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Declining grades: physical activity to the rescue?

Boris Cheval
Boris Cheval
Assistant Professor of Psychology at ENS Rennes
Key takeaways
  • In almost 20 years, France’s results in the PISA rankings have fallen sharply, mainly in mathematics and literacy.
  • The academic performance of French pupils is influenced by several factors, including economic, social, educational and cultural capital.
  • Research has shown that physical activity almost doubles cognitive and academic performance.
  • In addition to these results, sport offers numerous advantages: no side effects, benefits for physical and mental health...
  • The ideal physical activity to improve school performance is rather intense, practiced collectively, requiring balance, coordination and learning.
  • These practices challenge the image of the ideal classroom (seated and calm), and only systemic and structural changes will enable their development.

In France, sev­er­al organ­i­sa­tions are warn­ing of a drop in aca­d­e­m­ic stan­dards, par­tic­u­lar­ly in cer­tain sub­jects such as French and math­e­mat­ics. While some experts may qual­i­fy this obser­va­tion, over the last twen­ty years or so, aca­d­e­m­ic lev­els in these sub­jects have been falling (-11 points and ‑8 points respec­tive­ly per decade for read­ing and math­e­mat­ics). What are the caus­es? Could phys­i­cal activ­i­ty be one of the solutions?

A relative drop in levels of academic achievement

There is no doubt that aca­d­e­m­ic stan­dards have risen con­sid­er­ably since the 1970s, as Nadir Alti­nok and Claude Diebolt argue in an arti­cle for The Con­ver­sa­tion1. How­ev­er, if we look at the peri­od from 2000 – the start of the sur­veys con­duct­ed by the Pro­gramme for Inter­na­tion­al Stu­dent Assess­ment (PISA)2 – to 2020, the results are less promising.

The authors of the arti­cle point to a wor­ry­ing decline in school per­for­mance in read­ing and math­e­mat­ics. How­ev­er, Eric Rodi­ti points out that “France’s PISA results in math­e­mat­ics have always been more or less in line with the OECD aver­age (see fig­ure below). The only excep­tion is the first PISA in 2000, when France was well above the OECD aver­age.” Nev­er­the­less, the researcher points out that “as this was the first PISA assess­ment, it is not pos­si­ble to rule out pos­si­ble sur­vey response effects.” To explain this change in edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment, he says: “It is rather the pro­por­tion and lev­el of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ stu­dents that is chang­ing. The fig­ures also high­light the cor­re­la­tion, which is par­tic­u­lar­ly marked in France, between social back­ground and per­for­mance.” Indeed, as the data shows, the pro­por­tion of pupils expe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cul­ties will rise from 17% in 2003 to 30% in 2022. At the same time, the pro­por­tion of high-achiev­ing pupils has fall­en from 15% to 7% in 19 years3.

Declin­ing school per­for­mance. Fig­ures (unpub­lished) pro­vid­ed by Pr. Jean-François Ches­né and Pr. Eric Rodi­ti4.

While social back­ground seems to be a deter­min­ing fac­tor in school per­for­mance, we still need to under­stand the mech­a­nisms involved. Soci­ol­o­gy has long made a num­ber of obser­va­tions: low eco­nom­ic, social, edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal. How­ev­er, there is a for­got­ten cap­i­tal that has its place along­side the macro­scop­ic caus­es, and which can only be addressed by sys­temic and struc­tur­al inter­ven­tions: phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive capital.

Physical activity and school performance: how effective is it?

Before we can ask our­selves how phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can be effec­tive, we first need to mea­sure whether it real­ly is. Research into the psy­chol­o­gy of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and edu­ca­tion leaves no room for doubt. “The effec­tive­ness of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty on school per­for­mance, par­tic­u­lar­ly in math­e­mat­ics, has been demon­strat­ed by numer­ous ran­domised con­trolled stud­ies,” points out Boris Cheval. In fact, in the Feb­ru­ary 2022 memo that the researcher co-authored for the French Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion, there was a 48% and 60% increase in cog­ni­tive and aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance respec­tive­ly5.

