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Sound of body, sound of mind: A local high school's unique math approach

How Bishop Alexander high school uses exercise and coherence training to help its Grade 9 math students

Before Jenna Shanbrook sits down to do her homework, she first goes for a jog. Then she works on some problems for half an hour before getting up to do a few jumping jacks.

The Grade 9 student at Bishop Alexander Carter Secondary School learned the value of exercise in putting her in the right mindset to do schoolwork through her participation in a first semester pilot project study.

Students took part in vigorous exercise to get their heart rates up in their first-period gym class, and then went straight to math class. Shanbrook said her grades went up thanks to her participation in the program.

“I thought that bringing up your heart rate would make you more anxious, but here it was the complete opposite,” she said. “When our heart rates would go up, and we would think about happy thoughts, it would help us to calm down.”

The study in question involved Grade 9 applied mathematics students. 

Teachers and administrators at Bishop Alexander Carter wanted to help students in the applied mathematics stream achieve a higher level of success on provincial standardized exams – the EQAOs.

One of the things they did with the students was based on the “learning readiness” physical education program developed by teacher Paul Zientarksi at Napierville Central High School in Illinois.

“If you do extreme physical exertion for a short period of time — 10-15 minutes — it causes a special cascading effect of neurotransmitters in the brain,” said Robert Boucher, a math and science teacher and program leader at Bishop Alexander.

“It's almost like a reset for the brain, so the brain is ready to learn.”

While all Grade 9 gym students took part in the vigorous exercise during first period, there were two Grade 9 applied mathematics classes — one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Because, in theory, the effects of the exercise would have worn off by the afternoon, the school looked at the difference between the performance of the morning and afternoon math classes.

The study didn't just involve exercise, though. When the students got to math class, they used software called Heart Math that teaches coherence training — essentially how to concentrate better.

Boucher said it helps students achieve a balance between their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Here's an explanation: the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the “fight for flight” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates the body to “feed and breed” and “rest and digest.”

“The software, it allows those that have a good mastery of their two systems to concentrate more readily,” Boucher said.

While the school is still waiting for the official EQAO results, there's evidence the pilot program worked.

The school did mark the EQAO exams, and 11 per cent more of the students participating in the experiment met the provincial standards on the exam as opposed to the control group.

Their teacher also said the students had better concentration, and those that were weaker in math got better marks.

The Bishop Alexander study recently received attention on a bigger stage.

In March, three teachers from the school travelled to Naperville, Illinois, and presented their findings at a conference at the Phil Lawler DuPage County Institute for Physical Education, Health Education and Driver Education.

“You hear sound of body, sound of mind,” Boucher said. “We actually have results to demonstrate that.”

Bishop Alexander principal Cassandra MacGregor said she plans to expand participation in the project in the next school year.

“I'm pleased that it's turning school-wide philosophy to education,” she said. “More teachers are asking for access to stand-up desks and bicycles in their classroom. We even had one teacher who asked for a ping-pong table.

“It's becoming more than just phys ed and math, but going into all grades and subject areas.”

Heidi Ulrichsen

About the Author: Heidi Ulrichsen

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