Arguing over the Ridiculous: Brain Gym and Mantle of the ExpertNovember 16, 2013
One thing that came out of the ResearchED conference, perhaps inevitably with Ben Goldacre among the speakers, was the general acceptance that Brain Gym was pretty much the gold standard for nonsense in education. Both Robert Coe and Tom Bennett raised the question of what might be the next Brain Gym. If you aren’t familiar with it, it was a branded series of strange exercises that were meant to improve learning. Take a look at this or this for more information or watch this:
Why it has become so infamous is, in my view, due to the sheer implausibility of the claims. Instead of becoming incredibly fashionable and being endorsed by people in the highest levels of the education establishment, it should have just been laughed at for being utterly ridiculous from the start. The teaching profession was undermined by its willingness to engage with such obvious nonsense. However, it is for this reason, that I have tended to be sceptical about talk of “the next Brain Gym”. While baseless, bad ideas are pretty common in education they are not necessarily ridiculous. Ideas like SOLO taxonomy or Kagan Structures at least have a surface level of plausibility about them and can only really be objected to from a position of knowing how we actually learn. Things which are widespread but can safely be dismissed immediately as absurd are far rarer. The learning bicycle certainly qualifies as absurd but is far too obscure.
Building Learning Power is not obscure and is almost there on the absurdity front, but the only really obvious example I can think of something popular, that is as ridiculous as Brain Gym is “Thinking Hats”. David Didau wrote about it here and quickly discovered that few things get more of an angry reaction than pointing out the obvious. Those who have been suckered are going to read anything that says “this is obvious nonsense” as “you are an idiot”. If something is absurd, but people haven’t noticed, then they don’t take well to having it pointed out. Moreover, they can complain that by pointing out absurdity then you are not actually engaging with constructive criticism of the ideas. In fact they can even claim that you haven’t understood the idea. After all, you probably won’t have become deeply engaged in studying something if it is obviously crazy. Even Ben Goldacre, who is probably the most high profile advocate of greater use of RCTs in education has, to my knowledge, never once suggested that we need any RCTs on whether rubbing brain buttons actually works.
So there’s the dilemma. I want teachers to be able to say “Are you having a laugh?” when confronted with the very silly, but I also know that those who are unashamedly doing those very silly things will get very angry and accuse those teachers of not engaging in proper debate. After all, what is the rational evidence that something is very silly? Everyone pointing and laughing is a pretty good indicator, and sometimes it is enough to point something out and wait for the audience reaction in order to establish that, yes, what looked absurd to you also looks absurd to others. However, true believers are as likely to claim they are being misrepresented or bullied than realising that they have behaved in a way which provoked the reaction. So where do we go with ideas at the extreme ends of implausibility?
Well, the key thing has to be the strength of the argument. There are some things which seem to be implausible which hold up when you look at the evidence. For instance, have a look at this post by Laura McInerney which mentions that negative emotions appear to be better than a happy state for certain types of thinking (particularly deep analytical thought). I know from experience that saying this on Twitter without evidence will cause a storm of derision but this hasn’t happened here. Laura phrased it in such a way as to make it clear that this is what the evidence says, and followed up with links to research when people challenged her about it on Twitter. If something is apparently ridiculous but backed up by a solid argument there isn’t a problem. And it is very easy to forgive someone who ridiculed you if they come back and say, having looked at the evidence (or the argument) I realise you are right. While the existence (or not) of evidence or sound argument does not determine whether something is ridiculous – something can be wrong but seem plausible – it is an unlikely claim with nothing solid behind it that deserves to be considered ludicrous.
Of course people will still argue. They will say:
- It works for me.
- It’s insulting to criticise it.
- You have to see it to understand it.
- You just don’t understand it/haven’t researched it enough.
- Kids like it.
- The idea is only X (where X is a related but far less extreme idea, e.g. in the case of Brain Gym: “The idea is only that kids should take breaks between learning”).
The only real response is to ask the following question: Which of these arguments cannot also be applied, with equal validity, to Brain Gym? This won’t work on everyone. Some people will simply claim “but this is different” as if a bad argument is only bad when applied to particular claims. Some, and this was a shock to see, will even deny that anyone ever defended Brain Gym. However, if an idea is immediately implausible, and these are the best sort of arguments we have for it, then I do think we can safely dismiss it as nonsense.
With all that in mind, I would like to suggest, as I did a couple of days ago, that The Mantle of The Expert is just such a ridiculous idea. It is an attempt to teach a significant proportion of the curriculum through role-play, which is something I find absurd. The claims made for it add to the absurdity. Have a look at Wikipedia or The Mantle of the Expert website. My favourites are “Mantle of the expert has very strong elements of naturalism, as well as Brechtian theatre”; “Mantle of the expert has roots in sociology and anthropology”; and “Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on some of the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists, scientists and librarians might do in the real world”. It is easy to find many other claims that are, on the face of it, laughable.
Of course, there might be a serious case behind it. It may just be a coincidence that nobody has really been able to defend it with anything that goes beyond the arguments listed above (with the X in the last one being “the idea is only that role play be used occasionally in lessons”). Perhaps there are answers to the obvious objections. Perhaps someone will care to answer some of these:
- Why should students, particularly those who don’t like it, have to do lots of extra drama?
- How do you respond to the general discrediting of inquiry/discovery learning from empirical and psychological evidence in the last few years?
- Is the role-playing not likely to be a distraction from the learning?
- Where is the evidence for effectiveness which should have been accumulated in the last 30 years?