The researcher also points out that this effec­tive­ness is undoubt­ed­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed. “When you mea­sure the effec­tive­ness of a drug, you com­pare the group receiv­ing the sub­stance with a group receiv­ing an inert place­bo. In research on phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, the con­trol group remains a phys­i­cal­ly active group, because it would be uneth­i­cal to ask chil­dren to stop doing anything.”

Final­ly, phys­i­cal activ­i­ty boasts some­thing that no oth­er treat­ment in the world has: the absence of side effects. “Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty has no adverse effects on learn­ing. On the con­trary, increas­ing the amount of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and move­ment could improve the qual­i­ty of learn­ing. Increased activ­i­ty nev­er dimin­ish­es learn­ing. We need to think about the qual­i­ty of the time used, in oth­er words, do less to do bet­ter,” insists Boris Cheval. A dynam­ic that has its equiv­a­lent in the world of work with the 4‑day week, which most stud­ies show to be large­ly ben­e­fi­cial to productivity.

Mechanisms for improvement through physical activity

How might phys­i­cal activ­i­ty affect per­for­mance at school? Boris Cheval cites a num­ber of bio­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms that could be behind the effect of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty on school per­for­mance: “phys­i­cal activ­i­ty trig­gers a dereg­u­la­tion of our body’s home­osta­sis (state of phys­i­o­log­i­cal equi­lib­ri­um). This dereg­u­la­tion trig­gers a series of reac­tions and the release of sub­stances (myokines, endor­phins, BDNF, etc.). The result is an adap­ta­tion of all the organs in the human body, and in par­tic­u­lar changes in the brain: angio­gen­e­sis, synap­to­ge­n­e­sis, neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, etc. This means that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty enables our body and our brain to organ­ise them­selves bet­ter, to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter and there­fore to func­tion bet­ter, which in turn has an effect on cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and con­se­quent­ly on per­for­mance at school.”

What’s more, by mobil­is­ing high-lev­el cog­ni­tive func­tions, phys­i­cal activ­i­ty could improve their use. “Cer­tain activ­i­ties, such as dance or team sports, enable us to use cer­tain mem­o­ry struc­tures or exec­u­tive func­tions that are essen­tial in cer­tain sub­jects, such as work­ing mem­o­ry or inhi­bi­tion,” explains Boris Cheval. How­ev­er, this rais­es the ques­tion of the trans­fer of skills from one field to anoth­er, which is still wide­ly debat­ed in psy­cho­log­i­cal research.

The profile for ideal physical activity

If cer­tain phys­i­cal activ­i­ties mobilise par­tic­u­lar brain func­tions, this sug­gests that not all phys­i­cal activ­i­ties are equal. On the basis of all these ele­ments, it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate a pro­file of the ide­al phys­i­cal activ­i­ty for improv­ing per­for­mance at school. “It should be of mod­er­ate to high inten­si­ty, involve bal­ance, coor­di­na­tion and learn­ing, be cog­ni­tive­ly demand­ing, be col­lec­tive rather than soli­tary, and be prac­tised at least three times a week,” says Boris Cheval.

An inno­v­a­tive aspect of the research explores the effect of the affec­tive expe­ri­ence of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty. “The idea behind our cur­rent research is that a sport­ing expe­ri­ence with a pos­i­tive con­no­ta­tion would not only be use­ful for per­se­ver­ing with the activ­i­ty in the long term, but would also have a pos­i­tive effect on the bio­log­i­cal and cog­ni­tive effects of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty in the short term,” empha­sis­es the researcher. It should be point­ed out that this research is extreme­ly recent and that more in-depth inves­ti­ga­tions are under way.

