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The Globe and Mail

Stationary bikes in the classroom: Are we spinning out of control?

Paul Bennett is the director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax.

Frustrated, fidgety kids and stressed-out parents are driving many teachers crazy – and they are grasping for life preservers in today's classrooms. Enter stationary bikes, the latest wave in the North American self-regulation movement.

Principals and teachers in the Halifax Regional School Board and far beyond see spin bikes as an almost magical cure-all. A recent Canadian Press story shone a light on the spin bike frenzy in one Dartmouth, N.S., primary classroom, where a yellow bike was simply working miracles, calming agitated kids, quietening the class, getting restless boys to sit still and making teaching life livable again.

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"Now, amid a shift in how educators understand and embrace various styles of learning," CP reporter Aly Thomson wrote, "such bikes are helping to boost moods, relieve stress and regulate energy in students of all ages."

Since the publication of British teacher Tom Bennett's 2014 book Teacher Proof, more and more classroom teachers are raising a "skeptical eyebrow" and confronting the succession of teaching fads described as "pure rubbish" that have come and gone over the past 20 years. It's becoming acceptable to ask whether "self-regulation" is destined for the same fate. And where's the research to support these classroom spin bike experiments?

The concept of "learning styles" itself has been exposed as fraudulent educational practice. It's the best known of the myths recently outed by Mr. Bennett, co-founder of ResearchED and Britain's 2015 Teacher of the Year. A year ago, in the Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that many such theories that fill classrooms in Britain have little grounding in scientific research.

Mr. Bennett is far from alone in challenging the implementation of unproven educational theories. According to a research scan by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, trillions of dollars are spent on education policies around the world, but just one in 10 are actually evaluated.

Cutting through the hype surrounding self-regulation, it's difficult to find independent, validated research support. A very perceptive October, 2012, feature in The Tyee actually bore down into the British Columbia self-regulation movement looking for the research basis while 3,000 teachers were being taught the strategy.

Stuart Shanker of Toronto's York University is the chief Canadian proponent, but his research is somewhat compromised by his direct involvement in promoting his own particular program.

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, of the human development, learning and culture research unit at the University of British Columbia, has studied MindUP, an alternative approach to teaching self-regulation as the basis for social and emotional learning. Over a period of six years, she found only one large-scale independent research study, a CASEL study of 270 programs, that documented its actual benefits.

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"So little [in education] has actually been formed by rigorous research, as opposed to the medical field, Dr. Schonert-Reichl claimed. "I heard someone compare where we are with understanding well-designed educational studies to where we were with clinical drug trials in the early 1900s."

Self-regulation definitely holds promise, but the research basis is quite limited and teachers are wise to be skeptical until there is more evidence that it actually works and is sustainable in the classroom.

A child development research article by Dr. Shanker and his associates (September/October, 2015) may add to the puzzle by demonstrating the fuzzy meaning of the term "self-regulation," apparently expandable to accommodate 88 different concepts, including self-control, self-management, self-observation, learning, social behaviour and self-monitoring.

Who is really being served by self-regulation is particularly unclear. Teachers are attracted to it as a New Age strategy of class management. Much of the rationale has its underpinning in neuroscience and that is what is being debated rather than its efficacy for mass application with a majority of students.

Some, such as former B.C. education minister George Abbott, see it as a way of serving severely learning-challenged kids and getting rid of the extensive, expensive special education system with all those individual program plans.

Child psychologists and elementary teachers are latching onto self-regulation, believing that you can "teach kids to behave properly in schools" because the job is not being done in today's fractured or dysfunctional family homes.

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Self-regulation – with or without spin bikes – may turn out to be another passing fancy in education reform. Yet few educators today are attuned to its possible unintended consequences.

Will self-regulation end up resembling a stern mother's version of "sit in the corner," "go to your room" or "get down and do five push-ups, now?"

Should we intervene if kids riding bikes ever come to look like hamsters on wheels in the cage? Perish the thought.

Paul Bennett is an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary's University and a senior education research fellow, Northern Policy Institute, in Thunder Bay.

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