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Education Day this year must focus on the attainment gap

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The United Nations General Assembly declared January 24 as the International Day of Education in December 2018.

This day is a celebration of education and a time to ponder its global significance, which spans women’s rights, economic productivity and social opportunity to the fields of science and innovation.

Education Day promotes that the responsibility of providing quality education extends beyond educational institutions; it’s a collective obligation. Access to education has the power to eradicate poverty and set the foundation for a bright future.

As we in the West reflect on the importance of education, where a reasonable standard of education is provided for all, we tend to focus more on the social and economic opportunities that education can unlock. 

Sociologists and economists are becoming more and more aware of the attainment gap between the students, which in many countries appears to be widening. During Covid-19, this attainment gap widened significantly, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds falling as much as 9 months behind those without troubles at home.

Intuitively, school brings children together and can make up for distractions and hardship at home by creating a safe learning environment. But researchers are now turning their attention to those spillovers from home, which cause some disadvantaged students to struggle with focus and fall behind their peers.

This research shows that it is crucial to consider the role of focus in learning -  a keystone issue which, if we solve, we can unlock the enormous potential of some of the most disadvantaged young people in our countries.

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Physical activity has been shown to have numerous benefits for cognitive function. Exercise affects the brain on multiple fronts. It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also aids the release of a plethora of hormones, all of which participate in aiding and providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.

Exercise stimulates brain plasticity by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain. Research from UCLA even demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.

From a behavioural perspective, the same antidepressant-like effects associated with “runner’s high” found in humans are associated with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory

Unfortunately, disadvantaged students are often the least able to take part in after-school activities, due to costs for coaching, equipment or facilities. In the case of older students, the need to work can often take up time that would have been available for sports.

The importance of a balanced diet cannot be overstated when discussing focus and academic performance. Good nutrition is not just vital for physical health, but it also plays a significant role in cognitive function. Consuming a variety of nutrient-rich foods provides the brain with the necessary vitamins and minerals to function optimally.

For instance, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and nuts, are known to enhance memory and cognitive skills. Similarly, complex carbohydrates found in whole grains provide a steady supply of energy, helping maintain concentration levels throughout the day. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods and sugar can lead to fluctuating energy levels, impacting focus and productivity.

The challenge for parents and governments alike is that ultra-processed foods tend to be the cheapest and require the least preparation. Meaning that precisely those students who would benefit from nutritious food the most are the least likely to be getting enough of it. Wider discussion, and, ultimately, government initiative, is needed to break this vicious cycle. It’s difficult for struggling parents to make this change on their own.

Chewing gum is a good example of a more modest but accessible aid to focus. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that participants who chewed gum during memory tasks performed significantly better than those who did not.

Chewing gum is thought to increase blood flow to the brain, thereby improving cognitive functions like memory and focus. The act of chewing also reduces stress and anxiety, which can further enhance focus and attention in the classroom, particularly important for students who may face troubles and hardship at home. Studies have further shown that it can increase test scores.

So while we strive to ensure access to education for all, it’s equally important to explore ways to maximize the learning experience for students who are already in school. Understanding both the simple techniques and the potential for sweeping interventions and reforms is key to making Education Day work for modern schooling in the West.

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EU Reporter publishes articles from a variety of outside sources which express a wide range of viewpoints. The positions taken in these articles are not necessarily those of EU Reporter.

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