October 05, 2007

Brain Gym: was I being flippant?

Brain_gym No. In my keynote the other day I made mention of the intriguing research done by LTS's gaming guru, Derek Robertson, over at the Dundee-based Consolarium, the Scottish Centre for Gaming and Learning, where he saw that a class using Brain Gym actually had a reduced achievement in numeracy.

It was part of a project looking to see what might be gained out of using Dr Kawashima's Brain Training on the Nintendo DS for improving numeracy. Since the aims of the game appeared to ressemble those of the Brain Gym programme, we put a control class alongside a DS-playing and a Brain Gyming class. The results of the project are highly interesting, but would appear to play down the claims of Brain Gym, while revealing a new potential in handheld computing.

I've had a few people here in New Zealand question this research, especially since Brain Gym seems to be held in high regard and is used in a large number of schools here. It got me thinking back to some blog posts I had read about Sergio Della Sala's spotlight talk at the Scottish Learning Festival a couple of weeks ago now. His research from the University of Edinburgh is also debunking the Brain Gym myths.

I don't think some of the Brain Gym stuff is bad per se, but it's surely just a break from whatever is going on in the class at that time. You could also be doing some other stuff, like playing a DS, or making Twitter haiku poetry (in no more than 140 characters). Whatever, but no one programme will ever help raise attainment. Everything needs to work together, all of the time.

Pic: Brain Gym


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Hi Ewan,
You have probably seen the brain gym category ath the Bad Science blog. Others might find them interesting.

With the time constrains on teachers and the speed that new ideas are appearing it is hard to have the time to background check the research behind a new product or idea. My guess is that physical activity would be a better break than using a DS, but it would be a guess, the problem with the brain gym is some of their claims are backed up with fairly dodgy statements.

I am glad LTS are researching the use of gaming, as a quick look might encourage pseudo-scientific claims. The trick is to find the time and resources to make the research rock solid.

Brain gym can be extremely effective - when used properly. I have seen students overcome severe learning issues through the use of brain gym. The problem is that a lot of people use it, just to get the kids up and moving, which is a very necessary element of successful teaching. However, you must take the time to learn how to do it properly and ensure that the kids are doing it properly, otherwise it can have the detrimental impact you are talking of.

I am not too sure that any future research that we do with the DS and the 'Brain Training' games will include Brain Gym as a model to compare and contrast. I'm not entirely sure that we need it. However, I wish to stress again again that there was no attempt to debunk Brain Gym and that I am very appreciative of the fact that many mnay teachers use and value it in their practice. At the time I felt that there was a link between what the two models were claiming to do in terms of exercising the brain and helping prepare children for learning and so wanted to have a look at that. The Brain Gym group had not been usiing Brain Gym with their teacher and it had not been a big part of their school career to date. The teacher in the Brain Gym class kept a log (Google doc)of what Brain Gym activities the class did and when they did them.

*It is not quite true to say that the Brain Gym model had a reduced level of achievement in numeracy. The measure of accuracy in the maths test we gave them actually showed a statistically significant improvement. It was just that the Nintendo group's improvemenmts were greater and more dramatic.*

I think the interesting issue to come out of our small scale study was that the children with the Nintendos increased their performance in a dramatic fashion. Thisn is what the debate should be about and the reason for me maybe not wanting to include a Brain Gym group any any subsequent larger scale studies. It leads to us missing the point I feel.

Thanks for those clarifications, Derek. The stats do tend to show small downturns for Brain Gym, which has led teachers in NZ to pick up on that - the problem of publishing graphs being that people hook onto them.

On another note, I've been having some great chats with the research staff here in New Zealand. I and they would agree that comparing with Brain Gym isn't perhaps as revealing as a larger scale study might be. The percentage increases in their opinion were not as significant as perhaps we think they are. I would beg to differ, having seen the motivation to do maths that has come from using the tool. However, to help us all we need to maybe think about doing larger scale stuff, with several hundred kids, to either reinforce or clarify what we've done so far.

Fuller details of the rationale and methodology employed for the DS study I undertook can be accessed from me if people wish that Ewan. The case study does not include the figures and stats that the graphs are derived from. This was deliberate so that the case study as it stands would raise interest and encourage people to watch the videos of the children in action and talking about what the project had done for them. I want the Consoalrium's site and all games based learning material published by LTS to be about pupil and teacher voice, backed up with statistics where possible. Give me a shout on your return and I'll fill you in on the what happened and what I intend to do with this results and future dirtection of this project.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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