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Manuscript for consideration as a refereed paper in: The Australian Journal of Middle Schooling

Kickstarting Learning: A Report on a Novel Way to Engage Students in Physical Activity While Potentially Enhancing Learning

Authors Dr Michael C Nagel Associate Professor in Education mnagel@usc.edu.au Dr Geoff Lovell Senior Lecturer in Psychology glovell@usc.edu.au Dr Rachael Sharman Lecturer in Psychology rsharman@usc.edu.au University of the Sunshine Coast Sippy Downs, Queensland


Abstract: The importance and benefits of physical activity and exercise across the human lifespan is well documented. Various studies focusing on healthy life styles, obesity, longevity and a range of psychosocial parameters are available in research journals and through mainstream bookstores and public forums. The importance of physical activity during adolescence is also well documented especially in terms of increased disengagement with exercise as one grows older. The following paper examines the importance of exercise for middle year’s students across a range of domains and highlights the impact of an innovative program designed to get children moving through music and football. The review of the research presented at the nexus of the outcomes of pilot study of the program alluded to above suggests that middle schools would do well to ensure that their students are provided with extended opportunities to engage in physical activity and that such activity might need to come from outside sources if students do not engage with mainstream physical education curricula.

Currently a great deal of focus across much of the current educational landscape in Australia

centres

on

‘standards’,

‘testing’

and

an

increasing

agenda

of

‘accountability’. Too often discussions on how to improve education and engage students also revolve around assessment. The following article offers an alternative perspective on enhancing educational environments and potential academic outcomes for middle year’s students by looking at areas of research not often considered in terms of overall educational success and engagement and by taking a look at a pilot project implemented in 2010 and the focus of a larger study to be undertaken in 2012.

Both the research and the program are premised on the

importance of physical activity and the underlining benefits of movement and exercise. A previous issue of this journal offered some important insights into physical activity during adolescence and as such is worthy of mentioning in the context of this work. In their article entitled ‘The Importance of Being Physical in the Middle Years’, Hunter and MacDonald (2005) provided the readership with an insightful look at the importance of exercise and most poignantly at the continued existence of a mind/body dualism that continues to create tensions between educational endeavour and overall physical development. It is beyond the scope of this paper to reacquaint


the reader with all of the details of Hunter and MacDonald’s (2005) work but as a summary those authors did note research suggesting:

• • • •

That physical activity enhances psychological well being, self-esteem, and social and emotional development. That physical activity has the potential to diminish chronic disease risk factors along with decreasing incidences of obesity. That habitual physical activity positively influences quality of life. A risk of alienating or marginalising some students from physical activity in schools due to the promotion of traditional notions of exercise, sport and activity at the nexus of ignoring issues related to relationships, gender, sexuality and power relationships between teachers and students.

The importance of exercise as noted above is also evident in a growing body of research

identifying

that

regular

activity

and

improved

fitness

increases

psychological well-being (Biddle et al 2001; Biddle & Mutrie, 2008). In addition to the effects of regular exercise on psychological health, there has been substantial interest in the potential impact of improved fitness and exercise on cognitive function and learning in children resulting in studies showing positive links between exercise, enhanced cognition and academic achievement (see for example Dwyer et al., 2001; Hillman et al., 2005, 2009; Castelli et al., 2007; Buck et al., 2008; Shore et al. 2008; Eveland-Keeley & Fox, 2009; Sayers et al., 2009; Aktop, 2010; Wittberg et al., 2010). As noted above, there have been important insights into the benefits of exercise for children and the impact of what may seem to be an increasingly sedentary lifestyle for many children due to advances in technology and electronic media. Arguably, many children spend a great amount of time in front of various gadgets on the road to becoming ‘screenagers’.

Schools may be somewhat complicit in this given

increased agendas to embrace technology and a desire to perform well on assessment and standardised tests. Interestingly, both the use of technology in schools and test preparation generally require a fair bit of time sitting. However, a great deal of the latest research shows that for the brain to function at its peak, the body needs to move and the more movement the better. Concurrently, there are also a growing number of studies showing that school-based physical activity, including physical education can increase academic performance without taking time away from academic instruction or other didactic endeavours. (U.S. Department of


Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010). This may be due to the substantive research demonstrating profound links between the mind and body that is shattering the mind/body dualism noted as problematic by Hunter and MacDonald (2005). One particular study led by Professor Catherine Davis (Davis et al 2011) from the Medical College of Georgia is particularly noteworthy in the context of this article. Over the course of three months Professor Davis and her colleagues worked with one hundred and sixty-three sedentary, overweight children aged from seven to eleven. These children were divided into three groups; a control group that did no physical activity after school, a group that did twenty minutes of vigorous physical activity five days a week after school and a group that did forty minutes of such activity on those same days. The groups involved in physical activity played intermittent, high-energy activities or running games. This group also wore heart-rate monitors and were rewarded for maintaining a high average heart rate. Testing of cognitive functioning in all students across each group occurred at the beginning and end of the study. They were tested for their math and reading achievement and ‘executive functioning’. Executive functioning refers to the brain’s capacity for many higher order cognitive activities including skills important for planning and organizing, decision-making, and resisting impulses (Goldberg, 2009).

