Pseudoscience techniques rampant in schools because they sound like quick fixes

A skeptical parapsychologists tells it like it is at an education conference – teachers embrace nonsense learning ideas because quick fixes are appealing. Long-term meaningful changes are hard.

‘Pseudoscience has nested in schools’ – news – TES.

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.

What kind of nonsense topics is he talking about? Things like dominance of the right- or left-brain and “learning styles”, as well as the Brain Gym movement-based program of educational kinesiology which really took off in the U.K. Rose notes that these ideas have taken root in the classroom even though they are unsupported by evidence.

Ben Goldacre took on the Brain Gym concept years ago and received hell for it. [Stick a picture of a brain on something and people think it’s “smart”!]

Brain Gym – educational kinesiology – The Skeptic’s Dictionary

See also Left Brain – Right Brain Myth « Science-Based Medicine.

Are schools too tied into doing things a certain way and not open to change? Take, for example, the push for later start times for older students, based on evidence that starting early is detrimental. Are many schools adopting this? How about all-year schooling? These are hard things to change and so change is slow to appear. But quick fixes and easy categorizing of kids is quickly adopted without the necessary scrutiny Rose is advocating. Are things like Brain Gym harmless? Maybe. But such techniques focus on process that has not shown promise at the expense of one that does.

Rose has worked with Susan Blackmore, another parapsychologist turned skeptic. This story was U.K.-based. But, this stuff is rampant in the U.S. as well. Several years ago I wrote about my own experiences seeing pseudoscientific stuff in my kid’s classroom. A Tale of Fail: Schools pass on opportunities to teach skepticism. I was not happy with the teaching of critical thinking let alone the practice of it by the teachers. Your milage may vary depending on the school. What can be done? I’d love to hear from teachers on this topic.

  16 comments for “Pseudoscience techniques rampant in schools because they sound like quick fixes

  1. September 14, 2014 at 9:24 PM

    Myers-Briggs is another one being taught in schools.

  2. Peter Robinson
    September 14, 2014 at 10:48 PM

    IANAT so perhaps what have to say is not as useful as those that are, but hopefully of some interest. A few points in relation to this.

    1. The longer many skeptics spend studying and dealing with pseudoscience and dubious claims, the more important the idea of the need to educate kids in the ways of critical thinking from an early age becomes. In order to do this, teachers need to be educated to be able to do so. JREF appears to have acknowledged this in the desire to move more towards a role promoting skepticism in education, which is great, but the movement needs to become more mainstream.

    2. In aa World where quick fixes or quick wins are a management mantra in order to meet targets, which is an especially prevalent issue in business, this mindset and the latest re-packaging of management consultants selling their methods, however nonsensical, can quickly take hold and spread like wildfire. The education sector is just as prone to such temptations as any other business.

    3. At Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub, we were recently fortunate to hear a talk by Daisy Christodoulou who touched on this issue, and who has written a book which deals with it at greater length. Seven Myths about Education, may be of interest.

    4. In the U.K. the Government and Civil Service have a najor role to play, and are probably either partly or largely responsible. By imposing a target driven culture, the quick fix is a temptation. In addition, if bad ideas gain a foothold centrally, then they can become policy, which is fed to schools to pass on,

    Also, by allowing and encouraging the spread of autonomy for schools, there is perhaps greater scope for educational ideologies and dogmas to be embedeed. There is also an issues with faith schools, even to the extent that the Department of Education funds some Steiner Schools. Where faith of any kind underpins education, there is an inbuilt bias against critical thinking, along the lines that some critical thinking is o.k., but not if it undermines the underlying raison d’etre of the school.

  3. Old Muley
    September 14, 2014 at 11:54 PM

    As a school psychologist, I deal with this stuff on a daily basis. We often have parents who will request all kinds of odd things for kids, and school staff will just go along not wanting to upset them. Of course school staff is no better; I’ve had coworkers recommend things such as reiki, hyperbaric oxygen and theraputic listening. As I’ve become more and more comfortable as a skeptic, I’ve been working hard to try and dispel myths and look for scientific evidence for interventions, but it’s not easy.

