One of the marks of the Millennial Generation involves a passion for education. However, American students tend to rank unfavorably when compared with their peers in emerging and advanced nations globally. In his fascinating book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Friedman decries how American students have fallen behind other nations in such fields as math and engineering.
At the same time students in the U.S. demonstrate excellence at becoming couch potatoes: 65% of Americans overall are overweight, but this fact has become an epidemic among young people. “We're literally killing ourselves,” John Ratey says in his book Spark (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008), adding, “What’s even more disturbing, and virtually no one recognizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains too—physically shriveling them.” (p. 4) Low expectations produce expected results whether we are talking about the general population or students in local church ministries.
Enter the Naperville School District near Chicago. In this single district, of the 19K sophomores, only 3% were overweight (compared to 30% nationally). But the students in this district reveal prowess in more ways than in fitness. In 1999 their 8th graders took the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test, an international standards test taken by 230K students globally. Ratey observes that in a time students in China, Japan, and Singapore rank consistently above American students, the Naperville class ranked 6th in math and FIRST in science globally.What happened in this school district? Several factors, as one reason hardly ever explains such a remarkable performance. But one issue stands out: each school day in Naperville begins with a "class" called Zero Hour in which students begin not with study hall but with exercise.
Ratey comments: “The essence of physical education in Naperville 203 is teaching fitness instead of sports. The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life.” (p. 12)
Imagine that, expecting young people to be responsible for developing their own fitness goals for a lifelong trajectory.Sounds rather like raising the bar to me (personal attempt at humor as I wrote a book called Raising the Bar arguing we expect far too little of Millennials).
He continues: “What’s being taught, really, is a lifestyle. The students are developing healthy habits, skills, and a sense of fun, along with a knowledge of how their bodies work.” (p. 12)
You mean you can teach young people that fun is not separate from learning responsibility? For some who see student ministry as a time of games with a little Scripture thrown in, this is a novel thought. The Naperville school district ranks consistently in the top ten in Illinois even though the amount of money it spends per pupil is considerably lower than other top Illinois schools.
Could it be that fitness is the most inexpensive means to raise test scores? What has happened in Naperville did not begin with a brilliant educator with a mensa-level IQ. It started with a PE teacher who read about the growing unhealthiness of American students. But you can read Ratey’s book to get the details but in brief, the Naperville students no longer take gym classes with inane topics like learning the dimensions of a volleyball court. They start with Zero Hour running a mile with heart rate monitors. What they discovered: learning is significantly enhanced when preceded by exercise. If you know students struggling with academics, or perhaps someone discouraged or even depressed by academic setbacks, encourage them to try exercising. Help them get up, get active, and start their day by getting their body going.
More studies than can be counted have noted the positive, ripple effect of exercise on dealing with depression, on eating better, on developing discipline, and on one’s general disposition. Now it seems that it also can directly affect academic performance. Students serious about becoming better as learners should probablynot start in the library at a desk with a stack of books but at home or the gym with some running shoes or a set of weights.
And who knows? They may discover they are smarter than they thought.