyramid of Learning was developed by Kathleen Taylor and Maryann Trott in 1991 as a visual representation of Dr Jean Ayres’ theory of Sensory Integration. More information is available at Sensory Integration Education and The American Journal of Occupational Therapy (Sensory Integration and Processing).
Having academic ability dependent on language skills struck me as perfectly logical. Having our language skills dependent on physical movement, though? And what was this about having a “sense of balance”? I had never thought of balance as being one of our senses.
My interest was piqued, to say the least, and not only because I had a four-year-old daughter to take care of. In addition to university classes, my wife and I teach at home, and the majority of our lessons are for children (babies and up!). Most of the lessons go well. Some don’t. Those of you who teach “pre-adults” can perhaps relate to the following examples of things not going so well:
- Tom, today, like he does most Wednesdays, is looking floppier than my daughter’s over-loved rag doll. I manage to coax him up from being sprawled face-down across his chair, only to have him collapse in a similar pose across half the table.
- Sally’s eyelids are looking droopier than a basset hound’s. I think that’s about the eighth time she’s yawned since the lesson started 3 minutes ago. I debate whether to play the phonics songs CD or a few tracks of Metallica.
- Rebecca is in a bad mood… again! When she’s like this I often think cracking open raw pistachios with my forehead would be easier than trying to get her to talk.
Before I knew about the Pyramid of Learning, situations like these would leave me exasperated, consoling myself with lines like “Ah, kids! What can you do? The little cuties!” and wishing for a beer. Now, I have a different take. I see children who are having trouble participating in their lessons not simply as being cheeky, having a bad day, or just “playing up.” Instead, I see their behavior as a sign that perhaps one or more skills related to the lower levels of the Pyramid need some work. It may be that their vestibular system, for example, needs stimulation. In The Well Balanced Child (2005), Sally Goddard Blythe explains that it is from the vestibular system that we obtain our sense of balance and our understanding of our “place in space,” the primary reference point “from which all other spatial judgements and adaptations become possible” (p. 12).
The proper development of this system is not only essential to correct postural behavior, it is also strongly connected with our ability to concentrate, as demonstrated in a study done by Molly E Burgoyne and Caroline J. Ketcham in 2015. Published in the Journal of Education and Training Studies, the study involved 19 students who were surveyed on three separate occasions, once when sitting on regular seats, and twice when using balance balls. During the first observation on-task behavior was a mere 50%. When seated on balance balls, on-task behavior skyrocketed to 85%.
After coming to appreciate the importance of balance and the benefits of stimulating the vestibular system, my wife and I decided to invest in some balance balls for our own classrooms. The balls have proven to be popular not only with our students, but with our students’ teachers, as well!
In addition to learning about our vestibular system and its importance, my journeys through the landscape of physical development has also given me an awareness of primitive reflexes. Blythe (2005) discusses eight of these in detail, and explains they are automatic responses we have to certain external stimuli. These responses help us survive our first few years of life, until higher-level brain functions develop sufficiently to allow us to properly coordinate and consciously control our reactions. An example of one such automatic response is the Moro Reflex. This reflex governs a new-born baby’s reaction to any sudden unexpected event, causing the baby to extend its arms and legs, quickly inhale, and then momentarily freeze in that position, before retracting its limbs. The reflex develops during early pregnancy and remains active until around four months after birth, when the baby gains the ability to support its own head and consciously scan its environment for the cause of the surprise.
An interesting aspect of Haitani’s (2016) treatment of the physical development of children is his focus on breathing, which he includes as the bottom-most layer of his version of the Pyramid of Learning. According to Haitani, a child’s ability to breathe deeply and properly expel carbon dioxide is key to good physical and mental performance (p. 149). He devotes a number of pages to explaining the connection between breathing and primitive reflexes, such as the Rooting and Sucking Reflexes, and how, if not properly integrated, these reflexes can not only hamper a child’s breathing, but also interfere with their control of the tongue and lips (p. 187). This has the potential, in turn, to impede a child’s ability to produce clear speech.
What I have learnt about balance, breathing, and the relevance of a child’s physical skills has changed the dynamic of my lessons at home significantly.
Take a student I’ll call Kelly. She used to arrive for her lessons looking exhausted and ready for bed. She was often irritable and getting through our weekly homework sheet was an ordeal for the both of us. A few months back, based on the idea that perhaps she needed to re-energize herself with some movement, we tried doing some Cosmic Kids Yoga at the beginning of the lesson. Since then, every week I ask her if she’d like to start with some yoga, and every week the response is the same: “Yes!” The homework sheet, along with the rest of the lesson, goes so much more smoothly now after 15 minutes of yoga fun!
 Produced by Jaime Amor, Cosmic Kids Yoga is a Youtube channel seeking to make yoga and physical activity fun for children. Viewers copy Jaime as she demonstrates different yoga-based moves while narrating fun stories, the majority of which are based on well-known movies, games, and characters.
With things working all that much better in my one-on-one lessons, the next challenge for me is harnessing the movement benefit in my university classes. Last semester I experimented with some intenSati, a kind of aerobic exercise combined with affirmations, which Wendy Suzuki, in Healthy Brain, Happy Life (Suzuki & Fitzpatrick, 2015), talks about trialing in her own lectures. This year I am looking forward to also incorporating some of the movement ideas presented in the July 2018 Think Tank on Exercise.
Interestingly, education systems of the past, including those of medieval knights, of the Romans, and of the Greeks, invested heavily in a physical component (Blythe, 2005). Was it simple necessity? Or did they understand something the designers of the industrial-age education system forgot? I find Raphael’s School of Athens–imaginary as it is–notable for the conspicuous absence of the things we nowadays automatically equate with school: desks and chairs. What our classrooms will look like in the future is anyone’s guess. Could they feature chin-up frames, treadmills, and stationary cycles? Will we see balloons, balance balls, and yoga mats side-by-side with our large-screen displays, tablet PCs, and holographic projectors? I look forward to finding out!
Blythe, S. G. (2005). The well-balanced child: Movement and early learning. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.
Burgoyne, M. E., & Ketcham, C. J. (2015). Observation of classroom performance using therapy balls as a substitute for chairs in elementary school children. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(4), 42-48. doi: 10.11114/jets.v3i4.730
Haitani, T. (2016). Ningen-no wo sodateru: Ugoki no hattatsu to genshi-hansha no seicho [Educating the human brain: Motion development and primitive reflex growth]. Tokyo, Japan: Kafusha.
Liu, F., Sulpizio, S., Kornpetpanee, S., & Job, R. (2017). It takes biking to learn: Physical activity improves learning a second language. Plos One, 12(5). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0177624
Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Ratey, J. J., (with Hagerman, E.). (2010). Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London, UK: Quercus.
Suzuki, W., & Fitzpatrick, B. (2015). Healthy brain, happy life: A personal program to activate your brain and do everything better. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Jarrod O’Flaherty is joint-owner with his wife of Jamos Academy, an English school they have been running together in Sendai, Japan, since 2005. He also teaches English at a number of universities in Sendai on a part-time basis. When not teaching he enjoys tinkering on his Nokia N900, which he describes to anyone who will listen as a “very cool piece of kit.”