Son of Brain Gym: Dancing to Nursery Rhymes Boosts A-Levels or something.

In other news: thinking burns calories.
Remember Brain Gym? It was a now-discredited theory that pressing your brain buttons and doing warm ups would somehow improve the cognitive development of your learning conversation, or something similarly moronic. It would be laughable, except that a sizeable purse of public money was spent promoting this ridiculous snake-oil. You know, money that could go to orphans and homeless people and that. I should know, because I was one of the recipients- I was a cultish recruit on the now-defunct Fast Track program (motto: Be the inspiration- from the classroom to the staffroom, which should give you some kind of idea how much we were hated), sort of a predecessor to Teach First. They threw money at us, really chucked it as hard as they could. One of the now-unimaginable training bonuses was a three day residential where we learned NLP (another dubious bag of serpents and spanners) where we were taught the uncertain joys of Brain Gym, and had it recommended for dissemination in the real world.

Fortunately the stake has been fairly firmly planted in the heart of the Brain Gym vampire, especially after Ben Goldacre's famous assault on it in Bad Science. But not before thousands of schools had wasted their time, and most importantly that of the students, on pointless, pointy-headed miracle crystal exercises that made extraordinary claims to efficacy but without concomitant extraordinary evidence. Any efforts accrued from Brain Gym could be replicated from giving your pupils a break every now and then and getting them to stretch their legs a bit. Which, you know, people do anyway, unless you treat your students like laboratory beagles (and even they get very long fag breaks).

And THAT'S what it's all about.
But the dead do not stay in their graves; they rise, they reek, and roam the edu-sphere, looking for new necks, fresh blood and brains. Fans of feeling sad and slightly intellectually superior weren't disappointed this week if they read the news that 'Moving to rhyme may boost pupil results.' What the research appears to be telling us this week is that doing exercises set to nursery rhymes helps children to develop. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP I READ IT ON THE BBC WEBSITE THEY DO NOT F*CK AROUND:

The Primary Movement project involves getting nine-year-olds to do set exercises to nursery rhymes and will be tested in 40 schools in north-east England. The exercises mimic the earliest reflexes made by babies and foetuses. The theory is that children can be held back if such reflexes persist. Trisha Saul from the Primary Movement project said: "Some of the songs and the nursery rhymes will be familiar, it's the movements that are different. "These are designed to replicate movements the foetus makes in the womb and the baby makes in the first six months of their life."

 Now, why on earth would anyone think that this was a thing that actually existed, rather than simply being a whimsical daydream of a theory? Because the ubiquitous research suggested it, in a study by the Queen's University Belfast in 2000. Blimey, they've taken their time to get round to doing anything, haven't they? Or maybe it's a testimony to the distance back anyone had to dig in order to get any academic support for this latest foray into the desperate world of educational fairy tale research. Maybe not.

 The small scale little known research project found that children who carried out systematic physical exercises for a year gained 15-20 months progress in reading compared to a control group which did not do the exercises.

'Small scale'. 'Little Known'. It's not looking good, is it? They could have said 'obscure', but I think the Beeb draw a line somewhere. Trisha Saul, from the Primary Movement Project, said this:

"It's a bit like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but the butterfly still has bits of the caterpillar attached to it."

That's EXACTLY what it's like. What?

'I am a confident, independent learner.'
I had a look a Primary Movement's website (the body coordinating the project, which is taking place in 40 schools in England and Wales). It's far from illuminating, although it links to a sole credit- a press release from Queen's University, Belfast (oddly enough from 2006, and the article published by the no-doubt beyond beyond reproach Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs- available online only, of course- was in the November 2005 issue, so I don't know where 2000 comes from).

What it DOES offer is a number of courses that you can apply to take. There isn't a price list on it. I'm guessing it isn't free, for either the Foundation or Advanced Level certification. The website advises that as a parent, you should check if your local teacher is trained properly in the method, and suddenly it's getting a bit mystical and Alexander techniquey, and only the elect are chosen etc.

There is an interesting name that comes up again: Dr Martin McPhillips, who developed the Primary Movement program, and also appears as the author of five out of the seven published papers supporting the work of the PMP so boy, he's busy. As far as I can see, the research produced by the PMP seems to focus on children with SEN. I might be wrong, of course.

