What are researchers finding out about the natural collaboration of the thinking brain and the moving body? How can teachers use this knowledge to maximize learning opportunities for all students. Dr. Gretchen Stewart is an experienced teacher with a background in working with students with different learning needs. She completed a worldwide study with leading experts in brain development, learning, cognition and movement to guide her opening of a new school implementing these practices. She shares her findings with Steve.
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Steve: 00:31 Smart moves for learning. Today, our podcast is featuring Gretchen Stewart. Dr. Stewart is the founder of an upcoming school called Smart Moves Academy. The school is designed to leverage the natural collaboration of the thinking brain and the moving body to maximize student learning. Gretchen’s dissertation research involved working with worldwide experts in brain development, learning, cognition, and movement.
Gretchen, I’m excited to have you join us today.
Gretchen: 01:09 Thank you, Steve. I’m super excited to be here.
Steve: 01:12 So you have an extensive background teaching students with learning differences and students in high need, urban areas. As you dove into your extensive study of the brain and movement, what from your experience was reinforced when you got into the study of the science?
Gretchen: 01:33 Yeah, absolutely. The number one thing that kept coming up over the last five years that I worked on my dissertation and thought about my 20 plus years in teaching, was that how much as teachers we really don’t know about the brain and how much we need to know. It’s amazing to me that when we become teachers, most of the majority of teacher education programs don’t provide any coursework in the brain. And that’s our tool for learning. How the brain learns, how to optimize it, how it’s impacted by the environment and stimulus and curriculum and everything we do and say. That just to me, was mind blowing and is a lot of the reason why I took the path that I have with my dissertation and my research focus and the smart moves academy that I’m creating.
Steve: 02:29 I’ll tell you, I have to reinforce that for you. I just started my new read, which is a book entitled “A Thousand Brains,” and it’s written by a a neuro-scientist and he’s giving the history and I’m realizing if I look back across my career, which is about double the time of yours, a lot of what he’s sharing wasn’t known in the first half anyway, of my teaching career. Just really powerful information for us as educators to have.
Gretchen: 03:10 Yeah, absolutely. Science has been revealing to us for about the last 50 years that if we take this approach called embodied learning, which really just means that we take into account the biophysiological foundations of learning and cognition, which start with our central nervous system, move up through our autonomic reflexes and then start to include things like our senses, our sensory motor system of rhythm and timing, our perceptual motor system, which includes like eye hand and foot coordination and auditory perception, visual perception, which goes up again to cognition and then all the way at the top, you have academic. So anything in that – if you could envision it like a pyramid, anything there that is not fully developed or was disrupted, or we don’t continue working on these things, which movement has a lot of implications as we age, we don’t continue to work in at work on them and strengthen them that we start to lose some of those abilities.
Gretchen: 04:18 So I’d like to point out Steve, you’re talking about this new book where I got really excited when I first started this journey to learn about the brain as a teacher, was reading a research of Jane Ayers, who about 50 years ago, took a group of kids who are struggling in school, struggling academically, struggling behaviorally, and she put them through the paces of this wonderful fun program of physical activity. Some in general just to build strength and muscle and some very intentional that she devised based on her research. And these kids made such games and she used the standardized test of the day to document the fact that movement changes the brain leads to improved achievement and regulates behavior.
Steve: 05:07 Gretchen, I like to explore learning through what I call learning production behaviors. My coaching work has shifted much more from watching what the teacher does to watching what it is the student does. So as you envisioned smart moves academy, if we had the chance to be observing learners there, what is it we’d see and hear students doing?
Gretchen: 05:35 This is a great question. It gets me really excited because we’re ramping up to opening our school and thinking about what that environment looks and sounds like is what I do every day. I would expect that you’ll see much of the opposite of what you see, or what’s the norm in schools right now. So our students, number one, and our teachers will be moving a lot more than you probably would see today. We’re kind of like the opposite of being sedentary. It doesn’t mean that we’ll be up all the time, but definitely our students are going to have a wide access to a wide variety of tools and designs within our schedule and our classes that really encourage them to get their bodies moving.
Gretchen: 06:25 So an example of that would be, a lot of schools will have classes they call specials. You go to art, you go to music, you go to gym. We have those things, but we also have three really special classes that are geared toward brain optimization through movement, and they’re called balance, so balanced class, vestibular, we also call that applied technology class and developmental gym that our students will have every day. So, for example, in our vestibular applied technology class, we’re going to use high tech equipment that was actually developed for NASA to stimulate and strengthen kid’s sense of balance, muscle tonality, bone density, rhythmic, and timing movements, auditory perception, visual tracking, and focus. So like here, you’re going to see kids using I talked about this technology for NASA, it’s called dynamic postography, where it’s a video game that’s based on balance. It’s a little more sophisticated than perhaps, a Wii, but very similar. You see kids using eye tracking tools while standing on vibrational plates that develop bone density and things like that.
Steve: 07:35 So the things that you were just describing, those tools, do they provide students feedback so that the student is seeing the progress or the change that they’re making in whatever area it is?
Gretchen: 07:52 Yes, absolutely. And beyond all of the movements that we have in our school, we have a lot of goals that a lot of great schools have, for example, students owning their data and setting goals and tracking them and measuring them and being able to talk about that. So, absolutely. So for example, the, the NASA technology I was talking to you about, the name of that is called the Bertec System. That system provides us with measurable data and reports over time, and we will be teaching our students how to read that. Now there’s another way to look at feedback too. And in our program, you could think about as physical feedback. So, for example, developing your core is really, really important because it helps you to do things like sit up straight in a chair versus falling over.
