Luke MacDonald, the leading champion of Sparks Fly, is in the business of helping people to get active and healthy. Since 1996, he’s been promoting a series of Youth Run projects and volunteering with Phoenix House as a community outreach dimension of of his own Halifax sports equipment shop, Aerobics First. After 34 years in business, he’s now turned to promoting stationary “spin bikes” and “self-regulation” as the way of reaching and re-engaging today’s ‘stressed-out,’ distracted school children.
Luke is in the vanguard of the Canadian ‘self-regulation’ movement. Building on the research connecting improved mental concentration with physical exercise, the Run for Life Foundation (www.runforlife.ca) has developed the Sparks Fly program. With the support of private donors, Sparks Fly has placed child-sized spin bicycles into classrooms across Canada, including more than a dozen within the Halifax Regional School Board.
Here’s how it works: Students are encouraged to hop on the bike if they are having difficulty focusing on their lessons. The idea is that children learn to identify when they are having difficulties with attention, and then use physical activity as a stimulant to engage the parts of the brain that help with this cognitive skill. At Dalhousie University, a research team is also conducting a study to determine the optimal dose of exercise to promote improved cognitive functioning, focusing on university-age students.
The Sparks Fly spin bike project has a practical, utilitarian objective — to help “stressed-out.’ distracted children focus and perform better in school. “The ideal situation is that the bikes remain in the classroom,” Luke told The Chronicle Herald during last year’s Fitness Week. “So when a student is feeling anxious, they just have to get on the bike. A little bit of movement can calm them, and they learn that.”
Halifax healthy living activist MacDonald experienced an epiphany, of sports, when he was awakened to its intellectual origins in the ‘self-regulation’ movement. Inspired by a powerful address by York University’s Dr. Stuart Shanker at “The Collision” conference in Waterloo and Dr. John Ratey’s book, The Spark, he was completely hooked on the initiative that attempted to marry physical activity with ‘self-regulation’ principles in elementary schools.
Self-regulation is the latest manifestation of neuroscience and it’s catching on as the latest panacea to grab the attention of today’s stressed children and high speed screenagers. In an August 2014 Toronto Globe and Mail feature, social trends reporter Erin Anderssen was drawn to neuroscience as “a subversive solution.” “Cut math class,” she wrote, ” to dance–or walk, skip, play catch — the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping will get the brain humming as well.”
Aerobic fitness is now touted by RunForLife.ca as one of the best ways to develop a child’s ability to self-regulate. In simplest terms, self-regulation is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert. Its research-based origins can be traced back to the famous 1989 “Marshmallow Test” where only 30 per cent of four-year-olds left alone in a room for a few minutes could resist eating the tasty treat.
Self-regulation is now being promoted as an educational alternative to “behaviour management” and is increasingly favoured by so-called progressive, child-centred elementary school educators. “Self-regulation,” in Shanker’s words, “does not involve making an effort to inhibit impulses” but rather “to reduce the stressors affecting the nervous system.” It’s so widely accepted by Ontario child psychologists that it’s actually enshrined as “a measurement outcome” on the latest provincial school report cards.
Student learning initiatives based upon neuroscience now enjoy a patina of scientific research respectability. Growing numbers of education observers are beginning to question the legitimacy of “self-regulation” in the context of its actual brain research origins. A January 2014 Time Magazine feature, written by Kate Pickert, identified the movement as an outgrowth of what is termed “The Mindful Revolution,” the popular science of “finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.’ She and a number of North American scholars see self-regulation as a recent mutation of “Mindfulness,” a Stress Reduction curriculum (MBSR) developed in 1979by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist heavily influenced by Buddhism.
Much of the rationale for ‘self-regulation’ echoes Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR neuroscience theories and some of its proponents make it sound like a “New Age retread” of previous prescriptions for stress. Mindfulness is definitely rooted in Eastern philosophy, while it is being presented as “secular” in our schools. Dr. Catherine Gidney at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University is currently exploring the historical context surrounding the implementation of mindfulness in Canadian classrooms. In doing so she documents some of pedagogical and spiritual concerns and objections that have been raised about this phenomenon. A few other education scholars have also pointed out the laser-like focus of mindfulness on “the here and now” and its implicit lack of respect for wisdom and learned experience.
American writer and skeptic Dan Hurley, writing in New York Times Magazine (January 14, 2014), has also pointed out a few of its “unwanted side-effects.” While presented as a virtual cure-all for “split focus’ distractibility, more recent research demonstrates that it sharpens focus , but actually impairs “implict learning,” making it more difficult to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically, or read people’s facial expressions. More concerning, it is being shown to inhibit “mind wandering” and the sort of “mind vacations” that often lead to epiphanies and Big Ideas.
Educators are always looking to improve upon current student behaviour management strategies. If Self-Regulation becomes dominant practice, we may succeed in incorporating more physical activity and securing more attentiveness. It’s fair to ask whether we will also be producing more placid kids — sacrificing intellectual risk taking, academic learning time, and perhaps a little creativity in our classrooms.
What explains the rise and spread of Self-Regulation as the latest educational panacea for modifying children’s behaviour in the schools? How is the self-regulation movement connected to Eastern philosophy and should that be a matter of concern in essentially sectarian state schools? What impact are Sparks Fly and comparable programs having on teaching and learning in elementary schools? Is there any danger that Self-Regulation may actually curb creativity and historical-mindedness by inculcating “willpower” and stamping out “mind wandering” ?