A workout suited to the grey cells
It has been called a pseudoscience, yet teachers are using Brain Gym in the classroom because they think it makes a difference.
"I use Brain Gym because I can see the positive effect on my students, particularly those who find school more challenging," says Helen Parker, a newly qualified teacher in southwest London. And she lets her students choose their favourite Brain Gym activities to break up their lessons.
In Durham local education authority, the NQT induction programme includes an introduction to Brain Gym. Denise Howe, Durham's advisory teacher for the continuing professional development service, thinks it works.
"Anchoring learning with movement is natural," she says.
"The five step process (see box) mirrors what effective teachers are doing anyway."
Of the 257 primary schools in the county, 230 have had some Brain Gym input, either as in-school training for all members of staff, or via two or three teachers who have attended a special course. Brain Gym has had a negative press in recent months, but Denise is enthusiastic about the effect it has had in Durham's primary classrooms. "We've collected lots of positive feedback," she says.
Brain Gym has fans beyond the primary classroom. Barry Pavier, who teaches history and politics at an FE college in West Yorkshire, uses a few Brain Gym movements with his students in the run up to the revision season. "I'm an A-level examiner, so I've seen a lot of A-level scripts - 9,000 in the last six years," he says.
"It's obvious to me that in the stress of examinations, candidates will often put down anything that they can recall about a topic, regardless of the question; a few go the other way and give the broad outline of the answer, but forget about the supporting detail. The ability to do both is the key to writing comprehensive answers in the essay format - and the failure to do this is probably the greatest single reason that students get low grades and underachieve."
Barry is convinced that Brain Gym helps address this problem. He cites one student who did Pace (positive, active, clear and energetic - a sequence of four basic BG activities) every day during the revision period. This student had never achieved more than 6090 for the essay module, but after going through a daily PACE routine, he got 9090 in the June exams.
Brain Gym, basically, is a series of 26 activities; though once you become au fait with it, it gets deeper and is a methodology for encouraging you to become aware of how physiology underpins your performance. Fans say it helps you to notice change within yourself, such as the difference between struggling with a task like reading and doing it with ease and pleasure.
At its most effective, Brain Gym is used within a five-step process, called a balance, which is designed to move an individual on from difficulty towards ease and flow.
* Get ready to learn.
* Set a personal goal or intention. This might be around a task such as handwriting. The goal can be as simple as "to write easily and comfortably in my book".
* Do some activities related to the goal. For example, hold a pencil and notice how it feels in your hand, do some writing and be aware of the process.
* Do some Brain Gym movements appropriate to the goal.
* Do step three again, and notice any differences.
To get started, you need a consultant (qualified to work one to one) or an instructor (qualified to teach the four-day foundation course). Here are a couple of taster activities to give you the gist.
As though walking on the spot, move one arm and its opposite leg, then the other arm and its opposite leg. The aim is to bring the knees up to hip level and to move slowly and steadily. This movement accesses both hemispheres simultaneously and is a warm-up for activities such as reading and writing which involve crossing the body's lateral midline.
The 8 is drawn on its side, starting from the midpoint at eye level and first moving up to the left in an anti-clockwise direction then across the body and up to the right in a clockwise direction. The midline of the body is lined up with the midline of the Lazy 8. Three repetitions with each hand, then with both together, are recommended.
It's best to involve one's full visual field and fully extend the arms. As the eyes follow the Lazy 8, the neck remains relaxed. This activates the brain for crossing the visual midline and the eye tracking required for reading.