Some brain learning theories used in Scottish schools are ‘mumbo-jumbo’, an expert claims

One of the world’s foremost neuroscientists has attacked educationists who use “tall tales” about how the brain works to influence teaching.

Sergio Della Salla, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at Edinburgh University, told delegates at the Scottish Learning Festival that teachers should be far more sceptical about the “hype of brain research”.

He debunked a range of brain learning theories, some of which are accepted currency in Scottish schools, urging educationists to use caution and wait for real evidence before accepting some theories.

He described scientific claims about “Brain Gym” – a resource in which many Scottish education authorities have invested – as “complete mumbo-jumbo”. He continued: “But is it completely bad? No. Kids moving around is good. My point is, why do they need neuroscience backing when the neuroscience they claim is wrong.”

Buffy McClelland of the Oxford Brain Gym, said suggestions Brain Gym was based on science emanated from a book by its founder, Paul Dennison, in 1994, “when he tried to explain how the movements worked, based on his understanding of the brain at that time”. He said: “A few statements in the book are wrong, and our organisation has informed its members of this.”

Professor Della Salla came to the defence of the French education minister Gilles de Robien, who provoked strike ballots among French teachers when he told them to abandon “global” or “look and say”-style reading methods in favour of a phonics-based methodology.

“Research shows that using the global reading method is much less efficient than the letter by letter method, and more dangerous for children with fragile reading skills. He changed the system overnight, but people in education complained. I don’t understand why if you know one system works better than the other one,” he said.

He was particularly dismissive of claims about “whole brain” learning; claims that people used only 10 per cent of their brain potential (“there is no 90 per cent there waiting to be used”); and that people who learned how to breathe through their left nostril could stimulate the right side of their brain (“pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo”).

There was indeed a difference between the right and left hemisphere of the brain – as proved by Nobel prize-winner Roger Sperry. But too many left/right brain claims were based on an over-interpretation of evidence. “In a recent survey of teachers, almost 90 per cent thought that knowledge of the brain was important, or very important, in the design of educational programmes,” he said, quoting the American journal Mind, Brain and Education.

“This is not necessarily good. Teachers know better and have known better for decades, before the hype of brain research. Hence, knowledge about the brain is probably not that relevant in designing sound educational programmes.”

Source: Times Educational Supplement, UK