September 2016
Volume XIII Issue IX

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A Moving Experience


Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.

Administrators in our Leading the Learning® workshop series are often asked to capture evidence of best practice during classroom walk-throughs. In a recent series in Vance County Public Schools, Henderson, North Carolina, when administrators were asked to bring artifacts of teacher and student work that represented 21st century practices, Kristian Herring, principal of Zeb Vance Elementary School, shared a video he had captured on his phone. In the video, the teacher had students stand at their seats and engage in a series of small exercises to energize them and better prepare them for the next learning experience. The video reminded all of us that movement in the classroom can have a powerful impact on student learning, and it spurred me to investigate the topic. Important points that surfaced include:

  • Regular movement increases focus and retention in both children and adults.
  • Getting students out of their seats can lead to new levels of self-discovery and self-expression.
  • Students who might struggle with more traditional seat work can demonstrate what they have learned when movement is incorporated into the lesson.
  • Periodic movement breaks can result in improved student behavior, more focused attention, and greater retention.
  • Sitting for long periods of time can result in lower productivity and can negatively impact overall health.
  • Experiential learning through movement can lead to “episodic encoding” in the brain resulting in students remembering what they have learned. (There are three types of memory: episodic [time and place], semantic [factual], and procedural; movement, learning in a different place in the room while working with different people and perhaps manipulatives promotes episodic memory.)

Brain researcher Eric Jensen summarizes the research on the importance of movement when he notes that there are “strong connections between physical education, movement, breaks, recess, energizing activities, and improved cognition.” He further writes that research has determined that “movement can be an effective cognitive strategy to

  • strengthen learning
  • improve memory and retrieval
  • enhance learner motivation and morale.”

Despite an abundance of evidence, many teachers are not yet aware of the benefits of movement; instead they adhere to the traditional classroom practice of having students remain in their desks. A deeper investigation into the importance of movement is definitely in order. Keep reading!

Move’m or Lose’m
According to Engaging Schools consultant Michele Tissiere, students who are stationary for too long can become distracted or distractors. As a result, student energy ebbs and focus fades. Tissiere recommends a protocol called 30/90/10 (Move’m or Lose’m). At least once every 30 minutes, students get out of their seats for 90 seconds and move at least 10 feet. The strategy raises heart rates and epinephrine levels, which prepares students for energetic action.

The Teaching Channel is an excellent source for innovative instructional strategies. In a recent post, Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and Laureate Emeritus for Teaching Channel, teacher, offers a strategy she calls “conver-stations.” Students are placed in discussion groups where they lead conversations on predetermined topics. Periodically, two students from each group move to a new table where the discussions continue. The practice repeats itself when two more different students move to the next group where they listen but also add new dimensions to the exchanges. In short, the students, and not just the teacher, are leading the talks resulting in deeper thinking. In the groups, a student recorder writes down pertinent points that occur during group discourses. The activity concludes with a full class discussion based on ideas that emerged at the “conver-stations.” The students can be seen in action on the Teaching Channel.

Sitting is the New Smoking
The tagline above has become the latest popular way of focusing attention on the negative impact to our health from prolonged sitting. According to Harvard educator Nina Fiore, “Every day there is a new article highlighting research which shows how bad sitting for long period of time is, not only for productivity, but for overall health.” Since we want our students to be health-conscious adults who will lead active lifestyles, we can set them on the right path by keeping them moving when they are young.

Finnish-ing Schools
Over the past decades, we have often heard about the success that has been achieved by schools in Finland. One variable that has been attributed to their success is the practice of providing 15 minutes of recess/movement for each 45 minutes of instruction. Researchers have concluded that this convention is part of the reason for Finland’s ongoing achievement success. Some schools in the U.S. have reduced or eliminated recess or break time to spend more time on math and literacy, but this practice may not have reaped the anticipated achievement results. Perhaps Finland is “moving” in the right direction.

