Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ben Goldacre, Brain Gym and drinking the Koolaid

One of the funner parts of my job is checking out the English newspapers for articles suitable for use in torturing second language students (sorry, that should be 'for reading comprehensions and oral test materials to enrich my second language students' English'), and today, I came across Dr Ben Goldacre's wonderful Bad Science blog. Dr Ben has the potential to be a nauseating Wunderkind (1st in something hideously scientific from Oxford, while just editing the odd student rag here and there), but mercifully, he has taken up the mantle as debunker in chief of nonsense medicine. He's currently in terrible terrible trouble with a London radio station for pointing out how irresponsibly the media has dealt with the whole business of the MMR vaccine since Andrew Wakefield's now deeply discredited research suggested the link between the jab and autism, with specific reference to a recent segment on a chat show which has led to legal action against him. Which is just stupid of LBC, but as has been noted elsewhere, doing the stupid is something that comes very easily to good old Homo not so very Sapiens.

While exploring the Bad Science blog (http://www.badscience.net/), I also came across his ranty mcrant against Brain Gym, which included some links to priceless Youtubery (Brain Gym turns Evil frex) and to last year's Newsnight in which various properly qualified scientists debunk Brain Gym's claims to make children work harder and better, while Paxo eviscerates one of the Californian 'educators' who invented and now flog Brain Gym as a 'learning system' to help children concentrate better - because btw, schools have to buy Brain Gym. And the trainers to come in and spend a day or so teaching teachers to teach Brain Gym. Which costs money. In fact, quite a lot of moolah. Provided by you and me, the taxpayer.

We came across Brain Gym in the course of our ongoing educational adventures with Minion Number One. Minion Number One is pretty much an identikit of his parents at the same age: he looks intelligent because his nose is always in a book of some sort, he has a capacious memory for trivia, he has the co-ordination of a newly-born giraffe, and he is pretty idle when it comes to exerting himself over the tiresome stuff that they want you to learn in school, partly because he knows most of the facts already due to snarfing up horrible histories and spotty science and grievous geography and assorted encyclopaedias on dinosaurs, evolution and the way the world works, and could care less about the skills like having neat handwriting.

This troubles teachers - not so much secondary school teachers, but primary school teachers were phased by his ability to recite the Latin names of all known birds of prey while being utterly unable to tie his laces or write more than three lines of our composition on Autumn. So they donned their white coats and tested him and tried him out with Brain Gym and all sorts of other activities.

Now, as a teacher, I'm willing enough to don my own white coat and explore the wilder shores of ways and means to encourage small boys to do what they are told and jolly well get on with their sums. But luckily, apart from having developed a reasonably honed BS detector of my own, I have a husband who drinks no Koolaid of any variety and will come up and dash the glass from my hand if I seem to be poised to swallow the latest guff. I did investigate Brain Gym, and I thought, well, it can do no harm - except that people actually do believe it works, of course.

In our case, it is clear that Brain Gym has made absolutely no difference to our child's progress. Increased confidence in his physical abilities through learning to swim, a great experience going on a long skiing trip plus drama and tennis lessons of a non-competitive variety have all helped him feel easier in his skin. Hurray. A combination of growing up and getting fed up of parental nagging has improved his concentration skills so we're now looking at perhaps 6 or even 12 lines for the pesky compositions required of him. So far, so normal male child as far as I am concerned.

Anyone whose children are exposed to Brain Gym would do well to watch the Newsnight segment, and perhaps their alarm bells too will be set off by the information from a teacher/trainer person that doing one particular move would improve children's 'languaging skills' - clearly Brain gym had significantly increased that particular woman's ability to massacre her own tongue. In fact the general demeanor of the headteacher and her colleagues at the primary school filmed for the segment struck me as spookily Stepford, and that is what really concerns me.

I've been a teacher for 16 years now, and one of the most frightening thing about being a teacher is just how unworldly and easily influenced some colleagues can be (and to any of my current colleagues who might happen to read this, I do not mean you!). I mean, I do know that many of my fellow humans are gullible, ignorant and quite cosy too. But we teachers are meant to be training up children to question, to think, to explore, to test, to push the boundaries. Yes, this drives me absolutely bananas when my own child can never ever bloody let anything go in an argument, but on the other hand, at least he's no yes-guy. Which means that if he is ever in a Piper Alpha situation, he will do the counter-intuitive and jump into the sea rather than let himself be burnt to a cinder because regulations dictate that you should never jump into the sea. I hope. (Of course, I hope that he is never in a PA situation at all.)

I suppose this gets to the heart of the paradox of educational establishments. We are meant to be encouraging individuality and independence in our charges, but actually, we want them all to conform to certain norms of behaviour and discipline. And that is why Brain Gym has currency. Unfortunately. Because like the calisthenics performed by Japanese factory workers and the daily hymn-singing of the UK public school, or the training chants of Marines, any collectively performed activity helps build a collective mentality, and it is much easier to control a collective mentality than one where children's brains zing all over the place. Watching the zinging is a lot more fun and ultimately much more productive for society and the individual...but it is messy and inconvenient and difficult to manage. Getting the kiddies to drink the Koolaid is much easier.