Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Newsnight - Paxman KOs Brain Gym founder

Just watched Jeremy Paxman do his usual combative stuff interviewing the US founder behind Brain Gym - in the words of the Newsnight blog:

Brain Gym is a programme used in hundreds of schools across Britain - backed by the government. It’s a series of daily physical exercises that are supposed to aid learning - by stimulating the vital organs. Many teachers - and many pupils - are convinced it works. But scientists are worried - believing that it amounts to "pseudo-science" and is misleading young children about the workings of the human body.

The report showing kids and teachers actively using the techniques were more disturbing than heartening. While I believe more awareness of how we think and learn should be part of our curriculum, there should be more care applied to adopting programmes such as these which appear to be largely unproven. The one bit of evidence available showed a link between physical exercise and calmer more focused classes of kids. But this really isn't anything new. I wouldn't be surprised if you replaced these particular Brain Gym exercises ("brain buttons" and "energy yawns" were to examples) with any other set of similar physical activities and you'd get largely the same results.

The other claimed effects were viewed with high sceptism by Colin Blakemore, Neuroscientist at Oxford University. Mr Dennison, the founder, was not at all convincing. Neither were the kids who were interviewed in support of the techniques - they appeared to parroting back phrases that you could see they didn't really understand.

It would be a real shame - and a huge missed opportunity - if we end up confusing neuroscience with pseudoscience. It appears that our education system and much of the training world is still too ready to adopt programmes that lack strong scientific foundations. Let's hope this doesn't obscure some of the geniune progress being made in understanding how our brain works and learns.

Sense about Science will have something to say about this.

You can probably catch a re-run of Newsnight on BBC iPlayer - watch it and let me know if you'd be happy for your own kids' school offering this type of tuition.


Donald Clark said...

The whole piece can be see on BBCi. We obviously have the same TV viewing habits!

Like the blog.

Lars Hyland said...

Indeed. We are in esteemed company, Donald. Read Charlie Booker's column in The Guardian today.

Anonymous said...

For goodness sake. Your knee jerk opinions are as facile and unconsidered as anyone else who's prepared to take other people's opinions as fact.

I personally know kids for whom these exercises help them focus, relax and consider their own levels of awareness before they start a school day. Have a look at schools and kids who don't take time to do this kind of thing and then come down to a school I know that does this work and tell me if you still think it's rubbish.


if people are over emphasising the science bit then fine, criticise them for that, but don't miss the real point. Children are being taught self- awareness and whole health. Maybe you think that's rubbish too.

Lars Hyland said...

On the contrary, Karl. I support the role exercise has in supporting effective learning. However, the approach used by Brain Gym is not supported by real scientific research and in many ways divorces the child from the real focus of study.

Reducing class sizes and lengths of time studying are effective routes to giving children more focused tuition and support, reducing behavioural issues which are a symptom of the typically stifling classroom environment. Exercise should also be integral to that process, as is time for self-reflection (meditation if you like). None of this needs packaging up into daft slogans and rituals.

Anonymous said...

Lars - of course there are other things that help kids learn but please don't be so quick to judge something that has just as profound and important things to offer as class sizes etc. Get yourself down to Educare Small School in Kingston and see for yourself what small class sizes, intelligent nurture, care-ful teaching for the whole child, (intellectual, physical and emotional can do.) You'll find there articulate, engaged, learning and happy children who will do anything other than parrot quick answers to you.