Executive functioning

develops throughout childhood and adolescence, is crucial for adaptive behaviour and is particularly important with regards to regulating behaviours that are important in relation to school success; for example, inhibiting inappropriate responses and delayed gratification (Blair 2002; Giedd 2004; Eigsti et al 2006; Best et al 2009). With regards to executive functioning and exercise the findings of this study were very interesting.

The children in the forty-minute activity group showed significant improvement on tests measuring executive functions compared with the control group. They also showed a significant increase on scales measuring cognitive-performance. Those in the twenty-minute group showed about half that improvement. There was a small improvement in math achievement for both exercise groups which amazed the researchers given that there wasn’t any provision of extra maths instruction as part


of the study. Brain scans were also conducted on each participant and indicated that the children who were exercising appeared to have more neural activity in the frontal areas of their brains, an important area for executive functioning. From a health standpoint, those children involved in the exercise groups also lost about one to two percent of their body fat. The researchers concluded from their findings that ‘besides its importance for maintaining weight and reducing health risks during a childhood obesity epidemic, physical activity may prove to be a simple, important method of enhancing aspects of children’s mental functioning that are central to cognitive development’ (Davis et al 2001, p.91). The study summarised above along with any notions that increased levels of physical activity and fitness may enhance thinking and subsequent academic performance should be of interest to all educators. For middle years educators this is arguably exacerbated via reports of children burning fewer calories per day than their counterparts fifty years ago (Boreham & Riddoch, 2001), national and international evidence of growing declines in physical activity as children move through adolescence (Casperson et al 2000; Sallis 2000; Trost et al 2002; Timperio et al 2004; Allison et al 2007; Sherer et al 2007; Leslie et al 2010), and research acknowledging the potential for exercise to enhance cognitive function during a time of profound neurological maturation (Giedd 2004; Nagel 2004, 2010; Ratey 2008). For middle school leaders and administrators the opportunity to improve a school’s value vis-à-vis activities that not only have the potential to enhance the physical and psychological well-being of its student body but also tangentially impact positively on school academic performance is also worthy of greater consideration and discussion. One such program was implemented in a number of schools in 2010 with resounding success across a number of indicators and has provided impetus for more detailed research and examination. In 2010, ZOVAKick was introduced and piloted in schools in southeast Queensland. ZOVAKick combines music, dance, rhythm and football into a highly active and enjoyable experience where participants move to music, learn football skills and engage in extensive aerobic exercise. There are various levels of skill and speed that participants may engage with allowing for users to work at a pace and ability


level that is suitable to their individual needs and capacities. Participants may also work individually or as a group. During the fourth term of last year, the ZOVAKick pilot program was offered to 6,342 South East Queensland school students aged five to thirteen across public and private schools; 1,569 boys and 1,637 girls took part in the experience. The program was free to all schools that participated and was provided in a one off context or via multiple visits depending of each school’s needs and/or level of interest. From the program itself data was collected via surveys from various stakeholders including students, teachers and parents. And while the pilot study offered only preliminary statistics towards building a larger more comprehensive study, the information garnished offers some very interesting insights and discussion points. First, approximately 90 percent of participants enjoyed the music and overall experience while 80 percent noted that they would like to continue doing ZOVAKick. Arguably the novelty of doing something new at school might have contributed to those statistics. However, while 59 percent of the cohort noted they would like to do more at school, 41 percent noted that they would look to do the program outside of school on their own time and in varying contexts. ZOVAKick is now available as an ‘application’ that students can download and do at their own pace and on their own time. Second, while the participation rates and level of interest was high, teacher and principal comments also suggested the program had a positive impact and was worthwhile. The level of enjoyment is evident in comments stating that: “Kids really enjoyed it…even the kids who aren’t really into sports and games. It seemed to be a lot more physically active than other games. Kids were always engaged.” “All students participated enthusiastically and were able to achieve success during the program. Even an ADHD student (sic) was following instructions and keeping up with the class.” “Wow! What an engaging innovative way to get active. Our kids really seemed to love it!”


