What Does Enrichment Mean?
Few schools and teachers understand enrichment and brain plasticity and use the knowledge properly. Most people, inside or outside the educational community, are at best barely beginning to understand the new science of the brain. New research is coming out daily that redefines what the human brain is and what it can do. Brain function benefits most if the enrichment programs provide a clear improvement over a baseline, prevailing environment in ways related to the measured outcomes. As an example, if a child comes from severe poverty, attending a Montessori preschool can and has worked wonders, all the way through middle school.2 Remember our definition:
Enrichment is a positive biological response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes have occurred within the brain.
As educational policy, enrichment means more than a commitment by policymakers and educators to create a specific climate at school. Enrichment means that curriculum, assessment, environment, and instruction all will have to be revisited. Any program will have to meet the criteria of enhancing that we introduced earlier to get the "enrichment response." Exhibit 7.1 puts the seven "golden maximizer" factors into a school context.
The Seven Golden Maximizers
Before the maximizers are detailed, let's make sure we're on solid ground in our research. With the recent emphasis on "scientific teaching" is there a solid basis for each of these factors? The answer is "Yes," and the evidence is broad-based. Here are each of the factors and a quick review of the powerful science behind them.
Exhibit 7.1. Seven Factors or "Maximizers" for Contrasting Environments.
- Physical Activity (voluntary gross motor)
- Novel, Challenging, and Meaningful learning
- Coherent Complexity (not chaotic)
- Managed Stress Levels (not boring or distressful)
- Social Support (at home, school, and community)
- Good Nutrition (balanced and healthy with supplements)
- Sufficient Time (not rushed, plenty of sleep)
Exercise helps increase the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports learning and memory function and the repair and maintenance of neural circuits. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla and his team at UCLA found that voluntary exercise increased levels of BDNF in the hippocampus, a brain area involved with learning and memory.3 Some studies have found strong evidence that in mammals exercise increases the production of new brain cells, and they become functional.4 In addition, exercise leads to increased calcium levels in the blood. That calcium is transported to the brain, where it enhances dopamine synthesis, making the brain sharper for both cognitive problem solving and working memory.5 For example, one study found that joggers consistently performed better than nonjoggers on learning and memory tests that required the use of the prefrontal cortex.6
Now all this brain stuff may sound good, but does this evidence translate to the real world? What happens to student achievement when schools engage kids in quality physical education? First, it improves selfconcept and reduces stress and aggression.7 Second, it improves academic performance.8 Various states have mandated physical activity and spoken out in favor of it. And finally, it regulates mood. Some evidence suggests that it may be a protective factor against depression, which is becoming increasingly prevalant at the secondary school level.9
A preliminary analysis conducted by the California Department of Education shows a significant relationship between academic achievement and the physical fitness of public school students.10 In the study, reading and mathematics scores were matched with fitness scores of 353,000 fifth graders, 322,000 seventh graders, and 279,000 ninth graders. Higher achievement was associated with higher levels of fitness at each of the three grade levels measured. Exercise is consistently a part of any successful enrichment program.
Recommendation: A solid body of research suggests that at the K–5 level, twenty to thirty minutes of recess (or its equivalent) should be mandatory daily. Any district that mandates this must then create a climate that encourages and supports it. In California, one hundred minutes a week of physical activity is the law at the K–5 level. But it does not happen in many classes. Teachers, who don't know the research, are tempted to cut out the recess. Mixed messages and testing pressures mean that many teachers skip recess out of fear of lowered test scores. In the United States, more than two out of three secondary students (68 percent) do not participate in a daily physical education program.11 At the 6–12 level, the research supports a daily choice of voluntary gross motor activities including power walking, swimming, jogging, team sports, cycling, treadmill, or similar choices. But again, this rarely happens. If the physical education program seems "broken," then fix it; do not throw it out.
But what about students who don't want to do exercise or physical activity? Find something they do like. It is that fundamental to the brain. The goal is to get students to participate in daily gross motor physical activity voluntarily. So offer a range of choices: team sports such as soccer, treadmill, stair climber, bicycling, power walks, jogging, swimming, cycling, or dance or ballet. More options increase the likelihood that something will be attractive to each student. The key is that they choose to do it.
When done well, athletic programs have coaches that instill selfdiscipline, high personal standards, positive attitudes, and a quest for excellence. The students learn to improve reaction times, cardiovascular capacity, muscle strength, body coordination, speed, and stress responses. Most interestingly, good athletic programs, even daily recess, can improve cognition and academic outcomes.12 This is relevant because it verifies that enrichment responses create a global, not a specific effect.