Beware bad science, especially in Education

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

Ten years ago I read a book that has influenced my view on education ever since. That book was Bad Science, by Dr Ben Goldacre, who also wrote the entertaining and relentlessly honest Guardian articles of the same name that gently ridiculed the nonsense that is often purveyed in the pseudoscience world.

Bad Science reinforced my concern that so much of education is based on fashion, or fad or what somebody thought was a good idea at the time. It’s a book that should be distributed liberally in secondary schools to help our children understand what rubbish they ought to be aware of and need to learn to filter. So much of the pseudoscience lacks proper testing, or an open approach to publishing its methods and results, all of which are essentials for real science and genuine progress.

I’ve had a couple of recent reminders of the book and its continuing importance. One of the pleasures of being a college principal is meeting other heads and principals and discovering their thoughts about education and society. One of my fellow heads, James Wilding, from a school in Maidenhead, often has thought-provoking ideas and recently reminisced about one of the fads Bad Science ridiculed: Brain Gym. This saw enterprising marketing displace all sanity and we had pupils at schools up and down the country performing all sorts of bizarre physical exercises purported to make you cleverer, improve your brain function and lead to improved educational attainment.

Apparently these included exercises such as one in which you massage the muscles round your jaw, a so-called “energy yawn”. Another involved activating your “brain buttons” by forming a C-shape with one hand and pressing it either side of the collarbone while simultaneously touching your stomach with the other hand.

Over Christmas, I eventually got round to reading Ben Goldacre’s more recent book Bad Pharma which subjected the pharmaceutical industry to the same scrutiny and relentless honesty that characterised his previous writing. Whilst I have long accepted that the pharmaceutical industry, just like any other industry, experiences a tension between commercial pressures and openness, it has been both startling and salutary to realise how difficult it is for evidence-based medicine to be at the core of treatment, whatever ailment we might be talking about. I haven’t worked out how this latest reading ought to influence my view on education, but I’m sure that it will, especially given the age, ability and aptitudes of

our students at CCSS, many of whom have the talent and interest to become the research scientists and medical specialists of the future.

We had another reminder of this nonsense thanks to some superb and fully evidence-based training at CCSS from Dr Duncan Astle of the Cambridge University Neuroscience department via the excellent Speakezee initiative at the University of Bristol. Dr Astle had a room full of teachers doing some Brain Gym exercises, before of course confessing that he was giving us an illustration of one of the many mythical, marketing-hyped educational initiatives that have come our way in the last 20 years. Have we made any progress in debunking ideas such as Brain Gym, learning styles, multiple intelligences, left/right brain learners and other learning neuro-myths? James and I would like to think so, but we both recognise that there has also been far too much of teachers’ and pupils’ time spent on them, and a horrifying amount of educational budget too. Far better to spend time and money on listening to the people who are doing real research, and publishing it openly for others to analyse, criticise and comment on. So, to all parents, teachers and heads out there, if there’s any spare cash in the training budget this year, please have a look at Speakezee and make a commitment to an evidence-based and ‘Good Science’ approach from now on.

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