Gretchen: 08:50 Or like playing sports, which is, which is really important, not so much that a person loves sports and they want to go and be an elite athlete, but that you have the ability to move your body and manipulate your environment. So like for example, we have a great rebounder, we call it, it’s not a trampoline, it’s actually – students use weighted balls to throw at the rebounder and catch them at increasing distances. That’s a lot of great physical feedback. And as things get stronger and their eye hand coordination gets better, they’re able to kind of think about themselves and how far that they’ve come in in something like that.
Steve: 09:30 They see the payoff of the effort they’re putting in.
Gretchen: 09:33 Absolutely.
Steve: 09:35 And I’m wondering, in all that research that you did and working with all those experts, are there a couple of items you’d identify that any teacher can implement in his or her own classroom without a major change in the school or the system that allows that teacher to create greater opportunities of success for kids?
Gretchen: 10:02 Absolutely, Steve. This is one of my favorite things to talk about because teachers, educators – I love teachers. I love being a teacher. I love being an educator and anything that we can do to make that job easier, make that job more effective, I’m just very excited about. In my research, some of the things that kind of came to the surface as things a teacher could easily do to start optimizing the brain is, number one is water. I don’t think we really think about it that much, but actually taking a sip of water turns on the brain, it turns on the body. And I know a lot of schools will allow kids to have water during test time, but if you as teacher just allowed kids to have a water bottle on their desk all the time or any time, you would be going miles for helping, helping your kids be more alert, helping the body itself in the biophysiological mechanisms of the body.
Gretchen: 11:09 Cells depend on water for life, we depend on water for life. So if you think about it like, water for life, I think that you could find ways to give your students access to water virtually all day long. The second thing is movement. Obviously the more movement, the better. And I know that our status quo in schools, especially while we’re transitioning is, quiet and be in line. But I think within your own classroom, when you transition from A to B, allowing students to skip there, hop there, crawl there, crawling does amazing things for connecting the pathways in the brain, hop there, jump there. If they’re older students, you could possibly get ahold of some bean bags that they toss up and down in the air while they’re moving to a different spot. There’s a lot of different things you can do to increase the amount of movement that students have inside of your classroom and that is my number one recommendation
Steve: 12:14 Actually, what was going through my head as I listened to you, especially with older students, providing some autonomy for them to experiment and find out what what creates the the greatest refresher of learning energy for themselves knowing it’s different for different kids.
Gretchen: 12:36 Absolutely. I love the way that you put that. Yes.
Steve: 12:40 Before we close out, I know that you’ve done a lot of work with students who are being labeled as having autism. And I’m wondering if there’s some guidelines that you might offer for teachers so that their instruction is creating the greatest opportunities for all learners.
Gretchen: 13:05 Yeah, absolutely. Well, and Steve, you know, my own son was diagnosed with autism at age three. So this is definitely something near and dear to my heart and has a lot to do with the development of this school and my research. So autism is a neural developmental difference. Something is going on inside of the brain. We don’t know yet the causes, but we definitely know that it’s something that is happening in the brain. And so when you look at diagnosing autism, the medical profession, there’s a handbook that’s used the DSM 5. The experts in the field of autism are expecting, and we’re all expecting those who watch this, that in the next couple of years there’ll be an additional criteria. And that criteria is that there’s also something going on with that child that has to do with movement, that has to do with motor differences, coordination, repetitive movements.
Gretchen: 14:01 And so that’s very telling, I think about the power that you could have in helping a student with autism by bringing more movement into your classroom. Obviously, and you’ve probably heard this, Steve, if you meet a child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism, every child with autism, very, very different, which is why it’s challenging in the classroom and in schools to create meaningful education for each and every child with autism. But for me, and what I’m doing with smart moves. And what I would say to teachers is that, as you get to know your students, and as you observe them, like you mentioned, looking at what they do and kind of increasing their opportunity to move would be my number one suggestion. Also, I would probably say that if you have a student who’s non-verbal, a lot of us are dealing with students who are struggling with the communication, that communication can be improved through movement.
Gretchen: 15:07 So I would say getting them outside more. If they’re young children, more play, a lot more play, a lot more outdoor outside play, if you can. A lot of taking things that would normally be sedentary, like reading a book and allowing them to move around the room and read the book. It’s a little challenging because every child is so different, but like for my son, for example, we’ve found some incredible things that help him. So arrange of seating, which I think most schools are on that bandwagon now. So arrange of seating, bouncy balls, balance boards and just allowing him, I think like you put it Steve, the autonomy to choose where he wants to learn best. Sometimes that might be laying on the floor. Sometimes that might be sitting on a stool. Sometimes it might be standing. So I think just opening your mind to things that maybe look different
than what you’re used to.
Steve: 16:06 There’s a chunk of teaching that’s experimental and observing the learner and their responses to the learner and taking our leads from the learner.
Gretchen: 16:19 Yes.
Steve: 16:20 Well Gretchen, as we sign off here, I wondered if you’d share with people how they might follow up in their conversations with you,
find out more about the school, maybe send you some questions that they’re pondering and about some of the things that you shared.
Gretchen: 16:35 Absolutely. Well, first, I’d like to say, if any teachers are interested in really learning more about this, there’s a great book and I named our school Smart Moves before I had ever read this book. The book is actually called “Smart Moves” and it’s by Dr. Carla Hannaford, who has a PhD in neurophysiology. And it’s really great book for getting any educator started with movement activity in the classroom that changes the brain. Best ways for folks to connect with me – I’m on LinkedIn as Gretchen Stewart. The school has a Facebook page, Smart Moves Academy Tampa, and people can also just email me, it’s gretchen@smart movesacademy.org.
Steve: 17:22 Well, Gretchen, we’ll be sure to put your email address in the lead-in to this podcast so people can easily find it. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.
Gretchen: 17:31 Thanks Steve.
Steve [Outro]: 17:35 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.