This is an article about science in sport — but NOT the usual subject matter of describing physiology, nor training regimes, nor the effects of nutrition or drugs. This is an article that shows how rigorous scientific methodology can be used in all sorts of ways to help us understand the world around us, so that we can (in some cases) improve our lives.
The careful analysis of a well-designed research study has concluded that, by simply introducing PE classes at primary schools, children can attain better grades as well as becoming physically fitter.
It reminds me of the passage from Philippians chapter 4, verse 13 (ESV): "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
Long-term 'vertical' study of physical education (PE) in primary schools
This study (Lifestyle of our Kids, LOOK) was undertaken by Dr Dick Telford, who was the first sports scientist at the AIS and is now at the Australian National University. With a $3 m grant from the Commonwealth Education Trust, he has designed a protocol that follows all the best principles of scientific research.
In total, 850 students in year 2 in Canberra were tested with a range of physical and lifestyle indicators every year until year 6. They are still being followed, now they are young teens.
In 13 schools, specialist teachers gave two 50 minute PE classes per week; in the other 16 schools (the 'controls' in the scientific study), PE was provided by the class teachers only, who were given NO specialist program or training.
In recent years, there have been other research reports about exercising increasing mental acuity. Certainly, as a keen sportsman all my life and a mature-age student for part of my life, I know that I could study better if I had followed some sort of exercise protocol that I had worked out for myself. Dr Telford was probably familiar with such reports as these: www.positscience.com. (www.apa.org )
A very recent report has shown how the neurons (nerves in the brain) are actually physically altered in mice who have done exercise, compared with those who haven't, and this enables the exercised mice to cope better with anxiety. (www.sciencedaily.com)
Dick Telford says that he started to 'prick up his ears' when some of the teachers commented that the kids who were exercising more also had better concentration in the classroom. So, during the 4 years of his observations of school kids, he decided to also look at the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) results in the schools participating in his survey.
Surprise result: academic scores also improved along with fitness
He admits that the results of the statistical study of the NAPLAN scores, after controlling for socio-economic factors, surprised him.
"There's a clear relationship; the fittest schools are the ones which got the best results," he stated.
Again, using good scientific principles, Dr Telford used these results to formulate a hypothesis, and then used that to predict what would happen next. If the prediction turns out as expected, it is one more piece of evidence to point to a scientific theory. (Note that nothing we know about science is 'certain', we can only conclude certain things, and formulate theories, from the analysis of evidence).
Dr Telford found that he could predict the average NAPLAN results for a group of primary school students, based ONLY on the measurements of 'fitness' that he had taken during his study of their PE programs.
How this can be used to help our kids in future
The PE teachers who participated in this research program were provided free from a not-for-profit organisation called Bluearth Foundation. It is not practical to provide paid specialist sports teachers for every school in Australia. However, with his experience in sports organisations as well as schools, Dick Telford has a suggestion about how to improve the PE programs in our schools.
"The way to do it is to have a specialists PE teacher, accessible to the generalist primary school teachers, to continually motivate them (the teachers) and professionally develop them … that's a real workable option."
I personally hope that those in authority who develop school curricula are listening! The health and intellectual potential of the future of our country will benefit from the results of this study and Dr Telford's recommendations!
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children. Dr Tronson writes a daily article for Christian Today Australia (since 2008) and in November 2016 established Christian Today New Zealand.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html