'Training for the Brain' Technology Yields Academic Gains at St. Thomas Aquinas H.S.
Imagine introducing a new technology to students that is similar to a video game - involving musical tones, hand and foot tapping, as well as coordinated movements, such as dancing - with scores to track improvement against oneself and others. Now imagine that 25,000 repetitions of these exercises in 12 one-hour sessions can improve mental processing with significant gains in reading and math fluency. For the 2,000 students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this far-fetched description is a reality. Dozens of elementary and secondary schools in southern Florida, Virginia and Illinois now are introducing this innovative 'training for the brain' technology called the Interactive Metronome (IM).
Pilot Program Creates Demand
In August 2001, 29 students from the high school's football team headed to the computer lab. They donned headphones, and hand and foot sensors for the dozen IM-powered training sessions to improve their timing, concentration and focus. After those sessions, the team mentally played almost perfectly in a 15-1 season that earned them a No. 5 USA Today national ranking, because of far fewer penalties and mental errors. More important, academically their IM-powered training produced an increase in reading fluency by more than two grade levels and math fluency by one grade level. The team's classroom grades also improved substantially - 0.34 points for 68 percent of them - from their improved ability to focus and concentrate. 'We have always emphasized mental preparation for our student athletes,' says George Smith, the high school's athletic director and head football coach. 'But I never could find an efficient, effective way to train this mental discipline until now. IM training improved my players from the 55th percentile to the 99th percentile nationally in their timing, focus, concentration and coordination.'
Monsignor Vincent T. Kelly is the supervising principal at St. Thomas Aquinas and heads curriculum for the Archdiocese of Miami. He closely monitored the pilot program with student athletes and assessed its broader applications. By December 2001, the high school installed IM stations in a former computer lab, and 24 faculty and staff members became certified as IM trainers. In January, classes were opened to all students and the demand exceeded available training stations. IM classes con-tinued in the school's summer program and are scheduled throughout the next academic school year. 'We are pleased to be the first school in the nation to offer IM training to all 2,000 of our students,' says Kelly.
IM-powered training involves students performing 13 different hand and foot exercises in varying difficulty to a constant metronome beat. The training works much like the centuries-old timing device, but uses a computer with headphones, and hand and foot sensors to track performance precisely. During each exercise, the computer measures how far ahead or behind the student is as they attempt to match the beat. Like training wheels on a bicycle, the IM's patented auditory guidance system progressively challenges students to improve their timing and focus by accurately matching the computer's rhythm. The average milliseconds of error are calculated as the score. Perfect timing is reflected in a zero score - no milliseconds off the beat. Students who start IM training outside of the normal range consistently improve to within normal, while students who start within the normal range achieve an elite level of timing and rhythm.
The Academic Achievement Correlation
Studies show that IM performance correlates with academic achievement in areas such as mathematics, language, reading and attention to task. A white paper released at the 2001 American Psychological Association Convention shows a high correlation between Interactive Metronome proficiency and California Achievement Test results. For the St. Thomas Aquinas students who have taken IM training, the pre- and post-test results show significant improvements based on the nationally recognized Woodcock-Johnson 3rd Edition Standardized Test. Specifically, post-tests showed a 1.11 grade level improvement in math fluency, the 'measure of ability to rapidly and accurately solve problems,' and reading fluency improved by 1.92 grade levels. In the area of mental processing speed, which Woodcock-Johnson describes as 'the ability to perform automatic cognitive tasks, particularly when measured under pressure to maintain focused attention,' the students improved by 2.61 grade levels.
An acoustical engineer who sought to measure timing and improve performance for professional musicians invented IM-powered training. Using the invention with an 8-year-old music student who has profound birth defects, it was discovered that IM training could produce physical gains and enhance learning. Seven years of scientific studies followed before the program was commercially introduced for use by practitioners and educational specialists to address a wide range of cognitive challenges.
In a clinical study published in the March/April 2001 issue of The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, the Interactive Metronome was found to produce significant gains in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the areas of concentration, motor planning, control of aggression, language processing and reading. Other studies show improved coordination and timing in both children and adults in academic and sports endeavors. These findings are consistent with recent research on the growth of the brain, indicating that environmental influences, not just genetics, can facilitate brain development. IM training for cognitive disorders is best delivered in a clinical setting, not in the up to 25 student class setting more appropriate for school computer labs.
Today, there are more than 800 hospitals, clinics and schools countrywide offering IM-powered training. Schools that adopt this training may contract with a third-party provider to deliver the technology and training from the school's computer lab. Alternatively, as was done at St. Thomas Aquinas, schools can acquire the technology and site license to deliver IM-powered training through faculty who complete certification as IM instructors by taking the training themselves.
Visit St. Thomas Aquinas H.S. online at www.aquinas-sta.org.
Robert Mulder, Ph.D.
Assistant Principal for Curriculum
St. Thomas Aquinas High School
Fort Lauderdale, FL
This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.