After graduating in May, I can safely say the bulk of my time in high school was spent sitting. For seven classes a day, each 47 minutes long. Some students even have to endure 90 minute classes – I can hardly imagine their suffering.
In a blog post published by the Washington Post, veteran teacher Alexis Wiggins wrote about her experiences shadowing a high school student for two days. “I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work…,” Wiggins wrote. “But students move almost never. And never is exhausting.”
As kids grow up, school becomes more sedentary. Teachers tend to make more of an effort to get kids up and moving in elementary school, probably because there are more opportunities for hands-on activities and fun games.
High school students are the ones who need to get up and move around the most. They have to deal with dense subject matter and, according to www.sleepfoundation.org, only 15% of teens report sleeping for at least 8 and 1/2 hours on school nights. Sedentary lectures combined with sleep deprivation are a recipe for boredom.
There is also scientific reasoning behind the need to get out of your seat. In a Ted-Ed Talk titled “Why Sitting is Bad for You,” Murat Dalkilinç investigated the dangers of being sedentary. He says, “The longer you stay put, the more agitated your body becomes. It sits there counting down the moments until you stand up again.”
Even if our bodies are built for movement, how does being sedentary affect learning?
“Being stationary reduces blood flow and the amount of oxygen entering your blood stream through your lungs,” Dalkilinç explains in the video. “Your brain requires both of those things to remain alert, so your concentration levels will most likely dip as your brain activity slows.”
As a student who spent many classes willing her eyes to remain open, the science makes perfect sense. The most memorable moments of my high school career were spent standing – whether I was working on a lab assignment in chemistry, or acting out the function of the phospholipid bilayer in biology.
After her two days shadowing students, Wiggins wrote out a few things she would immediately change about her classes. She recommended a mandatory stretch halfway through the period, and a few minutes of play time with a Nerf basketball hoop at the beginning and end of class. She even wants to include at least one hands-on activity per class.
“Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine,” Wiggins wrote. “I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.”
For many teachers, taking a few minutes to stand up and move around may feel like a waste of precious time. There are only so many minutes in the day to prepare students for their exams, after all. However, taking a few minutes to ensure students are alert and more focused is far better than spending the whole period on a topic that is not absorbed or grappled with at all. And while changes may not happen overnight, any small step toward making the classroom a more active, engaging environment is a good one.
Leah Yared is a freshman at Harvard College. She worked with the American Physiological Society as a 2015 summer intern for the LifeSciTRC.