Let's think beyond the pseudo-science

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
One element of a successful learner is the ability to make reasoned evaluations
One element of a successful learner is the ability to make reasoned evaluations. Despite much criticism of some learning theories such as Brain Gym, some schools still promote their use. As reported in The TESS in September last year, Sergio Della Salla from Edinburgh University referred to Brain Gym's scientific claims as "complete mumbo jumbo".

Now, you could argue that there is nothing new under the sun: mesmerism and phrenology flourished once and, as now, many were seduced by these "disciplines". Paul Dennison, the Californian educator who created Brain Gym, has admitted that many claims in his teachers' guide were based on his "hunches" and were not proper science.

But does it matter that the programme has flaws? Some in Scottish education are still passionate advocates, convinced it has enhanced learning. No one would dispute the value of giving the bairns an opportunity to stretch. Yet it has done real harm.

Sadly, because of an inability to make reasoned evaluations, Scottish education has allowed bogus learning theories to permeate schools, consuming taxpayers' money and resulting in confusion. But there is a wider point. A Curriculum for Excellence refers to the importance of being able to "evaluate environmental, scientific and technological issues". Before we can adequately encourage this approach among children, we need to ensure it is at the heart of the profession.

Carol Craig, of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, has performed a vital function highlighting the damage done by the self-esteem movement in the United States. Unfortunately, the unwarranted praise mentality, as a shortcut for creating confidence, has penetrated Scottish education - because of our failure to apply critical thinking.

We cannot afford to underestimate the importance of critical thinking skills if we hope to have a vibrant democratic society. Even a cursory historical glance reveals the horrors that can emerge when pseudo-science goes unchecked: Stalin allowed Lysenko's experiment to devastate agriculture; Hitler's use of eugenics stained the 20th century; and the same farrago of flawed science was used by some democracies to sterilise thousands.

As the ACfE capacity on effective contributors reminds us, we need to apply critical thinking. Inevitably, we all have our convictions, but the key question is: are our convictions based on evidence, or are they no more than "a cloud of comforting convictions"? Could we do more in schools to foster an environment that encourages not just pupils but teachers to question?

Too often, critical questioning by pupils is stamped on as defiance; the equivalent in teachers is viewed as behaviour that shows they are not team players. In order to make the next generation effective contributors, perhaps one of the crucial tasks of our profession is to help pupils learn how to think and evaluate issues effectively. From recent evidence, perhaps we need to "remove the plank from our own eye" before progressing with the weans.

David Halliday, is a teacher at Eyemouth High.

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