The other morning I was looking at Twitter, and I came across a post which mentioned how a large percentage of teachers within a survey, 93%, still believed in the concept of learning styles. The learning style research which refers to Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic (VAK) or VARK where the R refers to Reading/ Writing learners has been debunked as an educational theory for some time now. The tweet also referred to Brain Gym which is also considered as one of a number of neuro-myths, however I have made use of Brain Gym in the past and have found it to work well. This got me thinking.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of UKEdChat Magazine – Click here to view
When I think back to my use of Brain Gym, a particular lesson always jumps to mind. It was an observed lesson where this particular class of students weren’t being their usual bubbly self. The lesson was after lunch, so their changed mood may have related to something that had happened over lunch. It may also have been due to the fact that the class had an observer. Whatever the reason, it was clear that their behaviour was not what I would normally expect. The first part of the lesson was OK, with the students grasping the material and showing understanding, however their overall engagement was less than it should have been for this particular group. So at this point I departed from the lesson plan and decided to implement a little bit of brain gym. After a short five minutes of brain gym we returned to the main focus of the lesson with the class more energised and engaged. My memories of this lesson are that the students were also a little more creative in their thinking in the second half of the lesson.
On one hand, the lesson described above might be considered evidence of brain gym having a successful impact on a lesson, however I think this is a simplistic viewpoint. As such, I would like to give some consideration for the other reasons why brain gym might have worked in this case.
Firstly, consider the priming effect. This is the fact that just by believing something, by priming ourselves, we can actually make it true. Paul Dolan in his book Happiness by Design uked.chat/happinessdesign refers to patients in a medical trial who were being provided a placebo pill, yet still experienced a positive effect due to the belief in the medication they were being provided. This was even the case where the patients were aware that the placebo medication contained no active ingredients. So if we tell students that brain gym has a positive effect, as I had done, then it may have such an effect through priming. Dawn Cox @MissDCox in her post, “Research in education is great…until you start to try and use it”, uked.chat/researchtryuse mentions students who told Ofsted inspectors of the positive impact of brain gym. If the students believe the statement, which I am assuming they did as they told inspectors about it, then it may be that a positive effect may result independent of whether brain gym in general actually has a positive effect.
Secondly, brain gym served to break up the lesson, introducing a totally unrelated activity in the brain gym activity in between two phases of learning. Benedict Carey in his book uked.chat/howlearnbook mentions a research study which showed that having an unrelated activity introduced into the learning process has a positive impact on memory especially where an impasse has been reached. This is very much akin to hitting a brick wall when studying or writing an assignment, before then going for a walk or taking another form of break. When you return to the work in hand you find progress comes more easily. It may have been that I sub-consciously identified an impasse in learning when I decided to introduce brain gym to my lesson.
Thirdly, the physical activity associated with brain gym may have a positive physiological effect on the pupils. Chabris and Simons in The Invisible Gorilla uked.chat/invisablegorilla suggested that aerobic exercise improves cognition by “increasing the fitness of the brain.” Additionally, students may see the activity as fun which would therefore makes them happier, further aiding learning upon return to the learning activities.
I believe the key issue is that learning is not a simple process, it is messy and complex. We may be using learning styles, brain gym or some other technique. However, in doing so we may introduce variables other than just the use of a new technique. As such it is impossible to separate a particular technique, such as brain gym or learning styles, etc., from the consequences, intended or unintended, which may result. Although the specific theory of distinct learning styles may have been proved to be false, use of learning styles with students, including discussion of the different ways we learn may result in a positive impact. Although, brain gym as a theory may be doubted, the act of using brain gym activities, of discussing and encouraging students of a benefit and the act of breaking up a lesson and the physical activity in a lesson may have a positive impact. Within education we talk about a growth rather than fixed mindset. We should therefore remember that theories come and go rather than being fixed on the current proof. In addition, as Paul Dolan put it in Happiness by Design, “there is no objective truth only your subjective interpretations.” The way forward is to focus on sharing approaches, ideas and things that can be used in the classroom rather than drawn out discussions of which theories are true or false at a particular time. We need to be sceptical of all research findings and how generalisable and transferable they are across the vastly differing contexts which exist across schools.
Gary is an educator with a passion for educational technology combined with experience working in the primary, secondary, further education, higher education and international schools. Also currently a Microsoft and Google Certified Educator and a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Find him on Twitter at @garyhenderson18 and read his blog at techandlearning.wordpress.com.
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