Keeping an open brain on research

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
It is unfortunate that Brian Boyd, writing in response to a report of my contribution to a recent headteachers' conference, cannot resist personal invective (TESS, last week). "It's not the theory which is silly," he writes and then acknowledges that he cannot tell from the article exactly what I was speaking about.

Perhaps I can help, but in a less personal way? I was claiming that there has been little real debate in Scotland about the nature of the curriculum as a result of what I called "the Munn orthodoxy".

Now that some flexibility is apparently to be allowed, it seems that schools are uncertain about the basis on which alternatives can be offered. Into this vacuum come various claims broadly asserting that we can draw on neurological research to inform better techniques of teaching.

I suggest that such claims are not well founded and, in a number of cases, clearly false. Brain research will lead to significant shifts in our understanding of "learning", but not for some years yet.

Mr Boyd omits to mention that Sperry's 1981 Nobel Prize was for his work with patients suffering from intractable epilepsy who underwent surgery to separate the brain hemispheres by cutting the corpus callosum.

These radical surgical techniques seemed to provide the only way of looking at rightleft brain activity. However, even then, there was considerable controversy about the relevance of these "split-brain" studies to normal functioning.

Mr Boyd's other hero, Goleman, as the editor of Psychology Today, was dismissive of the dual brain notion (as popularised by Ornstein), calling it in 1977 "the fad of the year". Was he just another silly person?

I don't want to comment in detail on another fad, the "thinking skills" schemes with which I believe Mr Boyd has been associated.

I took exactly the same position as Valerie Wilson in her review for the Scottish Executive (2000) that "the evidence is contradictory" and, while recommending further exploration, she warns that "the jury is still out" on whether such programmes enhance children's learning.

David Eastwood

Senior teaching fellow

Department of Management Studies

Aberdeen University

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