"We are running 21st century software . . . on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years." (Ronald Wright, excerpt from film Surviving Progress).
The anthropologist Wright has examined the shortcomings of past civilizations in a book A Short History of Progress upon which a documentary film Surviving Progress is loosely based. In both the book and film he refers to a condition called a “progress trap.” A progress trap can be seen as a condition societies experience when, in the development of a new technology humans inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to address, for fear of short-term losses in status or quality of life. The unsolved problem ironically inhibits further progress and may lead to collapse of the society.
Certainly today we can point to a few examples of progress or developments in technology such as the ubiquitous hand-held electronics capable of advanced calculations and automatic spell checking which may have some unintended consequences. And do those consequences have dire implications for our society? In the US math and grammar skills of students have declined as measured by student performance on standardized tests. This learning crisis is sparking much talk about educational reform and changes in curriculum.
Could educational reform be a “progress trap?”
If a school’s budget will not support a full class load then districts are likely to remove physical education classes. Rather ironically this downsizing of activity is occurring at a time when studies have been showing a positive correlation of academic achievement with physical exercise. Talk about ignoring the hardware upon which your software is running!
“Eleven of the 14 studies found one or more positive associations between school-based physical education and indicators of academic performance; the remaining three studies found no significant associations.”
– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The association between school based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.
"A sensible new report from the Institute of Medicine... found that exercise can significantly improve children’s cognitive abilities and their academic performance, as well as their health...Physical activity should be a core educational concern, not a dispensable option."
– New York Times May 24, 2013
Physical Exercise Prepares the Mind
John Ratey, a clinical psychiatrist and author of Spark (2008) says exercise optimizes brain function in three ways:
1. Prepares learner by improving attention, motivation, and reducing stress
2. Enriches microenvironment for brain cells, neurotransmitters, neurotropins
3. Promotes growth of new brain cell (stem cells)
Dr. Ratey’s case study was known as “Zero Hour P.E.” in a Naperville, Illinois school district. ). Unlike an “old gym class” in which students would wait their turn to engage in a sport activity, the new PE emphasized fitness and more time in MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity). At the end of just one semester there was a 17% improvement in reading and comprehension compared to 10% for old gym.
He insists exercise just prepares the mind for learning. For learning to take place either during or soon after physical activity neural connections must be stimulated. One way to increase a mental engagement is through enrichment of the physical activity environment. It is equally important to mix in some activity that demands more coordination beyond putting one foot in front of the other. In other words activities should involve conscious movement that has not become automatic like running on a treadmill or other routine drills (see my article “I Move Therefore I Think” ).
Some Mind-Body Activity Examples
1. Asana of yoga
2. Positions of ballet
3. Gymnastic skills
4. Elements of figure skating
5. Contortions of pilates
6. Forms of karate
7. Dance to irregular rhythms
Having discovered a strong correlation between student wellness and student achievementDr. Ratey has initiated a nonprofit organizationto support exercise that improves mental health. More educators are recognizing the impact exercise has on learning and doing something about it. Jean Blaydes Madigan has developed methods to effectively engage students while moving (kinesthetic teaching strategies) and founded action based learning for youth PreK-2.
While it is debatable whether the appearance of hand-held technology in the classroom will help or hinder our society’s academic progress, it is undeniable that many 21st century humans enjoy an increasingly luxurious array of innovations designed for a comfortable and easier way of living. However this technologically enabled and enhanced way to live comfortably has in turn inadvertently introduced on a large scale problems that are associated with a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
Physical Exercise to Avoid a Progress Trap.Perhaps the resultant rise in childhood obesity rates and its health related diseases are evidence a rather complex “progress trap.” This is a rather insidious trap supported by technological developments in several industries including but not limited to food, entertainment and transportation. The food industry has created inexpensive energy dense (highly caloric) refreshments and snacks effectively marketed to children. Fortunately some schools have started to offer more nutritious lunches while eliminating the junk-food vending machines and that is a step in the right direction. Of course the transportation industry has introduced a less physically demanding (calorie burning) option for travel to/from school and “play dates.” The “play” afforded by such dates is also typically less physically demanding thanks to the entertainment industry. Thankfully our government has begun to provide some initiative with Let’s Move! which is another step in the right direction.
Lately it appears the fast paced improvements in our culture, technology, communications, medical advances, and search for new sources of renewable energy, has exceeded our natural pace of evolution. Geneticists do attempt to reassure us that we are in fact still evolving, albeit much slower than even the most outdated microprocessors. We are still, in terms of our human platform, the hunter-gatherers of the (new) Stone-Age while trying to survive today in a largely computer and information technology (IT) driven environment. If we are to begin to make sense of it all we must first “boot-up” our operating system hardware physically and mind that your body does IT!