  4. Rob
    September 15, 2014 at 9:21 AM

    My mother just retired from early elementary teaching last year. Her experience was that parents came in with a pre-conceived notion of what kind of “treatment” they wanted for their kids. She found that fighting them was not worth the effort. By just recommending what the parents wanted everyone was happy.

    I’m not saying this is right. Just what she experienced.

  5. Saiajanai
    September 15, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    So… does mindfulness meditation or Transcendental Meditation fall into this category of evidence-less-based interventions that are promoted in schools?

  6. Bill T.
    September 15, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    Resist these less than supported ideas brought in by parents and you get tagged as being arrogant and unresponsive to parents. I admire your intestinal fortitude demonstarted by your sticking to your uns as best as possible.

  7. Bill T.
    September 15, 2014 at 2:03 PM

    Are you saying there are well-refereed studies that demonstrate efficacy of these practices in education? (I don’t know if there are, or not.) If so, then these are not subjects of the article.

  8. Saijanai
    September 15, 2014 at 3:21 PM

    Absolutely.

    However, the studies have all been done (as far as I know) by True Believer researchers.

    Consider this essay,

    A quiet transformation
    http://kenchawkin.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/a-quiet-transformation.pdf

    by James Dierke, now-retired principal of Visatacion Valley Middle school, where “Most of the students in our school have a family member who has been shot, who did the shooting, or who saw a shooting.”

    Dierke ended up being awarded the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2008 Middle School Principal of the Year
    http://www.nassp.org/Content.aspx?topic=56219
    for the changes in his school he describes above, when he implemented a school-wide program that will go unnamed for now.

    .

    Among the changes that Dierke attributed to the new program (the changes for which he won the award):

    A statistically significant improvement in school-wide GPA of about 0.4 grade points (2.4 GPA to 2.8).

    A statistically significant decrease in school suspensions, from 27% the year the program was implemented to under 5% two years later (city-wide rates were unchanged).

    The largest improvements in all measures appeared to be in the most-underprivledged (highly-stressed) kids.

    Most faculty (95%) signed off on participation in the program, and faculty health and well-being measures are reported to have improved significantly as well.

    Source: CWAE website
    http://cwae.org/research_intro.php

    (CWAE is the organization that administers the program, but their website claims that all student data is derived directly from San Francisco Unified School District data that is publicly available, and they published the study in the journal _Education_ volume 131).

    An independent (as far as I know) verification of the above is the finding by WestEd that Visatacion Valley Middle School is now “the happiest school in San Francisco” based on the ‘California Healthy Kids Survey’ that WestEd administers on behalf of the California Department of Education.

    http://www.wested.org/using-data-to-find-the-happiest-school-in-san-francisco/)

    .

    The government of Brazil has been monitoring the outcome of several thousand kids learning TM in schools in Brazil, and recently announced plans to pay for the training of 48,000 TM teachers–one for each public school in Brazil–so that all 45 million public school students in Brazil could learn TM for free as an elective. THis may be contingent on the current President of Brazil being re-elected (she’s a TMer).

    In Peru, the government is planning on extending the pilot project where 30,000 school students are doing TM in the public schools, to a project where 250,000 will be doing TM. The twist is that the Peruvian government will provide the school teachers to be trained as TM teachers. This is a major sea-change for the TM organization as traditionally, self-selected True Believers pay for training for themselves. I don’t know of any high-ranking Peruvian politician that practices TM, though the President of Colombia is also a TMer.

    .

    On a related note, the David Lynch Foundation recently published 2 tiny pilot studies on the effects of TM on war refugees with PTSD. The results were so overwhelming that international relief agencies are conducting their own research to see if the results hold up. If they do, there’s an estimated 100 million Africans with PTSD that might learn TM. Under the model being implemented (maybe) by the Peruvian government, it might be the case 20 or 30 years from now that international relief agencies will provide TM instruction as part of standard humanitarian relief, taught by their own workers who have been trained as TM teachers.

    http://www.davidlynchfoundation.org/africa.html

  9. Bill T.
    September 16, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    I suppose that answers your question then, doesn’t it?

