Into my edu Twitter floated today floated reactions to a tweet from @MrHamiltonPE about his school’s “READ AND RIDE room!” (sic) This relates to three studies, one at Russell Jones Elementary in Arkansas (2011) and two from Ward Elementary in North Carolina (2010).
These might have faded into deserved obscurity had it not clawed its way up through local media like the Winston Salem Gazette (2009) through regional and small US edu media until it reached larger audiences via Fast Company, The Queen Latifa Show and even Bloomberg (radio). Since then the story spluttered along on Facebook and other social channels until it found a natural home and audience of educators and parents on Twitter.
What showed up in my Twitter feed generated a lot of comments (at least by edu Twitter standards) most (from the US) along the lines of:
- “This is absolutely fantastic sir” (@MrSpringPE)
- “This is amazing. What a great idea to keep students moving throughout the day!!!!” (@evansull329)
- “Awesome work Kent” (@pewithmrc)
- “Wow. This is awesome” (@Minerva_XC
- “Brain Vascularization. Moving and interpreting messages at the same time is primal, it’s in built from natural selection. (@StandUp OurKids)
- “Hey, whatever it takes to get them reading and moving” (@LindaZreads)
- “We need this! (@allysonketo)
- “Shall we get fundraising?! (@mrsbadwal1
These were about a 10x more than sanguine replies such as, “And the research behind this is? The expectations are? Is this how YOU read and exercise?” (@Remarsh76)
In the UK, @Tom Bennett (former teacher, government behaviour czar and co-founder of @researchED), tweeted, “Anyone know of any studies into this? I’m concerned that this would massively reduce reading comprehension, speed focus etc.” This generated almost 100 mostly negative comments from educators, although was Tom channeling President Trump’s twitter style when he replied to one, “Oh UK types are always happy to rain on a yay-parade”.
In the US-centric stream anyone who questions RAR’s amazing excellence even mildly, with comments like this one from @infomorsels, “Very sad – can’t they go outside and play and get exercise? They look like robots. Immediately trolled by the likes of @bradfordk66 who tweeted. “You aren’t a teacher are you? They do not look like robots, they look engaged and engrossed in literature”. He then went on to troll a teacher (@Mrs Gorton) writing, “I’m sad that you are trying to force your definition of reading and relaxing on students who struggle to learn without movement”
To try and get a better sense of RAR I also read their 3 program data synopses and linked PDFs. These lack almost everything you’d hope to see in any serious educational study (statistical rigour, solid methodological structure, etc). I have a strong feeling RAR will soon feature in a researchED session possibly under a session heading like, “miracles aint want they used to be”.
To give you just one example of poor practice look at the four groups in the study. They don’t say how many students took part or how they were allocated, but actual participation ranged from:
- a control group who had no RAR
- a group who had 4-6 twenty-minute sessions (80-120 minutes)
- a group who had between 29-57 twenty-minute sessions (580-1140 minutes)
- a group who had 3×20 minute visits per-week (presumably for a term)
This is just one of my gripes but you could pick apart the whole study from several directions, but I’ll stick to something I know a little more about, money and basic economics.
The most basic issue facing education internationally is budgets and spending. What should underpin decisions to try something new is the basic economic concept of Opportunity Cost, i.e. ‘if we spend £x on this what is the next best alternative foregone?’ (normally what we have been doing). No government education system has unlimited funding and all the RAR studies were done in state-funded elementary schools. Ignoring issues like Opportunity Cost and spruiking magic beans because it’s paid for via fundraising rather than the state is a problem that I see in many countries, but it also impacts on the single, most important limited resource in education, teacher time.
As for the actual cost (fundraised or funded) it’s hard to come up with anything more than a guesstimate. From some of the commentary on Twitter, Ward Elementary seems to have used about 75% recumbent exercise machines from Sears with the remaining 25% being ‘exercise pedals’ from Walmart, although one RAR photo shows students using seated cross-trainers (bikes with moving arms). A quick Google search showed that the cheapest Sears’ machines cost around £100/$130 with Walmart ‘pedals’ a more modest £25/$33. In 2013 RAR extolled schools to trawl Craigslist and other community sources for used machines, but I doubt that would meet even the most lax school Health and Safety policy. So if we assume 25 new machines per class, that’s £2030/$2760, not allowing for staffing or maintenance. It looks manageable, but to roll it out in the US to even a fraction of elementary (UK = primary) schools where the average number of students is 280 would be hard to justify economically, let alone educationally.
If you want to consider something like RAR then I’d recommend having a look at this small 99-student UK study (thanks to Laura McInerney for the tip). It’s far better done and also looks at two health indices (hyperactivity and waist-to-height ratio) along with maths. Exercise did seem to have some benefit on hyperactivity and waist-to-height ratios, but unlike RAR showed a negative outcome for maths, the core educational metric.
RAR seems like a slow motion replay for BrainGym whose ‘benefits’ were ridiculed by Dr Ben Goodacre over a decade ago. Yet it still exists in the US and UK. Both still rely on a Masters of Education thesis from 2005 along with a few small, non-peer reviewed ’studies’ whose only commonality seems to be their publication in the BrainGym Journal. In 2018 the head of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, warned against gimmicks like BrainGym, learning styles and fidget spinners, saying in a news conference, “Despite the history of snake oil, white elephants and fashionable gimmicks that have in the main been debunked, there remains a curious optimism that the elixir of education is just around the corner”.
Most in education want to see positive changes but unless they are backed up by serious research and affordable and deliverable within our existing systems, then we will continue to feel the impact of misplaced enthusiasm for “fashionable gimmicks”.