Spark Book Review: The Science of Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the brain

Changing thinking about exercise and the brain

Written by bestselling author and psychiatrist John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a positive book that looks at how exercise can improve neuroplasticity, learning, and executive function. It suggests exercise as a helpful addition to medication, or sometimes even a replacement for medication in the treatment of depression, addiction, and ADHD.

Exercise and the brain

I found Spark to be full of practical advice for improving education, lifting depression, alleviating addiction, improving student achievement, managing ADHD in adults and children, increasing mental performance, and reducing the likelihood of cognitive decline. If you didn’t think exercise was a panacea before reading this book, Doctor John J. Ratey will make a believer of you by the end. His book is chock full of case studies, statistics, and experimental data that both convince and encourage. Exercise may not cure everything, but it seems to optimize the brain by re-balancing the brain’s chemical and electrical signals and triggering new connections.

Why exercise and the brain?

People evolved as hunter-gatherers who were always on the move. Similarly, our brains need the chemicals released by moderate and intense exercise to function best. People typically exercise to improve their health or extend their lives but Ratey says these motivations are secondary to the more important benefits: improving the brain.This book will change the way you think about your workout. I found myself reading it on the stationary bike.

The only negative aspect of this book is that it gets very technical for the average reader, especially in ebook form. The references to clinical trials and case studies make Ratey’s style is appropriate for a cutting-edge expert in his field. As a non-expert, I could have used some brain diagrams to help me absorb the scientific names for various brain regions, growth factors, neurotransmitters and so forth. There was a lot to learn and while Ratey explains things well, it would have been nice to have a cheat sheet or visual organizers.

Who should read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain?

I read this book with interest because of my work with children. The book leads off with a couple of fascinating studies relating how exercise can improve student achievement, contentment, and behaviour. There are sections devoted to ways in which exercise stimulates new learning and helps students with attention challenges. That said, there are sections on a wide range of maladies that affect adults from depression to Alsheimer’s Disease to addiction. This book will be useful to a broad range of readers, including those interested in practical suggestions to help stave off mental decline with age.

 

Google Apps for Education – Media Literacy

In the library, I have been exploring Google Apps for education, and the Google classroom. Although I have used Gmail, Google drive and the Google calendar personally for years, this year my school board expanded our use and access to Google Apps, using teacher and student accounts. Not all applications are available yet, but so far I have used Google Docs, Google Drive, Google slides, Google forms, Google calendar, and Gmail.

The Google classroom proved to be a solution for typical problems in media studies. It’s fun to use free programs like Windows movie maker with students, but the files get very large. Before Google classroom, work from multiple classes arrived in no order at the same teacher email address.

Google classroom allows for paperless delivery of large film clips, and full-colour documents, sorted into classes. It keeps track of outstanding assignments and streamlines sharing marks and feedback with students.

So far I have used Google docs and Google slides to help students collaborate in real time on the same school assignment, or the yearbook. We also had film festivals in the library for each media studies class. It was simple to show student movies straight from the Google classroom and display them with a digital projector.

Some useful features:

  • Google Docs saves work continuously and automatically
  • Google Docs reads files made in various formats such as PowerPoint, Word etc.
  • you can embed videos into Google slides for presentations
  • Google documents can be downloaded for access off-line
  • multiple students can add images, edit texts, and make changes to the same document simultaneously, as long as it is ‘shared’ with them
  • sharing is as simple as clicking a button and typing an email address
  • Google classroom makes it easy to design assignments once, then post them to multiple classes.
  • including links, and other media right in  an assignment is simple and intuitive

 

Here are some links to get you started, depending on your area of interest:

32 Ways to use Google Apps in The Classroom.

Google Classroom 101

 

Using Google Presentations with students:

The most awesome 450 slide presentation ever

What’s Wild and Happy Animation Example

5 Ideas for Using Google Slides with Students

How to ‘hack’ a google presentation to make it into an animation (advanced technique)

 

Online image sources. Be sure to remind your students about permissions and copyright:

 

 

Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson

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Book Review

Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative with Sir Ken Robinson

When you research creativity in education, it is impossible not to come across Ken Robinson’s provocative work. His book, Out of Our Minds, published in 2001, revised in 2011, is still fresh and powerful. In part a scathing critique of the factory model of education, Robinson supports individual educators, and acknowledges that many of us are working within the system to support student creativity.

Part of his work is a well-researched attack on academic hierarchy. While he champions literacy, Robinson asks why mathematics and Language should be considered supremely important, while drama and dance are treated like expendable extras. Unless the goal of all students is to become university professors, he argues, this approach is wrongheaded.

