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Mind

Whole Brain Teaching...?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJuly 19, 2012 2:48 AM

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Oh dear. The Kansas City Star asks: Teachers learn ways to keep students' attention, but are brain claims valid?

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Probably not. Unless you're buying a brain scanner or a plush brain, product 'brain claims' are generally just marketing patter. But let's see.

When Chris Biffle called out the word "Class!" Wednesday morning at Walsh University, 450 teachers and administrators yelled back, "Yes!"

"Class class?" he said. "Yes! Yes!" they replied.

"Classity classity," he said."Yessity yessity," they chanted back.

Biffle, one of the co-founders of Southern California-based Whole Brain Teaching LLC, is leading a two-day conference about his method. He calls the technique "Class-Yes." Whole Brain Teaching's website says "Class Yes" activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain and "readies students for instruction"...Whole Brain Teaching reminds me of Brain Gym, a notorious bit of British neuro-nonsense from a few years ago. According to the WBT research page, they have over 50,000 registered teachers and 2 million views of their videos. This also informs us that:

Class-Yes: Our primary attention-getter activates the prefrontal cortex, often called the CEO of the brain... Little if any learning can take place if the prefrontal cortex is not engaged.

while even "mirror neurons" have a role to play:

Mirror: Many brain scientists believe that we learn by mirroring the gestures and activities of others. They have identified mirror neurons scattered throughout the brain that are activated by mimicking the behavior we observe. Our own experience in WBT classroom indicates that when a class mirrors our gestures and, when appropriate, repeats our words, a powerful learning bond is created between students and teachers.

There are lots of problems here, but here's the most fundamental: the theory behind the system seems to be that activating particular parts of students' brains, through a special task, will help them to use that part of their brain when it comes to the actual lesson a few minutes later. But I know of no evidence that bits of the brain "warm up" like that; if anything they're more likely to "wear out" through lack of energy and nutrients although I don't think that's likely either.

If such warm-ups did work, your best bet for activating your primary visual cortex, for example, would be to stare at a rapidly-changing pattern of random colors for a few minutes. That wouldn't improve your vision. It would just give you a headache.

In fact, why not just activate your entire noggin, pharmacologically? Just grab some pentylenetetrazol - a drug that blocks inhibitory signals between brain cells. Snort a few lines of that and if you survive the resulting seizure, go and learn something and see if you're really good at it.

I'm not saying Whole Brain Teaching is useless, I'm not saying anything about the method itself, but the "brain" claims are misleading. Many of the things they recommend are teaching aids and classroom exercises, and no doubt those are helpful. Plus, psychological factors like teacher motivation, student engagement, and a positive atmosphere are vital in learning, and it doesn't matter if you achieve them through neurosciencey gimmicks, they're still going to help... well, except in terms of educating people to spot neurosciencey gimmicks.

But that's teaching. It's nothing to do with the brain.

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