‘People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe’

Simon Sinek

Earlier this year I set myself 3 goals for 2015. When setting my goals I knew goal 3 would be the one to challenge me. To achieve this goal I would need to step outside my comfort zone. It is easy to sit behind a computer screen and share a passionate message about including movement in the learning process but to step in front of an audience and provide structured professional learning is a real test of your understanding.

I have worked hard to put myself in a position to test my understanding and take advantage of any opportunity to provide structured professional learning this year. So far I have been able to speak about the power of including movement in the learning process at the inaugural #tmpdhpe15 held at Hills Grammar Sydney and a professional learning day at St Andrews College Marayong. Later this year I will have the opportunity to speak at the PDHPE Teachers’ Association Conference in October.

During my presentations I speak about the impact John Ratey’s book SPARK has had on my current approaches to teaching. Although my interpretation of the information contained in John Ratey’s book is always changing it is still in my opinion the most powerful piece of PE advocacy material ever written. The book helps us better understand the link between physical activity and academic achievement.

As physical education teachers we know exercise is good for you. Everyone has heard that before, but probably not the way Ratey explains it. According to John Ratey and the many studies he cites, exercise is primarily for the brain, it is just an added bonus that it also improves our body.

Dr. Ratey begins his tale of exercise’s virtues with Naperville, Illinois School Distritct 203 and its “New PE.” A revolutionary phys ed teacher named Paul Zientarski decided to teach the kids something they could use for life: how to be physically fit. Instead of grading on performance and skill, he decided to grade the kids on their effort. If they work hard enough to keep their hearts in aerobic training range (70-80% of maximum heart rate), they get good grades.

What’s most remarkable about the new PE is its correlation with test scores. Naperville consistently ranks among Illinois’ top 10 school districts even though it is not among the top spenders per pupil. Further to this, struggling students who participate in gym before school raise their grades significantly.

So it turns out exercise is good for learning. Why would this be? Because our biology evolved from the life of the hunter-gatherer, so now “the relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry.” Exercise also improves responses to stress, which is actually a necessary thing, in the right amount. It’s like lifting weights for the brain. “Neurons get broken down and built up just like muscles — stressing them makes them more resilient.”

If you’re looking for advocacy materials to promote the importance of movement and physical education in your school, be sure to share this with your colleagues. If you can get your Principal to read it, even better.

Like most passionate PE teachers, when I read SPARK and saw neuroscience being used to validate a link between physical activity and academic achievement I felt empowered as a PE teacher. To me there was only one conclusion – this is all the evidence anyone should need to be convinced that PE and physical activity are essential to learning! However recently I have been drawn into a fantastic academic debate about John Ratey’s research.

At the center of the debate is the observation that within SPARK the term learning seems to only represent and acknowledge the cognitive domain of learning. Learning is a more complicated process involving 3 domains: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. In SPARK John Ratey uses neuroscience to present a convincing case that we can use physical activity to improve learning within the cognitive domain but it is important not to get our heads caught in the glamor of the neuroscience of learning and overlook the approach of Paul Zientarski who uses physical activity to improve learning by tapping into all three learning domains.

Paul is one of the founders of Learning Readiness PE. The program prepares students for learning and has had an amazing impact on the students who have taken part in this unique approach in the Naperville school district. The improvement has been attributed to the schools implementing programs that get students active, moving, and understanding the power that exercise has on the brain and on learning. Students who have been involved in the Learning Readiness PE program have achieved higher success in their test scores for reading and math. It is also worthy to note obesity levels within the schools dropped as a result of Learning Readiness PE.

As the debate about John Ratey’s research and its implication to education continues I am confident we can all agree physical activity and movement improves learning. Whether we explain the power of including physical activity in the learning process from a neurological level or from an interpersonal level it is clear physical activity makes a difference, when we can clearly and confidently explain ‘the reasons why’ we will be able to move education in a new direction.