Threatened by global and ecological crises as never before, he says humanity is going to need creative thinking if we are to thrive and survive as a species. Globally, the rate of change of technology means children we teach today will work in industries that haven’t been invented, use tools we’ve never seen, and interact in ways we can’t imagine. The outsourcing of well-paid high tech work is only one reason I agree with Robinson’s arguments. As adults, today’s children will compete globally to earn a living.

‘Back-to-basics’ teaching focussed on rankings and standardized testing is not preparing students for employment. According to Robinson, business leaders want “thoughtful, creative, self-confident people… who are literate, numerate, who can analyze information and ideas; who can generate new ideas of their own and help to implement them; who can communicate clearly and work well with other people.”

Before you ask how writing poems is going to help with that, consider Robinson’s definition of creativity. He suggests we should recognize more forms of human intelligence than those measured by I.Q. testing or the SATs. For Robinson, these outdated tests only reinforce modern society’s harmfully narrow view of intelligence. He claims the unemployed high school dropout and the underemployed college graduate were both let down by the education system, because neither discovered their creative potential.

Human beings think and exert intelligence in diverse ways depending on the medium of our creative work.

When people find their medium, they discover their real creative strengths and come into their own. Helping people connect with their personal creative capacities is the surest way to release the best they have to offer.

Robinson calls for a celebration of diversity in human thinking which will alter societal attitudes to ability and disability; and also help humanity adapt to exponential population growth, unpredictable technological change and growing environmental concerns.

He calls creativity “applied imagination,” and “a process of having original ideas that have value.” This value cuts across all domains from pure science research to filmmaking.

Robinson’s chapter, “Being Creative,” provides practical tips on how to boost innovation through technique. All people are born imaginative, but this ability can be enhanced or squelched by one’s environment. Unlocking the “constant promise of alternative ways of seeing, of thinking and of doing,” is essential. Educators, parents and community leaders can do a lot to foster diverse talents, instead of feeding the myth that creativity is just for ‘special people.’

There is a saying among teachers in my school that ‘gifted teaching is just good teaching.’ Robinson’s book reinforces this idea. We must interact with all our students in ways that bring out their gifts and talents, and be open to exploring domains that allow them to think, whether they think best through drama, dance or mathematical equations. It’s a tall order and no educator can do it on his or her own, but informing our teaching practice with a philosophy that nurtures creativity is an excellent place to start.

Are Flipped Classrooms Bad For Students?

Students today have grown up in a digital environment. They do not remember a time before Googling was a verb or before games were ubiquitous on smart phones and computers. This makes today’s kids the most informed and sophisticated generation of entertainment consumers, but it undermines the value of educational videos. In the past, when teachers wanted to present material that was difficult to broach, or was outside their area of expertise, “Show them a video,” was the quick fix. Remember awkward sex ed. videos?

Students in our classrooms and libraries don’t see educational videos as a treat. It isn’t uncommon for students to groan when you offer them an informative video, but cheer for a Hollywood blockbuster.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, American students aged 8 to 18 spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and nearly another 2 hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games. Canadian children and youth average close to 8 hours of screen time per day according to the Canadian Health Measures Survey. Childhood obesity rates have accordingly increased from 15% to 26% from 1980 to 2004, with rates in the 12-to-17 age group more than doubling—from 14% to 29%. Kids are simply sitting too much and moving too little.

Parents are frustrated too. If they arrange a play date, instead of heading outside, the first thing kids want to do is fire up their gaming systems or play the latest movie. It has become part of modern hospitality.

Yet quality educational websites and videos are some of the best teaching resources we have, and form the core of the flipped classroom. Principals, researchers and school boards tout the benefits of the flipped classroom. Stats say it lowers dropout rates and increases student achievement, but selling the idea can be tough. To concerned parents, the idea of assigning more screen time seems counterproductive. And if their kids do less homework at home, doesn’t that mean the teacher is slacking off?

Ironically, reducing mindless screen time is one of the benefits of the flipped classroom. By assigning students homework on the computer, part of students’ screen time becomes educational. In class, students and teachers can concentrate on more personalized, hands-on activities which, because they are linked to at-home viewing, make students accountable for the content they learn at home. Communicating these benefits to parents is key.

It’s also important to make the online viewing portion of homework short and packed with information. Teachers can make their own videos or refer to materials they have previewed. Tutorials and research tools made specifically to teach children academic subjects, such as those available through Khan Academy websites or a public library, are good places to start.