The Brain Series – Curtis Kelly (EdD)- Professor of English at Kansai University/Japan,  Founder of the Mind, Brain and Education SIG

Almost every day, as a teacher in a Japanese university, I see a way teachers could do one little thing that would have a huge impact.  Their students would think better, learn better, and remember longer. And they would not have to change their lesson plans at all. What is this miracle intervention?  Some kind of miracle drug? No. It is related to something we discovered in neuroscience not that long ago. Let’s see if you can figure out what it is.  Here are some situations I encountered recently.  Can you find the missing element?

Last year. A university student’s mother drove him to class every day, even though they lived relatively close.  I suspect she is being nice to him because he takes a long time waking up and getting ready.



Last month. I saw a professor give a ninety-minute lecture to his students, who sat there furiously taking notes.  At the end of class, they looked worn out.

Last week. One of my colleagues taught an English class that had lots of enjoyable activities.  He started the class by going up and down the rows collecting homework papers.  He then passed out exercise sheets and had students pair up with the students sitting next to them to practice.

Yesterday.  I was an entrance exam monitor.  257 masked students were in room C301 taking a battery of three tests, each about 75 minutes long.  They had 20-minute breaks between the tests. It was hard work, so between each test, they sat there recovering, napping or drinking their tea.  I really wanted to tell them an easy way to increase their test scores by at least10 points, a difference that might affect the rest of their lives, but I couldn’t.

Okay, have you figured out the missing intervention that would almost certainly improve learning? It is not something hidden in the anecdotes such as the teacher not smiling. In fact, it is not hidden at all. There are lots of hints. Nor is it something the students have to do at home, like get more sleep (although neuroscience tells that sleep too is critical for cognitive function and memory). Harvard neuroscientist John Ratey gave us the answer in his book, Spark. The answer is… Are you ready? The students need to move more. Yep.  It is that simple.  And it all has to do with blood flow.

We tend to associate exercise and movement with general health rather than brain function, but as with sleep, neuroscience has informed us that movement-induced blood flow is critical for many things, including optimal brain function.  Here is why.

As Read Montague puts it, our brains evolved on legs, and that makes all the difference (2006). Our ancestors walked from 10-20 kilometers a day, so our brains evolved with far more blood flow than we get in our modern sedentary lifestyle (Medina, 2008). The human brain burns up blood-supplied glucose at ten times the rate that other body parts do, and glutamate is the most common neurotransmitter.  As a messenger rather than just a modulator, glutamate gets released every time a synapse fires and eventually builds up to a toxic level. A lot of it can even cause neural erosion. On the other hand, as long as our blood keeps pumping through (and we get sleep), these neuron busters do not accumulate, they get carried away in the oxygen (Ratey, 2008). If not, cognitive function deteriorates and we age prematurely. Think about how you feel after a long meeting. Your mind feels dull, you have a hard time talking, and your normally sharp cognitive skills turn muddy. This is what happens when your brain does heavy processing for a couple hours and the glutamates build up.  Unfortunately, this happens all day, every day, in our schools, and few teachers are aware of the price their learners pay.


In addition to clearing out toxins, exercise does other things as well. It causes the release of mood-shaping neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Ratey, 2008). Even just a little exercise gives learners better focus, higher motivation, more confidence, and less impulsiveness; in other words, ideal classroom behavior. The release of neurotrophins, like BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), occurs too, at two or three times the normal level. Harvard’s John Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle Gro” (a lawn fertilizer) for neurons.

Unfortunately, many of us still cling to the notion that more regular class time is what learners need to pass tests and that physical education classes are an “extra.” And yet, a study with 5000 children over a three-year period found that 30 minutes of exercise, twice a day, led to greater achievement across the board, especially with girls.  The largest increase was …now get ready for this… in math, an area of study that requires intense executive processing (Medina, 2008, pp. 24-25). While we probably can’t do exercise in our classes, we can include a little more standing, because any increase in blood flow is good for the brain.

So, what could have been done differently in each of those situations mentioned above?

The mother who drives her son to class: She shouldn’t. Make him walk or bike. In fact, the more he has to rush, the better he’ll do in class after he arrives. Schmidt-Kassow et al. (2013) found that moderate exercise just before or during vocabulary study had a large impact on how many words were learned, about 30% more, and the effect lasted for at least 8 months.



The professor who just lectures: She should add some occasional group discussion time to keep learners engaged, and have them stand up when doing it. As Marc Helgesen taught me in his lectures, citing Sousa (2011), having students stand up for just one minute after sitting for 20, causes a 15% increase in blood flow.  In fact, because of the brain’s amazing ability of allostasis, just deciding to stand up increases blood flow.

The colleague who does pair work:  The same thing.  Have the students stand up while they talk. Better yet, don’t collect homework or pass out exercises. Have the students come to the front to do that themselves. More blood flow, better brain states.

The entrance exam: This one bothers me the most. Five hours of intense neural firing while just sitting is the worst thing that could happen to a brain. Toxins build up. These students are exhausted at the end of a test so they just sit, nap, and drink tea after, but that is totally the wrong thing to do.  The exhaustion is caused by a lack of physical exertion, not an excess of it. Instead, were these students just to step out and climb five flights of stairs, enough to get their hearts pumping, they would be less tired, more refreshed, and in far better cognitive shape for the next test. How do I know? Because I  do this myself.  At conferences, instead of just sitting between sessions, some friends and I go up and down the stairs. The results are amazing.  We feel so much clearer at the end of the day.

So, I challenge you, as teachers, to use these ways to help your students learn more. Get them out of their seats every half hour or so. You do not have to conduct physical exercise in class, though a classroom full of treadmills would be ideal.  Instead, just a few simple changes can make a huge difference.  For example: a) have students come to the front to get the quizzes and handouts, instead of passing them out; b) when handing papers in, have them bring them to you instead of passing them forward; c) instead of just raising hands to answer questions have students all stand up and those who do not know the answer sit down; and d) have them do pair work standing up.  A little moving benefits student energy, mood, and cognitive ability.

So, this is an unbelievably easy way to improve learning. So now, before you continue on to the next article, why don’t you go out and climb a flight of stairs. Then, once you get back, keep standing!

Curtis Kelly invites you to subscribe to the MindBrainEd Think Tanks, a magazine that connects language teaching to brain studies.  It’s free!  So, subscribe here.