Physical activity as cognitive capital

At this stage, we know that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty is a real asset for improv­ing per­for­mance at school, par­tic­u­lar­ly in math­e­mat­ics where the lev­els of evi­dence are the high­est. In the same PISA report cit­ed above, there was a spe­cif­ic increase of 86% in per­for­mance in math­e­mat­ics as a result of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, com­pared with 53% for languages.

The low lev­el of polit­i­cal will (albeit with good inten­tions) does not give teach­ers the resources they need to imple­ment these measures.

There is also a cor­re­la­tion between the lev­el of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus. In addi­tion to eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal, it would seem that inequal­i­ties also have an impact on people’s cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal, from a very ear­ly age. Boris Cheval points out that “child­hood is a crit­i­cal peri­od when we devel­op our cog­ni­tive reserve. Mea­sures aimed at increas­ing phys­i­cal activ­i­ty are also more effec­tive in pop­u­la­tions with low­er lev­els of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty or cog­ni­tive performance.”

Putting movement back at the heart of schooling

To over­come these dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tive cap­i­tal, there is only one solu­tion: put move­ment back at the heart of school and learn­ing. “Move­ment is essen­tial for all learn­ing. It helps to cre­ate new cog­ni­tive habits by improv­ing cog­ni­tive func­tions. We need to get away from the idea that learn­ing should always be done sit­ting down and as qui­et­ly as pos­si­ble,” com­ments a per­plexed Boris Cheval.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, archi­tec­tur­al and polit­i­cal dynam­ics are ham­per­ing this objec­tive. “The low lev­el of polit­i­cal will (albeit with good inten­tions) does not give teach­ers the resources they need to imple­ment these mea­sures. The result is a feel­ing of coer­cion and ter­ri­to­r­i­al inequal­i­ties that per­sists and is get­ting worse,” deplores Boris Cheval.

To counter these trends, strong mea­sures are need­ed. Exam­ples include train­ing and sup­port for pri­ma­ry school teach­ers in set­ting up qual­i­ty activ­i­ties or eco­nom­ic sup­port. Teach­ers need to feel empow­ered and sup­port­ed. The­o­ries in the psy­chol­o­gy of moti­va­tion, the the­o­ry of self-deter­mi­na­tion and the the­o­ry of planned behav­iour have clear­ly demon­strat­ed that in order to adhere to and per­se­vere in a behav­iour, it is above all nec­es­sary to feel autonomous, com­pe­tent and to cre­ate a bond. With­out these ingre­di­ents, the government’s good inten­tions will prob­a­bly be in vain, and the hours of phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion and sport on the cur­ricu­lum will con­tin­ue to be the first to be can­celled as necessary.

Physical activity beyond academic performance

In con­clu­sion, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty is not just a cat­a­lyst for aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. Above all, it has a major impact on phys­i­cal and men­tal health. There is an urgent need to take action with regard to the lifestyles of the very young. We need to com­bat the loss of car­dio-res­pi­ra­to­ry capac­i­ty, obe­si­ty, type‑2 dia­betes and all these increas­ing­ly com­mon ear­ly onset patholo­gies. With­out good phys­i­cal health, there can be no qual­i­ty education.

Prop­er phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion at school instils a taste for effort, com­pe­ti­tion, coop­er­a­tion and sur­pass­ing one­self. So many skills that are use­ful in social and pro­fes­sion­al life. Anchor­ing phys­i­cal activ­i­ty in a pos­i­tive emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence helps to main­tain well-being and phys­i­cal and men­tal health. At the same time, it’s a way of pre­vent­ing socio-eco­nom­ic and gen­der inequalities.

Julien Hernandez
4Jean-François Ches­né is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics, a doc­tor in math­e­mat­ics didac­tics and exec­u­tive coor­di­na­tor of the Cen­tre nation­al d’é­tude des sys­tèmes sco­laires and Eric Rodi­ti is a pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and train­ing sci­ences and a math­e­mat­ics didac­ti­cian

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