'The Primary Movement programme developed at Queen's University, Belfast has been shown to have a significant impact on reducing reflex persistence. It has been evaluated in a number of formal studies that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.'

In a school-based study of children in their first year at primary school, it was found that the Primary Movement programme had a significant effect on the development of fine motor control(9). In another large, school-based study, involving more than one thousand children, it was found that the Primary Movement programme had a significant effect on ATNR persistence. This led to improved academic attainments in reading, spelling and mathematics

'I endorse brain gym. And anything else.'
That last sentence interests me, because that's where programs like this intersect with my work as a teacher. The PMP is, I'm sure, beyond reproach, has impeccable academic credentials, and works solely to promote the well being of children. Its authors and board are undoubtedly motivated by nothing but the noblest of motives. That last sentence is quite a claim. I wonder how they reached that conclusion?

My concern is that it is far from clear that instigating a program, however well endorsed, of physical exercises has anything like a substantial effect on a child's learning ability, and if it does, can be replicated on anything more than laboratory conditions, on all, or even merely most children. And that it is far from clear that such a program has any significant difference from any other program of simple physical exercises. That the suggested increases in learning can be accounted for solely by reference to the exercise program, and can't be accounted for by other means, such as the children and the teachers feeling that there should be some kind of benefit. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That's the problem with this kind of research.

The problem remains with ALL forms of educational research; controls aren't real controls; exact conditions can't be replicated and tested against. High causal density in human interactions means that causal relationships can rarely, if ever, be inferred from any pool of data, and researcher bias becomes overwhelming in both the design, execution and interpretation of any such project.

Meanwhile, in austerity UK, trials like this receive funding.

Social science. It's not a real science, is it?

Teacher Voice.


  1. With you up to the lame sneer about social science.

    1. With you up to the lame sneer about my lame sneer :)

      I'm disappointed with attempts to equivalate the predictive or diagnostic properties of the social sciences with those of the natural sciences, where such things are problematic enough. As a teacher I am regularly clobbered with theories and values masquerading as fact, that not only waste my time, but damage the education of children AND encourage sloppy magic-crystal thinking. Social sciences are/ should be a commentary on the human condition, not a prescriptive or authoritative attempt to quantify and capture it.

      I've written about this A LOT in my blogs, so I use short hand to express myself about it now. But it is a problem.

  2. With you up to, and including, the amusing (and true) sentence about social science.

  3. Sorry, Mr Morley - Tom's correct. Until social science can exclude all confounding variables - some of which are going to be the personalities and upbringing of the subjects concerned - it can't be regarded as hard science. I spend a lot of time in my own subject (A-level English Language, which is largely sociolinguistics) putting red lines through the words 'prove' and 'disprove' in my students' essays and writing in words like 'may suggest', 'might imply', 'could possibly show', 'may demonstrate' and so on.

  4. When many years ago I completed a unit on Social Science they seemed so desperate to show that it was a science that we all thought it wasn't.
    I think we were right.
    Just had a flash back to Bede College sociology lectures basically working class bad, that was it.
    These people have done as much as anyone to destroy education.

  5. Aaargh! Brain Gym, Primary Movement Programme. When will people learn that exercise is good for you. You don't need to spend all this money on stupid theories! Maybe I should just jump on the bandwagon and make up a new exercise program and make millions of pounds.

  6. I think the problem is still rooted within the huge pressure on results from standardised testing. If you are leading a school that is below floor targets, and a very tight time scale is applied to climbing above them it surely affects wellbeing and common sense thinking. I think it's in that circumstance that these crazy things seem like a good idea, or at least an idea. What is really needed is enough time to change the ethos properly rather than applying the latest expensive social science based sticking plaster.

  7. Ummmmmmm
    I am a well educated and knowledgeble individual. I am also a serious sceptic. I just completed the Brain Gym 3 day and I experienced for myself its unequivacol value. The movements do, in fact, have an impact on how our brains function. You may be a cynical nay sayer but unless you have done the hard research to PROVE the effects to be insignificant scientifically then I will remain a staunch supporter of Educational Kinesiology.


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