Codecracker, Exercise and Brain Power

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One minute and 53 seconds.  100th out of 513.  The simple pleasure of trying to beat the clock, oneself, and others by completing the NZHerald’s codecracker puzzle as fast as possible every morning .  During the week, it happens just before 6am.  Today, Sunday, it’s going to be more like 9am.  I keep telling myself it is good for my brain health as I take the last sips of morning coffee before rising to face to day. The little daily puzzle is keeping those synapses forging new neural pathways through my grey matter, which might just promote the longevity of my memory powers into old age.

Could be true.  To discover more, this year I’ve joined a new PLG (that’s Professional Learning Group to non-educators), all of us gathered around a common interest in the brain and memory as it pertains to learning.  Each is following a genuine interest and developing a mini research project related to particular students or classes on our timetable.  This in turn is a satisfying, collaborative and self-directed way to tick one of the boxes leading to teacher registration, the one that requires proof of professional development.

So I have chosen to work on a memory strategy with my Year 9 Latin class.  Two weeks ago I attended a public lecture at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research. It featured Professor Martyn Golding, a molecular neurobiologist from San Diego’s prestigious Salk Institute, who shared his work on the role of the spinal cord in the brain’s fulfilling of its primary role of facilitating the body’s movement, whether that be to open the mouth to form a vowel or to jump a hurdle and win a race.  The lecture was largely over my head but the emphasis on the brain and movement reminded me of John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

John is also a molecular biologist who wrote his book to quash the many myths that we educators have developed around the brain and learning.  He established twelve research-based facts about the brain and learning, triangulated through publication in three or more peer-reviewed journals.  In his book, Medina dedicates a chapter to each brain rule, a rule being something that scientists know for sure about how our brains work.  He then suggests way that this rule might improve our daily lives.  One of those research-based rules states that exercise boosts brain power and improves cognition. It does so in two ways:

Firstly, “(e)xercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness… (Secondly), (e)xercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.”

Given Martyn Golding’s lecture which spurred my memory of John Medina’s book, I have decided to research the effect of exercise on my Year 9 students’ retention of Latin vocabulary.  Next term, every Thursday, I will introduce ten new vocabulary items and give the students ten minutes of class time to learn them, the first five weeks in silence, on their own, while seated at their desks, and the second five weeks in silence, on their own, while they walk up and down the flagstones or the field outside our classroom.  I’ll try and keep everything else constant (minimise variables) then test their retention via a vocab test immediately after the ten minutes, one the next day, and one before learning a new set of ten words a week later.  It will be interesting to see whether the brain rule stands for 13 year olds learning Latin in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, there is no mention in the brain rules about connecting synapses by doing word puzzles.  Oh well, I’ll just have to enjoy my morning codecracker simply because I enjoy the competition of beating myself and the clock.