Why Does Sitting Still Equal Learning?

Schools -- and policymakers -- have for too long accepted the belief that learning best occurs while students are seated (and quiet, of course). The theory may have been understandable back when they didn't have the research to prove otherwise. But today we do.
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A few years back, Christy Isbell, a pediatric occupational therapist and friend, presented a workshop at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), with a title indicating it was about teaching children who won't sit still. The exact name escapes me now, but I very clearly recall that more than 2,000 early childhood professionals crammed themselves into the room to listen to her.

I was envious -- because my session, about movement, didn't draw half that many! And I joked with Christy that perhaps I'd "borrow" the title and use it for all my future presentations.

If you think about it, though, it's actually sad that such a title/topic would bring educators out in droves. Naturally they were teaching children who won't sit still; they were working with young kids! And so, naturally, they shouldn't have been trying to get the kids to stay in one place.

Whether we're talking about preschool, elementary through secondary school, college, or even adult learners, I have serious objections to the idea that learning supposedly only comes via the eyes, the ears, and the seat of the pants. Schools -- and policymakers -- have for too long accepted the belief that learning best occurs while students are seated (and quiet, of course). The theory may have been understandable back when they didn't have the research to prove otherwise. But today we do.

Today we have research showing that the more senses used in the learning process, the higher the percentage of retention. Yet schools still pump data through the eyes, ears, and bottom and expect students to retain it anyway.

Today we have research showing that the brain is far more active during physical activity than while one is seated. Brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen told me in an email:

The brain is constantly responding to environmental input. Compared to a baseline of sitting in a chair, walking, moving and active learning bumps up blood flow and key chemicals for focus and long-term memory (norepinephrine) as well as for effort and mood (dopamine).

Yet schools and policymakers cling to the belief that the body has nothing to do with how the brain functions.

Today -- and this is the big one, from my perspective -- we have research demonstrating that sitting in a chair increases fatigue and reduces concentration (our bodies are designed to move, not sit). Yet policymakers and schools implement policies (more testing; no recess; even fewer bathroom breaks) that require students to do more sitting. What sense can that possibly make?

All of us have had days where we were forced to sit at conferences or meetings -- or perhaps on a plane -- for endless minutes and hours at a time and found ourselves exhausted at the end of those days. It was perplexing, as all we had been doing was sitting. But, given the research, it's completely understandable.

Eric Jensen has written extensively about this issue. He confirms that the human body isn't made for sitting, and that sitting for more than 10 minutes at a time reduces our awareness of physical and emotional sensations. Also, the pressure on spinal discs is 30 percent greater while sitting than while standing. None of this contributes to optimal learning.

In truth, it doesn't contribute to optimal health either. Recently there's been a good deal of attention given to new research revealing the many health risks associated with prolonged sitting. It turns out that even if you exercise faithfully, if you spend most of your time sitting you're at risk for heart disease, disability, diabetes, cancer, and obesity, the latter of which brings its own host of health problems. The reports scared the heck out of me, so I've been jumping up from my desk as often as possible each day. No more rolling the office chair over to the printer. No more taking phone calls while seated.

In a BAM Radio segment on the subject of sitting in the classroom, Christy Isbell proclaimed:

Who's to say we have to sit down to learn? Why can't we stand to learn? Why can't we lay on the floor on our tummies to learn? Why can't we sit in the rocking chair to learn? There are lots of other simple movement strategies. Just changing the position can make a big difference.


Fortunately there are teachers -- and even some schools -- bucking the system and allowing students to sit on exercise balls or to work at tables or standing desks.

In one study, researchers equipped four first-grade classrooms in Texas with standing desks. What they found was that, even though the desks were equipped with stools of the appropriate height for sitting, 70 percent of the students never used their stools and the other 30 percent stood the majority of the time. Moreover, the researchers discovered that standing increased attention, alertness, engagement, and on-task behavior among the students -- a dream come true for any teacher!

Recently I tweeted the image of two brain scans published by the University of Illinois' Dr. Chuck Hillman. One scan showed the brain after sitting quietly and the other following a 20-minute walk. The difference was remarkable, with the latter far more "lit up" than the former. I think it's a great sign that the tweet received dozens of retweets and "favorites" and that, to this day, it's still being shared. And I absolutely adored the response of teacher Dee Kalman, who said the images offered scientific proof for her teaching mantra: "When the bum is numb, the mind is dumb."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

This piece is excerpted from the author's forthcoming book, tentatively titled What If Everybody Understood Child Development?, to be published by Corwin in 2015.

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