Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gym class for everybody!

Rene Descartes posited that the mind is a separate entity from the brain. However, recent research cited by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) may refute Cartesian dualism, and provide an opportunity to develop new pedagogical methods which take advantage of the links between the body and the mind. Rats were experimentally manipulated to observe the effects on brain anatomy of exercise and learning. Rats which engaged in exercise were shown to have increased density of blood vessels associated with neurons in the brain; while rats which exercised little, but engaged in learning, developed increased neural synapses. Rather than demonstrating a schism between mind and body, this suggests that both physical and mental exercise have positive effects on the brain.

Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, consequently, the philosophy of mind body dualism has had a profound effect on the western perspective on thought and intelligence since the Age of Enlightenment. Scholars are stereotypically thought to be pale and pasty, while athletes are thought to be uninterested in intellectual matters. While there are many exceptions to these typical attitudes, the cultural dominance of these types is pervasive enough to merit serious consideration. Academic ally, physical education only became part of public school curricula following the First World War, as the military exercised its influence to better prepare future soldiers. Presently, physical education is languishing as one of the most ignored or maligned parts of public school curricula. While students the majority of the school day in “academic” classes, serving the development o their minds, their bodies are, at best, given a few hours a week for physical education.

If the development of rat brains cited above correlates to human development, it can be argued that physical education is a necessary component in maximizing the education of young minds. Physical exercise leads to increased blood vessel density, which transports increased amounts of oxygen to the brain, removes wastes and transports neural transmitter chemicals more efficiently. In effect, increased blood vessel density promotes a healthier, more efficient brain. Rat learners develop more synapses per nerve cell, which is a likely consequence of learning and memory, in general. It seems likely that learners who engage in vigorous, regular physical activity will develop superior mental capacity.

While it is tempting to argue that students are provided with ample opportunities for physical exercise in the form of recess in the elementary grades, and competitive sports in the middle and high school; it must be acknowledged that most students do not participate in these activities, and funding for sports is declining in school districts most in need of support for their students learning. Nothing short of comprehensive curriculum overhaul will provide a level of physical activity commensurate with the needs of students’ mental development. Students should be provided with a variety of options for physical engagement, whether they take the form of team sports, or outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, and biking, or less formal setting such as hacky sack or Frisbee. Students which engage in physical activity during every school day will benefit from a healthier body and more productive mind.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online: http://www.nap.edu/html/howpeople1/

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