`Pseudoscience has nested in schools'

12th September 2014 at 01:00
Teachers must demand evidence, says former parapsychologist

When Nick Rose worked as a parapsychologist, his job was to investigate why people believed they had been haunted by ghosts or abducted by aliens. When he became a teacher, he expected that all this would be replaced by hard facts and a rigorous curriculum - but teaching is "rife" with myths and pseudoscience, he believes.

At a major conference on the use of research in education, Mr Rose said schools had "very little immunity to nonsense" and urged teachers to have the confidence to ask "impertinent" questions about approaches that had no scientific basis.

Many teachers still believed that dominance of the "right" or "left" brain could explain variations among pupils and were too ready to adopt concepts such as "learning styles", he added.

Mr Rose singled out the Brain Gym programme, which claims to boost brain function through a series of physical exercises and has been widely criticised for being based on pseudoscience. He said it was still popular in some primaries.

"These pseudoscientific ideas, the ones with no scientific founding and quite often disconfirming evidence, have rattled their way through a school, having been ousted out of other disciplinary areas, and have nested and taken root," Mr Rose told the ResearchED conference in London. "In order to move forward as a profession, we really need schools to develop a herd immunity.If half the staffroom are challenging things, it's going to be much harder for this kind of thing to take root."

Mr Rose, who was a postgraduate researcher in parapsychology at the University of the West of England before becoming a psychology teacher, said the "weak point" of education was that teachers were overly focused on what was happening in their own classrooms and what appeared to work for them. He also compared consultants training teachers in scientifically unproven techniques to "snake-oil salesmen".

The comments - and the conference - come at a time when interest in educational research in schools is growing. In March 2013, the government commissioned science writer Dr Ben Goldacre to investigate the role of evidence in the education sector. He recommended that high-quality research into different approaches should be embedded as seamlessly as possible into everyday education.

School reform minister Nick Gibb told ResearchED that access to evidence-based research would "liberate" teachers from the "shackles they have laboured under for too long".

Wellington College, a leading independent school in Berkshire, launched its own learning and research centre this week, designed to develop stronger links between academic research and educational practice. The centre is already forming partnerships with the University of London's Institute of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the US to conduct research into concepts such as student resilience.

Carl Hendrick, Wellington's head of research, said the teaching profession had in the past been vulnerable to "faddish" trends and "whatever was flavour of the month". He added: "A lot of this has actually been harmful."

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York, which is collaborating with the Education Endowment Foundation on a project to find the best way of putting research into practice. He agreed with Mr Rose's analysis but said it was hard for teachers to challenge authority. "Schools and teachers are vulnerable in a pressured environment and the quick fix appeals to our needs," he explained.

Paul E Dennison, founder of Brain Gym, said: "The reason the programme is popular.is that it works."

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