Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Lessons from the Brain Gym - the Science of Learning

The Brian Gym is a glaring example of a completely unproven theory about learning and development. Learning is full of theories that range from the complete nonsense of the Brain Gym through interesting, but unsubstantiated, ideas such as the hundreds of different learning styles (Kolb etc) to rock solid cognitive psychology (Ebbinghaus forgetting curves). Sitting to one side are a myriad of common-sense rules of thumb and folklore based on experience rather than science - don't lecture for more than 45 minutes, when asking open questions have a closed question to back it up, etc.

The problem I find is that there is a kind of inverse correlation between veracity and utility. There are a few facts from cognitive psychology that are true, interesting and useful - the limits on short term memory for example - but precious few . On the other hand, VAK is scientifically highly dubious - but you can actually use it as an inspiration to make your courses more varied in their use of media and remind you that people do learn in different ways - even if it is not a fixed characteristic of a particular person. It is a productive way of thinking about courses and teaching.

What would be great would be a body of useful, interesting and incontrovertible knowledge. But can anyone give 10 facts about learning that are:

Scientifically indisputable
Interesting - not something that is obviously true
Make a practical difference to how we design or deliver training

If not, then we have to go beyond the scientifically established to say anything interesting about training - a melange of home grown wisdom, interesting concepts and the occasional fact - hopefully held together with some straightforward logic.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Thoughts on the Brain Gym Fiasco and Scepticism

The Brain Gym has been very much in the news recently. Mostly because any pretensions to science behind it have been demolished - most publically by Jeremy Paxman.

This critical piece is typical of the tone of the critics. It includes some short interviews from teachers, headteachers, and childern who have bought into the Brain Gym message. The comments are on the lines of:

This headmistress must be feeling quite embarrassed right about now.

With reference to the Paxman interview:

Ooooh this is a good, good day.
You must watch the glory below. It is radiant.

Ben Goldacre writes in his blog and the Guardian:

Beyond the stupidity of some headteachers, how has Brain Gym survived?

There is a definite tone of exultation in the humiliation of not only the inventor of Brian Gym but all the teachers and headteachers who have bought into it (the children who have bought into it are of course portrayed as innocent victims).

I don't want to defend Brain Gym. Scientifically it is a fraud. But let's not be juvenile in our response. I doubt it it was a total waste of public money and time. Even the fiercest critics acknowledge as an aside that there is a merit in having children do refresher exercises during school. And there is immense scope for a placebo effect. If a child believes something is making them cleverer their confidence and enthusiasm will grow and the child is very likely to try harder and do better. There is a long tradition of teachers using metaphors and images that are not true but very helpful. My wife's singing teacher tells her pupils that the voice should come out of the top of the head. I don't know whether she literally believes this, and I don't care. She is a brilliant teacher and the image works.

That poor headteacher has a real problem. Now that Brian Gym has been exposed, she has to either tell the children not to believe what they hear (i.e. lie to them) or somehow explain that it was an error without letting down all that confidence and energy. I don't want anyone to pretend that Brain Gym is science when it isn't. But sceptics should be wary of gloating over their superior knowledge. By and large they are not the ones on the spot. Many teachers found something they could use. Now it is going to be a lot harder to use it. The greatest blame should lie with Paul Dennison (the founder) but might the sceptics consider the positive side as well as well as the negative. Why not say "this may be useful in practice, but you should know that the underlying science is wrong" rather than accusing teachers of being stupid and gloating over their discomfort? Of course, that wouldn't be nearly so interesting a thing to write.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Can Learning and Development Contribute to Academia?

Rewritten 18th April for greater clarity

I have been exchanging comments with a number of academic lecturers, particularly Philip Moriarty, about the possibility of Learning and Development professionals contributing to the effectiveness of higher education, especially scientific higher education. I seem to have totally failed to explain my position and also offended Philip . This is a real shame and a testament as to how e-mail and blogging can mislead. I hope to correct this below.

The gist of the comments from Philip (and others) is that only specialists in their area can contribute to their skill as educators e.g. “L & D do not have the subject-specific knowledge required to contribute effectively to the teaching of physics.” If true, this is remarkable. All other sectors - government, finance, manufacturing, military etc - get value from cross-fertilisation of ideas about learning, training and teaching. This includes intense technical subjects such such as specialist IT skills.

I suspect that there is an underlying misunderstanding and the reason for the confusion is that Philip thinks that an L&D specialist is going to tell him how to do his job. This is also the implication of some of the other comments. Dr J for example appears to have strong ideas about what kind of lecture I am recommending – even though I have no idea! Nothing could be further from the case. I hope I can illustrate this by giving a fleshed out example. L&D assistance can vary from the very broad (what is your corporate learning strategy?) to the very specific (what is your question protocol when you teach?). I will take an example from the latter end.

From time to time I run a workshop/course for instructors from a number of different areas, although the majority are IT related. Most attendees say this workshop has been productive and worthwhile although I frequently know little about their subject matter expertise (which can be extremely technical). I could imagine a similar workshop might have value for an academic department (I emphasise “might” – I don’t know nearly enough about the situation). The format is for each member to give a mini-teach session based on their own teaching experience and then for all workshop attendees (including the one who has just done the session) to make suggestions as to how that session might be even better. The attendees then have opportunities to develop and repeat their session throughout the workshop (it is usually 3 days). There are also short sessions dealing with certain points about the theory of learning and teaching, and discussion as to how these points might apply to the attendee’s own situation. Finally attendees are asked to write down what they have gained that is useful and make a plan for implementing what they have learned. With luck, the atmosphere is one of mutual respect and learning from each other. I would be surprised if I can’t add something having spent 30 years in learning and development across a wide variety of subject matters and industries, but there is no way in which I would be telling the attendees how to do their job. They learn. I don’t teach. Incidentally it is also generally good fun. It is of course vital that the attendees come with the right attitude!

What kind of things might lecturers learn on a workshop such as this? It is very, very variable. It depends what is useful for them. Some things are fundamental truths of the psychology of learning (the longer you can leave it before recall, provided the recall is successful, then the longer the item will remain in memory afterwards). Other things are as trivial as tricks of the trade – putting post-its on flip charts you want to refer to frequently. Examples include questioning protocols (how to ask questions that sustain interaction and concentration without being discouraging or banal), handling tricky students, helping students with disabilities, when to use different types of visual aid, using different types of classroom technology, activities you can ask students to do, and so it goes on. However, none of these things are specific to the subject matter. The attendee will need to work out for themselves if/when to use them. But most do.

This sounds a bit passive and innocuous. So I should make it clear that I ask instructors to try things they have not tried before and encourage them to think differently about the task of getting students to learn. One common trend is that attendees arrive with a view of education that is based round presentation and questions. The criterion for success is what the students think of the instructor. By the end of the workshop they are thinking in terms of what the students are doing and the criterion for success is what the students have learned and how their attitudes to the subject matter have developed. Anyone who is been in learning and development for a while will find nothing exceptional about this - but it is frequently a significant change for a professional who happens to be an instructor. But I must stress again that this is not prescribed as the "right way to teach". It is something that attendees come to adopt themselves (or not).

It is clear from the comments that many academics have had unfortunate experiences with L&D sessions. And I have learned that FE takes education much more seriously than it did when I was an undergraduate. But there does seem to be an attitude of "no one can tell us anything to help us do our jobs". It is sad if this causes academics to ignore all the experience of learning that has been accumulated over the decades in industry and elsewhere.