Know your brain and the science of de-stressing

18th September 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Catherine Paver

`This quiz will tell you whether you are a left-, right-, or middle- brain teacher."

Hello, middle brain. I don't think we've met.

"Choose one option: 1) It's fun to take risks; 2) I have fun without taking risks."

Erm, is there only one kind of risk? I like the risk of chatting up a sexy man, but I wouldn't like to picnic on a motorway. And must I choose between only three kinds of brain? I am curious about this "middle-brain teacher". Perhaps that's me. "You middle-brainers sometimes get confused."

No kidding - and we're not alone. Pseudo-scientific ideas about the brain, such as those in this loopy quiz, have been part of education culture for 20 years. Startling misconceptions on the topic were revealed in a recent Bristol University survey, The Neuroscience Literacy of Trainee Teachers ("Brain dead? The trainees who think kids learn while they chat", September 4). One teacher thought there were "lots of traditional recipes to neuralize the brain . like a walnut. It has the shape of the brain" and can "kind of moisturize it".

We're lucky the tabloids missed this - a plural in the headline ("Teachers believe") and Walnut Lady could be used to claim we're all nuts. Even so, it was chastening stuff. Some teachers were not even sure that a brain was necessary for consciousness. Hmm. I think there was a Monty Python sketch about how it only takes a million years to teach an asbestos mat to recite Hamlet .

So why didn't the teachers questioned have a better grasp of how the brain works? Well, the basics of neuroscience are not included on teacher training courses. But they should be. On top of the normal level of public ignorance, teachers are exposed to ideas about the brain that sound impressive but have not been subjected to scrutiny. Words like "cortex" and "hemisphere" can lend a false sheen of authority to anything.

Yikes. So what can stressed-out teachers do - become neuroscientists in their spare time? No. A good place to start is this free download: "Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities" (http:tinyurl.comlr44yu). It's by Dr Paul Howard-Jones, who led the Bristol survey. Clear and readable, it bodes well for his book, Introducing Neuroeducational Research, out in October. Also well worth reading is The Learning Brain by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith.

I know this is hefty for the cartoon page, but there's a lot in it for us. False claims about the brain add stress to the job - left-brain and right- brain labels are one example. I was once told that my teaching must foster new connections between the two. Now I know these connections exist permanently, mostly through the corpus callosum. That's not the job of teachers, we've got enough to do.

The unscientific ideas that clutter our profession are like favourite chairs in the staff room. They're comfy, and people get annoyed if they think that someone's going to take them away. But if you have a method that helps little Johnnie, no one's going to take it away. It's just that if someone claims that it alters little Johnnie's brain, they must prove it.

Teachers can help neuroscientists to set their discoveries in a realistic classroom context. In return, neuroscientists can set teachers on the path to awe at what the brain has been doing all this time, while we weren't looking.

  • Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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