Think, base teaching on firm research

12th March 2004 at 00:00
In his book Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations, the late journalist John Diamond made very clear his feelings about the importance of evidence-based research.

In his pursuit of a cure for the cancer which killed him three years ago, he was bombarded with information about alternative therapies which claimed to halt the progress of the disease. He was very sceptical about the claims, often based on no valid or reliable evidence. There were no double blind trials where a product was tested on a large number of patients and neither patient nor researcher knew who was receiving the product under trial or in fact a placebo.

I have similar concerns when I read many of the claims made for new learning strategies, especially those which offer simple solutions for improved learning. I am not suggesting that the techniques don't work; I just want to know what research was carried out and what it proved. We need to be certain that we are not wasting children's time pursuing untested ideas based on unfounded theory.

There is little doubt that increased understanding of how the brain works will lead to improvements in how children learn and the most effective part that teachers can play in the process. I await with great interest the outcomes of medical and psychological research on the relationship between brain function and learning.

Meanwhile, just occasionally, I bite my tongue when a member of staff returns from a course where some consultant has suggested there is a simple panacea for learning. Apparently, a few simple exercises involving hand and eye co-ordination and drinking copious amounts of water is all it takes to make children write and spell better. But doesn't the constant stream of children trotting off to the toilets reduce the amount of time available for learning?

Educational consultants peddle these attractive notions to unsuspecting staff, who ought to challenge their assertions and ask for their evidence base.

I came upon an article by Ben Goldacre, published in the Guardian last summer, about brain gym, which allegedly improves learning. Before the tasks are undertaken, children are required to drink water and hold it in their mouths long enough for some to be absorbed into the body and transferred to the brain, thereby improving learning.

You can find out more about brain gym on the Internet. However, before your professional development budget is spent on learning about this and similar notions, consider this. Has any serious research been carried out to validate such claims?

Goldacre described going to the brain gym website where he learned that "Brain Gym was a form of 'educational kinesiology', which 'focuses on the performance of specific physical activities that activate the brain for optimal storage and retrieval of information'."

And there's more! "Focus is the ability to co-ordinate the back and front areas of the brain ... Centering is the ability to co-ordinate the top and bottom areas of the brain ... Brain gym movements interconnect the brain in these dimensions."

Unsurprisingly, he was not able to find any published research to support the assertions.

It is certainly important to find out as much as we can about the different ways in which children learn. One area of professional development which many teachers are benefiting from is studying learning and teaching styles.

Teachers use an auditory teaching approach most of the time. They also use visual stimuli. Least of all they use a kinaesthetic approach, which appears to be preferred by children. Skilled teachers will likely include all these approaches and vary their teaching styles to suit the subject. It is probably unreasonable to expect them to customise teaching to meet the varied needs of each pupil.

Student teachers are asked to refer to research findings when planning lessons in an effort to base their practice on a solid foundation. This kind of practice should prevent them being subjected to the unhelpful swings that have dogged education over recent decades.

Are skills more important than knowledge? Is play more important than direct teaching? Is reading better taught through phonics or "look and say"? Setting or mixed ability? Remember ITA, the Initial Teaching Alphabet, and Words in Colour. Were they based on research?

Let's ensure our thinking about children's learning and the role of teachers is based on valid and reliable research.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary, EdinburghIf you have any comments, e-mail

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