A Brain Gym Article In The Guardian

June 13th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, brain gym | Comments Off

Some of you will notice I’ve just gone into stealth mode briefly on a couple of previous articles. Shhh, there is no cause for alarm, more fun to come.

In the meantime, here is a Brain Gym article in The Guardian, by someone who’s not me.

Mercifully it’s critical.

Keep your pupils stretched and watered

Philip Beadle
Tuesday June 13, 2006
The Guardian

education.guardian.co.uk/schools/teach/story/0,,1795800,00.html

Remember the thing you’d do in primary schools, where you would pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time? Apparently, it’s a science, and it has a name. It’s called Brain Gym, and no, you don’t have to attach weights to your cerebellum; Brain Gym is a combination of prescribed movements, which, we are told, leaves students in a relaxed state, ready to soak up information about oxbow lakes. There are specific moves for when a child is depressed or upset. Don’t worry, I am laughing as I type this.

I’ve invented a couple of my own exercises. First, trace the fingers of your right hand from the top of your back to the bottom, one vertebra at a time. Once you have reached the last vertebrae, slide your right hand underneath it. This is your arse. Now place your left hand on your right shoulder (which, apparently, improves brain laterality). Look directly down. This is your elbow. Do not confuse the two.

I’ll be putting the exercise into book form along with some generic illustrations of smiling children. I’ll call it Brainless Gym. And I am available to teach it to other teachers at exorbitant rates throughout June and July.

Dr Ben Goldacre, this paper’s Bad Science columist, stirred up a hornet’s nest recently with his claims that Brain Gym is pseudo science. The article has, so far, generated 282 comments on Goldacre’s website (www.badscience.net), and the controversy has been so intense that I can well imagine a future in which people will be asked whose side they were on when the Brain Gym wars raged. The comments range from people supporting his view that those who actually teach the kids the codswallop behind Brain Gym should be sacked (a bit harsh) to those happy to provide anecdotes of how they have used it successfully with their students.

Part of the problem here has been wilful misunderstanding on the part of some teachers. Brain Gym is, in practice, pretty sensible. It suggests that children should be properly hydrated to perform well, and that a bit of physical activity in the middle of a lesson can wake kids up. Goldacre does not disagree with this. His issue is with what I described in last month’s column as “hokum references to neuroscience”.

Some teachers, though, have leapt to the conclusion that he is against hydration and exercise. Goldacre’s position is crystal clear. “Stopping and doing some exercise is good; lying to children with bonkers pseudo-scientific explanations is bad,” he says.

His argument is with what Dr Barry Beyerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, describes as “commercial ventures promoted by hucksters who mislead consumers into thinking that their products are sound applications of scientific knowledge”.

The claims behind Brain Gym are quite obviously silly. I am not a fully fledged, properly trained, licensed Brain Gym trainer, nor ever will be. I’ve only used it twice and, both times, there were television cameras present. It is the kind of flashy nonsense that translates well on screen and impresses the great British public, as it makes the kids laugh.

And this is where I’d defend it. It’s fun. If children are bored with the work, listless and grumpy, it’s a way of injecting a bit of energy into the room. What works specifically is that they can do a bit of physical exercise without invading each other’s personal space, falling into each other or bashing each other up. The exercises are discrete, don’t use up a lot of space and are focused on the self.

But there are other ways of doing this. Fidget time is quite a laugh. If the kids are getting fidgety, allow it. Give them an allocated two minutes in which to fidget, and join in. Chair dancing works fantastically as well. Bung some Michael Jackson on the stereo, and get them to dance with only their top halves while still seated. No science involved whatsoever.

Teachers don’t believe any of the moonshine about Brain Gym. We all sat at the inset sessions where some guru took us through the moves, hiding behind our hands, sniggering in disbelief. And, moreover, if we did succumb to the sales patter and use the techniques, none of us would even think of teaching the claptrap behind it. Neuroscience, good or bad, is not on the curriculum of any school I know. And teachers don’t indoctrinate children with lies willingly. Usually, we save the lies for our next performance development review, or the students’ predicted GCSE grades.

As Goldacre suggests, you’d probably get as much benefit from taking a Brain Gym book and booting it around the room. Force-feeding litres of water to children during class will lead to 30 of them wanting to go to the toilet in unison and there is, of course, a decent argument for forgetting about stretching exercises and getting on with some work.

But teachers will continue to use Brain Gym throughout the country. Why? Because the kids we teach tell us it helps. And there are times when, whatever the doctor says, you have to trust how the patient feels.


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