Sitting still and staying focused on formulas, equations, and practice problems for an hour is difficult for just about anyone, but it can be especially difficult for boys in tenth and eleventh grade. Jim Douglas, a math teacher at Blue Ridge School, knows this better than anyone.
“It’s unreasonable to expect that our students should enjoy sitting at their desks for that long a time without any kind of physical movement,” said Douglas, “I love math, but even I wouldn’t want to do that!”
This year, Douglas undertook an action research project in which he sought to explore how incorporating some physical movement into his classes might result in more engaged and productive students. “I’d love to just give them a 15 minute stretch break in the middle of class,” Douglas said, “but that’s simply not possible; we have way too much material to cover, and not very much time to get through it; I need every minute of instructional time I can get.”
In order to allow students to move while not having to sacrifice class time, Douglas came up with the idea to install small DeskCycle bike pedal units under each student desk in his classroom. Rather than the whole class taking a formal break in the middle of a lesson, students would have the opportunity to be physically active during the lesson while remaining engaged and attentive.
Installing the bike pedals was certainly not a silver bullet that resulted in every student suddenly discovering a newfound passion for math, but they made a noticeable difference. Some students embraced the pedals right away. When asked what he thought of them, one junior replied, “They helped me stay awake in class and also made me feel good at the beginning of the day.” Another boy stated, “It is a great way to get out some energy instead of talking or using your phone. I love the cycles and think they should be in every classroom.”
When Douglas surveyed his students at the end of the year to gauge their opinion of the pedals, 83% of them reported that they enjoyed having them available, and that they used them during some portion of each class period. There were, of course, some students who did not find the cycles helpful, one boy noted that the cycles brought him painful memories of the difficult practices he endures as a member of the School’s mountain bike team. Another student noted that the pedals weren’t enough for him, and what he really needed during class was an occasional mental break rather than a physical break.
“Good teachers are constantly reflecting on, and evaluating their practice- looking for things they can change to improve student learning, and experimenting with possible solution while keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t,” said Dean of Faculty Pete Bonds, “That’s exactly what Jim did here, and what so many Blue Ridge teachers do regularly.”
Students arriving in Douglas’s Algebra II classes will quickly notice that the pedals are still under the desks, and they’ll all be welcome to cycle as much or as little as they wish while they learn. Not many students can say they learned about the quadratic formula while cycling, but based on Douglas’s research, perhaps that won’t be so uncommon in the future.