Sam Laing

Video games — or rather, one video game in particular — have the potential to increase the learning achievements of children in revolutionary ways, according to a recent Yale study.

“Activate,” a program created by School of Medicine professor Bruce Wexler, is a two-pronged approach at improving the executive functions of children in elementary school. A study that examined the effect of the program over time showed improvements in mathematics, reading and concentration time for students, as well other nonacademic cognitive functions. The program incorporates both physical and mental exercises in order to stimulate the brain for learning.

“We had a program in Fairfax, Virginia with second graders … and what we had found was that our kids achieved significantly higher scores on tests than students that did not participate in the program,” Wexler said. “We had also found that the effects of our program were better than one-on-one tutoring.”

“Activate” works in a six-day cycle, with four 20-minute iPad sessions spread over four days and two days of physical activity each iteration, according to Sarah Lehman and Heather Luckenbaugh, both of whom are educators in the Carlisle Area School District in Pennsylvania. The programs are tailored to meet the individual strengths and weaknesses of the children.

Wexler attributed students’ increased learning abilities in math and reading to the program’s success.

Physical exercise accompanies the web-based video game in order to maximize stimulation and learning potential, Wexler said. This is based on the principles of neuroplasticity — the concept that a person’s brain is built to grow and change based off of environmental inputs, according to Wexler.

In recent years, America’s education system has faced criticism for allocating its resources inefficiently and producing lackluster academic results compared to other countries. Wexler said he believes his program can fix one of the biggest issues the American school system faces: the socioeconomic achievement gap.

“Cognitive skills, such as focused attention, self control and memory are better predictors of high school graduation than IQ,” Wexler said. “Growing up in poverty is also shown to compromise these very same skills. It’s not much of a leap to say that if we improve those cognitive functions in kids, we can reduce the achievement gap between students of different economic backgrounds.”

Lehman described seeing results in her students as early as half way through the school year. Students who had poor executive functions -— such as blurting out answers and cutting in line — had noticeably positive behavioral changes.

The students who used the reading program had grown academically substantially, surpassing higher-performing students not enrolled in the program, Lehman added.

“Our job as educators is to help create lifelong learners,” Luckenbaugh wrote in an email to the News. “‘Activate’ helps do this by going beyond academic needs. It helps children with daily struggles such as remembering more than one direction, recognizing patterns and drawing conclusions, being able to control impulses and paying attention.  These are skills our children need to excel with academics.”

With mostly positive results so far, Wexler is confident in the promise “Activate” holds. Scientific groups such as the National Science Foundation have recently awarded a grant to “Activate” to enable data collection for the physical portions of the program.

“We’ll be able to give immediate, individual feedback to students, teachers and families,” Wexler said. “We already give class-by-class data. This is the future of education.”