  10. Bill T.
    September 16, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    I note that none of the linked articles appear to be well-vetted publications of research. But maybe I’m wrong. An essay and and an award by a non-science-based panel don’t count, certainly. I note the two pilot studies, but these can only be considered provisional, given their nature (“tiny”, “pilot”).

  11. saijanai
    September 16, 2014 at 11:04 AM

    I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed research on the effects of TM on entire schools. I may be wrong, but I’m not aware of any peer-reviewed research of the effects of mindfulness on entire schools either.

    There ARE peer-rewviewed studies on the effects of meditation of various kinds on smaller groups of students.

    The results of this study predict the general changes found in the school-wide program when TM was introduced:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12740037
    Impact of stress reduction on negative school behavior in adolescents.

    Abstract
    BACKGROUND:
    The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of stress reduction via the Transcendental Meditation program on school rule infractions in adolescents.
    METHODS:
    Forty-five African American adolescents (ages 15-18 years) with high normal systolic blood pressure were randomly assigned to either Transcendental Meditation (n = 25) or health education control (n = 20) groups. The meditation group engaged in 15-min sessions at home and at school each day for 4 months. The control group was presented 15-min sessions of health education at school each day for 4 months. Primary outcome measures were changes in absenteeism, school rule infractions and suspension days during the four-month pretest period prior to randomization compared with the four-month intervention period.
    RESULTS:
    Comparing the pretest and intervention periods, the meditation group exhibited a mean decrease of 6.4 absentee periods compared to an increase of 4.8 in the control group (p <.05). The meditation group exhibited a mean decrease of 0.1 infractions over the four months compared to an increase of 0.3 in the control group (p <.03). There was a mean reduction of 0.3 suspension days due to behavior-related problems in the meditation group compared to an increase of 1.2 in the control group (p <.04).
    CONCLUSION:
    These findings demonstrate that the Transcendental Meditation program conducted in the school setting has a beneficial impact upon absenteeism, rule infractions, and suspension rates in African American adolescents.

    Note that compliance is easier when the practice is supported during the school day as is the case with the Quiet Time schools, while not the case with the above study since students had to make time for meditation at home, and that, insomuch as school-wid violence is reduced, the overall stress reduction from having ALL kids practicing TM would tend to reinforce the stress-reduction effects in individual students.

  12. Bill T.
    September 16, 2014 at 11:53 AM

    So what was the purpose of your original question? (I remind you: “So… does mindfulness meditation or Transcendental Meditation fall into this category of evidence-less-based interventions that are promoted in schools?”.)

    As I suggested, above, that if there is evidence for TM as being efficacious then it is explicitly not a subject of the article (indeed, I do not see TM called out anywhere, other practices are explicitly identified).

  13. saijanai
    September 16, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    TM is often lumped with pseudoscience practices by most people. While the research isn’t nearly as solid as one might like, the evidence is accruing.

  14. karl
    September 16, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    Several years ago a school in Canada was fooled into “investing” in tubs of soil to “balance” WifI and EMF that was ostensibly plaguing the children and staff.

    http://www.ottawaskeptics.org/2008/10/23/151-cepeo-to-investigate-emf-balancers-in-local-schools/

  15. CLamb
    September 16, 2014 at 8:15 PM

    What about stuff which isn’t obviously woo? I mean things like new basic mathematics textbooks and replacing black/white boards with Smartboards. Have these things really been studied to see if they improve learning or is it just innovation for the sake of innovation? I would think after a millennium the best way to teach basic mathematics would’ve been sorted out.

  16. Bill T.
    September 17, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    Again, I saw no mention of Transcendetal Meditation in the article or commentary, other practices were explicitly listed.

    I see no concrete reason to believe TM is lumped into the subject of the discussion.

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