Movement Should Not Be An Afterthought
Some schools in the U.S. have taken the initiative to not simply include physical education as a necessary part of their curriculum, but they have also applied the research on movement by incorporating it into classroom lessons. The findings are clear: Lessons in which students develop deeper understanding of content and retain what they learn longer are those that incorporate movement into the lessons. As Fiore has written, “Whether it is using your own feet as a source of measurement, role playing a fight between the Aztecs and the Conquistadors, or having students circle and (gently) crash into one another to physically demonstrate how atomic particles behave during fission and fusion, students are more engaged and have better retention of subject matter when they are physically active during the lesson.” Paula Rutherford’s latest publication, Active Learning and Engagement Strategies, is an excellent resource for teachers seeking new ways to get their students more physically and mentally involved in their lessons. As teachers plan their lessons and units, they should automatically plan movement into the learning process.

Brain Breaks
Michael Stracco, a high school English teacher in Rutherford, New Jersey, makes the case for movement with a very succinct statement: “Remember, if the bum is numb, the brain is the same.” In his writings, he proposes the use of brain breaks that can work in K-12 settings. Among his suggestions are the following ideas:

  • Crab Walk: With musical accompaniment, students walk in a crab position around the room.
  • Pantomime: A student acts out an activity/concept without talking while a group of classmates mimic his actions until someone guesses what the activity/concept is.
  • Air Band: Students choose an instrument (guitar, drum, saxophone, etc.), stand up, and “rock out” for a brief interlude.
  • Stretching: The teacher selects a student to lead the class in one minute of stretching exercises.
  • Desk Switch: Students have 10 seconds to grab their materials and locate a new desk to sit in for the rest of the period. The activity gets students moving and also lets them view the class in a different way.

Other teachers have shared practical suggestions for movement including the following ideas:

  • Incorporate an energizer at the beginning of or during the lesson such as Simon Says to review content, or have students move around the room to point out or touch selected objects that relate to the content.
  • Have all students stand and use a ball toss game (perhaps a Nerf ball) for a variety of reasons such as reviewing new vocabulary, adding to the creation of a new story, responding to teacher or student questions, or summarizing a lesson.
  • Take one minute for paired students to stand (instead of sitting) and review content that has recently been taught.

More Playing, Less Staying
Multiple studies have concluded that exercise improves both academic performance as well as classroom behavior. Exercise fuels the brain with oxygen and increases blood flow, thus leading to increased learning as described below:

  • Students who participate in daily physical education class improve their motor skills as well as their academic performance, and have a more positive attitude toward school.
  • Movement and exercise can improve cognition, enhance social skills, add to emotional intelligence, and refine students’ ability to resolve conflicts.

As Eric Jensen writes, “Although many educators know about the connection between learning and movement, nearly as many dismiss that connection once children get beyond first or second grade.” Because some teachers rarely include movement in their lessons, students may feel awkward because they are expected to “be still and think.” Jensen asserts that teachers should use movement opportunities to help students of all ages better understand mind-body relationships.

Moving Right Along
I would be remiss if I did not point out two of the best known resources on the importance of movement in learning. The first is the work of educator Marcia Tate whose book Sit and Get Will Not Grow Dendrites reminds us of the importance of active involvement and movement in learning for both adults and children. The second is First Lady Michelle Obama who continues to shed light on the importance of eating healthy and staying active through “Let’s Move!” Learn more about it at

We are all familiar with the term “Seat Time,” often based on Carnegie units; it represents the amount of time students have “sat” in classrooms rather than what students have actually learned. The term came into use in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Maybe it is time to update this misnomer to represent what should be happening in our classrooms and schools. Perhaps “Learning Time” is more appropriate.




Resources and References

Brown Wesssling, Sarah. Conver-Stations: A Discussion Strategy. (Video). Teaching Channel, October 2015. Access at

Fiore, Nina. “The Benefits of Movement in Schools.” The Creativity Post. August 8, 2014.
Access at

Griss, Susan, “The Power of Movement in Teaching and Learning.” Education Week. March 20, 2013.
Access at

Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

___________ . Teaching with the Brain in Mind: Chapter 4 Excerpt. Access at

Rutherford, Paula.  Active Learning and Engagement Strategies. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2012.

Tate, Marcia. Sit and Get Will Not Grow Dendrites. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2004.

Walker, Timothy. “Finnish Schools Are on the Move—and America’s Need to Catch Up.” The Atlantic. January 9, 2015. Access at


Active Learning and Engagement Strategies

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “A Moving Experience” Just for the ASKing! September 2016. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2016 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at