Classroom Practice - Why workouts aren't just good for the body

4th October 2013 at 01:00
Exercising the brain can boost its performance and improve students' learning, scientists say. But is it just wishful thinking?

When Nintendo released its brain training games, people scoffed. You can't train a brain, they said with the confident air of the parent on seemingly solid ground. No matter that the kids were all suddenly doing mental arithmetic rather than toting virtual Uzis, the argument that a computer game could train a brain - that anyone could, for that matter - carried no weight.

Somewhat predictably, the overconfident parents seem to have been proved wrong. Cognitive scientists - teachers' new best friends - have unearthed three so-called "executive functions" of the brain related to learning that they say can be improved by intervention. The first of these controls working memory; the second, our ability to change our thought processes; and the third relates to our "inhibitory control" (the suppression of impulses and distractions).

In one US study from 2007 (McClelland et al), researchers tested executive functions in a classroom context and found that when these were performing at a high level, they could improve literacy, vocabulary and mathematical skills, even in preschool. In short, the study found that such functions do exist - and they do have an impact.

It is perhaps helpful to think of it like this: each process is a bus driver navigating their "function" (working memory, adaptability and inhibitory control) bus along the route of learning in the brain. If a child has three highly accomplished drivers, these buses easily make their way along the right course and learning is a piece of cake. However, if a child has even one driver that is struggling to tell the brake from the clutch and that has the directional reliability of a compass next to a magnet, learning is, to put it mildly, a challenge.

The students in the latter camp are generally the ones labelled "disruptive". They face problems switching from one task to the other, they have a poor working memory so tend to forget what it is they are trying to achieve, and they are easily distracted. They're not misbehaving, but they're not concentrating properly either.

Once these processes had been identified, researchers set about discovering whether you could train them to perform better. The most cited study in this area was written by Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee of the University of British Columbia and British Columbia Children's Hospital, Vancouver, in 2011.

It states: "Diverse activities have been shown to improve children's executive functions.All successful programmes involve repeated practice and progressively increase the challenge to executive functions."

Another study by researchers from the University of Northumbria revealed in 2009 that working memory improved with training, while US academics (Davies et al) in 2011 experienced some success in improving executive functions through physical exercise.

Which is all very well, but for this information to be useful, it has to have some practical application in the classroom. Fortunately, teachers have a number of brain training methodologies they can adopt, according to the scientists.

First - and wait for the cheers from Nintendo HQ here - computer programs are available that challenge and improve a student's working memory. Unfortunately for the gaming giant, the academics' game of choice is the Pearson-backed Cogmed ( rather than Nintendo's Dr Kawashima's Brain Training.

Second, robust aerobic exercise - running, skipping, football and basketball - has been shown to be effective, while martial arts and other forms of physical activity that require a high degree of concentration also help children improve their inhibitory control. It's the physical education teachers' turn to cheer.

Give us the tools

Admittedly, sitting children down in front of a computer game or allocating them some time on the running track may seem vague - most teachers can cite disruptive students who are very able in sports and passionate about their Xboxes.

But thankfully, a more prescriptive approach is available in several curricula that have been shown to improve the performance of executive functions.

Tools of the Mind ( was developed by academics at the Metropolitan State College of Denver (now the Metropolitan State University of Denver) for early years education. Among other activities, it encourages make-believe and mature play, which have a significant impact in this area. Also, while the Montessori curriculum does not explicitly refer to executive functions, its focus on independence and self-control complements their development.

Significantly, Diamond and Lee found that, in general, five-year-olds participating in these curricula performed executive function tasks better than others of the same age.

And now several UK researchers are developing their own targeted interventions. For example, Dr Michelle Ellefson and her colleague at the University of Cambridge, Dr Claire Hughes, have developed and piloted an after-school programme called Think-Art!, which uses the visual arts to boost executive functions among three- to five-year-olds.

Ellefson admits that take-up of schemes like this may take time to catch up to North America, where the ideas are more established. She says that, in a UK context at least, "It is too extreme to go from no executive function training in schools to a `Tools of the Mind' curriculum. Executive function training needs to become a small component of the day that can become more embedded."

It's not just understanding that is the issue, however: selling the science is also going to be difficult. Teachers are already wary of how valid the various claims of cognitive science actually are in the context of a real-world classroom. In the case of executive functions, this wariness will be heightened as the theory has met with a certain amount of criticism.

The Davies study, for example, showed improvements only in those who engaged in the most vigorous exercise, and even then the benefits were seen only in very specific areas.

Daniel Willingham, professor in psychology at the University of Virginia, meanwhile, says he is "optimistic, but not yet convinced" when it comes to executive function interventions. He argues that "there is little doubt that people improve on the specific exercises; the controversy is over whether those gains transfer to other executive function tasks, especially complex ones".

Clearly, then, these interventions need to be properly considered before they are implemented. Despite the caveats, however, they appear to be a plausible bridge between cognitive theory and educational practice that may well change teachers' perceptions of the former and prove increasingly instrumental in the latter if scientists are given more time to fine-tune the theories.

Rebecca Tron is studying for a master's degree in education psychology at the University of Cambridge

In short

  • Executive functions - cognitive processes that affect behaviour - can be taught to help students enhance their level of attainment by developing a better working memory, and to be more adept at retaining and sorting information and remaining focused on a task.
  • Computer programs, art and physical activity such as martial arts can be useful for improving executive functions.
  • Critics argue that the impact of interventions is too haphazard and difficult to predict, and that some of them improve only certain functions.


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