Participation is an important element of the program and given the research presented earlier identifying that as students move through their formal years of schooling they become less physically active, ZOVAKick appears to offer a mechanism for impacting on such trends. This is particularly significant for girls who represent perhaps the steepest decline in physical activity during adolescence (Riddoch et al 1991; Sleap & Tolfrey 2001; Sherer et al 2007; Corder et al 2010) and who may be part of a marginalised cohort of students in school due to traditional notions of exercise and physical activity in schools (Hunt & MacDonald, 2005). The importance of female participation at the nexus of marginalisation is evident in one teacher’s comments when noting that: “If you can get unmotivated Year 7 girls to move, well done! They even got puffed! Amazing.”

Indeed, the comment above is one which stuck out amongst the authors of this paper and provided impetus for developing a longer and more detailed study to be undertaken in 2012. However, the authors do believe that the initial pilot program and data gathered are significant for middle year’s educator’s consideration for a number of other reasons. First, one of the most beneficial aspects of ZOVAKick is that its use of technology allows large groups of students to engage in the program simultaneously and without adult assistance.

It has various levels of difficulty and speeds and as such it

provides intrinsic motivation to improve while also offering competitive opportunities for children to engage in as a group.

This engagement can occur in school or

outside of the school context or a combination of the two. Importantly, the music is also a motivating factor in that it captures elements of contemporary youth culture. Second, innovative and novel programs that motivate students to engage in physical activity should be part of any middle year’s program given one of the underlying tenets of middle schooling centres on meeting the developing needs of contemporary adolescent learners (Chadbourne 2003; Nagel 2006; Pendergast


2007; Chadbourne & Pendergast 2010) or as Hunt and MacDonald (2005, p.13) eloquently state: “We cannot deny there is some responsibility on schools with respect to students’ health and wellbeing, particularly as it is espoused in middle year’s philosophy…young people are physical and their bodies play a large part in who they are and who they become”

Moreover, it is important to remember that adolescents today live in a multi-media culture that is rapidly changing and evolving. They spend a great deal of time with technology, and more time watching television or engaging in other electronic media than their parents and as such have become accustomed to rapid sensory and emotional changes. One of the end results of this is that adolescents respond more readily to the unique and different or what we have come to know as ‘novelty’ (Caine & Caine 2001).

Therefore, any opportunities that are novel, may incorporate

technology and enhance adolescent participation rates in physical activity should be explored. Finally, the type of activity offered through ZOVAKick can be done quickly and used as part of a physical education program, as an extension to any health and physical education program or perhaps as part of an every day opportunity to get students moving. If you think about the research noted earlier, any opportunity to engage in a daily exercise routine that is fun, inclusive, engaging and gets students moving is not only of benefit to the body but also to the mind. Consider that one of the most prominent features of exercise not often noted across all studies is that it appears to improve learning on a number of levels (Ratey, 2008). If, as a society, we are truly sincere in enhancing educational achievement while building healthy minds and bodies then programs such as ZOVAKick, or any others that offer schools an enjoyable way for students to attain measures of physical fitness and, as contemporary research suggests, better results academically, emotionally and socially are worthy of considerable investigation. Exercise and physical activity are important.

For decades much of the inherent

values of exercise have focused on physical wellbeing and healthy lifestyles.


Advances in technology have now provided us with evidence that physical activity is as important for the mind as it is for the body arguably shattering the mind/body dualism first offered by Descartes (Damasio, 2005) and yet still central to much school endeavour and potential student disengagement (Hunt & MacDonald, 2005). Given the statistical evidence related to age, gender and declines in physical activity, middle schools would do well to embrace opportunities to engage their students in new or novel physical activities that are inherently motivating, inclusive, challenging, and enjoyable. This paper has offered insights into one such program although there may be others also worth exploring. The underlying message however is that in an educational era where testing, accountability and standards get much publicity and political swagger, middle schools, and indeed all schools, would do well to look at programs and empirical evidence noting that learning, engagement and overall academic achievement may be enhanced beyond the confines of the classroom through movement and exercise.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank ZOVAKick for providing initial data in shaping this article. Notes: ZOVAKick was developed by Niall McCarthy and James Tonkin. It is a product of Niall’s football expertise and James’ musical prowess. ZOVAKick is enjoying continued success in schools and on a grander scale with elite Australian footballers at different stages in their careers. Importantly the authors of this paper do not maintain any commercial interests with ZOVAKick or any of its business enterprises. Independent research using ZOVAKick is scheduled to occur in 2012 and as such any schools with an interest in participating should contact the authors.


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Kickstarting Learning