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Exercising brain power - a school trustee's dream

When I was in high school, social networking was in vogue. Only we called it the Friday after school sock hop. Today, it would seem that social networking consists of text messaging and Facebook. It’s a whole new world.

When I was in high school, social networking was in vogue. Only we called it the Friday after school sock hop. Today, it would seem that social networking consists of text messaging and Facebook. It’s a whole new world.

I was therefore extremely interested in the initiative at Richard Fowler Junior High School to introduce student-popular forms of information technology into the classroom. On the face of it, the whole thing makes sense. I sincerely hope it works.

For the issue is not whether this learning technique will improve intelligence. Rather the question is will it stimulate students to use the brains they have to a more optimal degree, resulting in a higher rate of completion of assignments and overall school grades.

But is this all we can do?

I have been intrigued about the issue of the school environment on learning for nearly 40 years. It started in earnest when we introduced French Immersion into Ottawa schools in the early 1970s. At that time we had a debate about the potential loss of time for core subjects as the curriculum would have to be expanded to allow English language arts to continue to be taught. That put pressure on the non-core subjects including physical education.

It was about that time that a report came out of France on an evaluation of the effects of physical fitness on classroom performance. Two schools of similar student profiles and academic scores were selected. One school continued the traditional school programming. The second school had classroom instruction for the mornings only; the afternoons were dedicated to physical fitness and sports. At the end of the year, both student bodies were given standardized academic tests. The school with the enhanced physical education program did substantially better. The proposal to try it out in Ottawa got lost in the noise of a teachers’ strike.

Maybe the time has arrived to revisit the matter here in St. Albert. Richard Fowler school is to be congratulated on what it has taken on to modernize instructional material access in a socially acceptable manner with its students. Still we are faced as a society with the sedentary student who is overeating for the energy expended and in poor physical fitness.

There is now emerging scientific evidence that exercise improves executive functioning (planning and organizing) abilities in children. Reports from Harvard University support this, showing an increase in blood flow specifically to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area of the brain involved with this function and selective attention. One report from Amsterdam positively correlated physical activity with cognitive test scores in teenagers. Nature Medicine published a report linking physical exercise with increased blood flow to the hippocampus, a centre that mediates mood and stimulates brain cell production. This is associated with a growth factor gene (VGF) that has led one pharmaceutical company to try to produce a drug to mimic VGF as a mood elevator. Just think: taking a pill will make you feel physically fit and happy. Marvellous.

In any event, even if physical exercise doesn’t make you smarter, there is now compelling evidence to show that it will optimize your brain for learning, regardless of age. Let’s hope our school trustees do their part to help our students exercise both their brains and bodies as they look at ways to improve our educational environment. Let’s not leave everything to the drug companies

Dr. Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.