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.

 

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.

Flipped Classrooms and the Cardboard Challenge

Here are a couple of creative back-to-school ideas to get excited about. The first is the story of one little boy’s ingenuity which became a movement schools worldwide can participate in. It’s called the Cardboard Challenge and it combines play, creativity, technology and community in a heartwarming way. If you are looking for a way to bring your school and community together with a pro-science, pro-environmental, pro-fun event, take a look. The movie on the Imagination Foundation website explains it best so I’ll just link to it here and let you watch for yourself: Imagination Foundation.

The second item of back-to-school interest is this great info-graphic on the flipped classroom. If you wanted to argue the case for the flipped classroom or if you wanted a quick rundown of the what and why behind it, take a peek. If your students have online access at home, this looks like a really good teaching model to try, and with resources like Khan Academy, teachers can implement a flipped classroom with the support of some really well thought-out, free online resources.

Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media