The TEFLbs detective Part One – Brain Gym and ELT

Brain Gym™ and ELT – a personal path of discovery by Philip Kerr

“About ten years ago, I was introduced to Brain Gym™ by the director of studies of a language school in Cordoba. She was a good director of studies, a very nice person, and it was a good school. I observed a class where the children responded well to Brain Gym™ activities. Interesting, I thought, but never got round to finding out more. Until recently.

There are two great online resources if, like me, you want to find out more. The first is an article by Tom Maguire (a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Linguistic Programming) called Brain Gym™ . It explains what Brain Gym™ is all about. It tells you about the Educational Kinesiology Foundation, a developmental movement program established by Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., author of “Brain Gym Simple Activities for Whole Brain Learning” and founder of the whole thing. It suggests a few basic exercises such as ‘brain buttons’ (applying pressure on bits of the neck to get the blood flowing into the brain) and ‘hook ups’ (crossing your arms or legs to achieve a state of calm). You get a good general idea of what it’s all about.

The other useful resource is much more practical. It’s called Brain Gym® Exercises, and it’s by Kenneth Beare, who has been ‘an ESL guide since 1997’. He’s the first ESL guide I’ve come across. Kenneth’s article goes into a lot more detail about other exercises, like drinking water (hydration helps the brain to concentrate and the water replaces that which is lost when we sweat under stress), ‘cross crawl’ (which is helpful for spelling), and using coloured pens.

So far, so good, but I was disappointed not to get any hits at all at Amazon when I typed in Brain Gym™ + ELT. I’d have liked a whole book on the subject. However, if you drop the ‘ELT’ bit from the search, you can buy all the Dennison books, including Spanish and German translations. And if you want to check things out a bit more before you buy, you can go to the Brain Gym® International website. Helpfully, there is information about courses you can do (Dennison himself will be coming to Europe next year) and Brain Gym books, music, posters and overhead transparency sets for sale.

While I was doing my research, I also came across an article on a site called Bad Science written by a certain Ben Goldacre. Goldacre describes Brain Gym (I’m not sure if I should put ‘™’ or ‘®’ afterwards) as ‘a set of perfectly good fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudoscientific explanatory framework.’ He provides links to a doctoral research paper that investigates the bogusity of Brain Gym research, a video of two school kids taking the piss out of their teacher’s Brain Gym routine, and two more videos of Jeremy Paxman demolishing Brain Gym on BBC Newsnight (including an interview with Dennison). ‘Ludicrously pseudo-scientific,’ concludes Goldacre. He doesn’t seem to think very highly of it at all.

Who am I to believe? Has anyone actually tried ‘brain buttons’ or ‘hook-ups’ in class? I’ve tried out a few of these exercises in the privacy of my home, but maybe I’m doing them wrong. I’ve even begun to suspect that I might not have a ‘brain button’. Perhaps I don’t eat enough fish oil. Anyway, does anyone out there have a copy of Volume 28 of the journal Remedial and Special Education? It contains an article by K.J. Hyatt called Brain Gym®: Building Stronger Brains or Wishful Thinking? It might help me to make up my mind. Is it cutting edge neuroscience brought into the classroom? Is it a good way of ‘stimulating the limbic system for emotional processing in concert with more refined reasoning in the frontal lobes’? Or is it just a load of tosh?”

More smelling out of dodginess in our “profession” by Mr Kerr available at:

Six things you might not know about multiple intelligences

and hopefully the “Part One” part of this blog post title will persuade him to bring much more of the same here!

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9 Responses to The TEFLbs detective Part One – Brain Gym and ELT

  1. Hi there

    Very nice post there, Philip (thanks Alex for getting Philip to do this, or was it Philip who approached you?). I notice you are a bit circumspect about Brain Gym. I’ll be interested to hear any big defenders of this come along and leave their ideas here. Meanwhile, I tried the brain buttons thing – don’t know how much it worked. I’ll try it again once before a plenary talk or something and let you know!

  2. pauline says:

    As a specialist teacher I used cross crawl and lazy 8’s from brain gym very effectively for years with kids who have special educational needs.
    My website http://www.happinesspages.com details some case studies and here is feedback received recently from a visitor to my site.

    ‘Last night we got video of our daughter army crawling. That was the first time she really did it, she normally rolls every where she wants to go. And, she is now clapping! All because we’ve been so diligent with her cross crawl exercises. Once she
    crossed the midline she has just thrived!

    I’m a true believer than these exercises have helped her – thank you so much for giving me ideas and encouraging us!’

    Take a look too at the work of BIBIC (British Institute for Brain Injury). They work to repattern brain damaged individuals by homolateral and cross-crawl movements and it was through being part of a group of 40 volunteers repatterning a brain-damaged child that I was introduced to the power of these developmental movements!

  3. Alex Case says:

    An email from a regular TEFL.net book reviewer who can reveal her secret identity if she wishes reminded me that SAGE online stuff is free until Oct 31st. Although I couldn’t work out how to see the whole thing for free here for myself:

    http://rse.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/28/2/117

    – she also sent me it in pdf format so I’ll read it soon and let you know the highlights

  4. Philip Kerr says:

    Pauline’s post is very interesting. Her site, happinesspages.com, has a whole section on brain gym, and it seems to work for her. But this doesn’t really constitute proof of any kind. An anecdote or two is not really sufficient data. The visitor who gave feedback describes himself / herself as a ‘believer’, and this set my alarm bells ringing.
    So when I got to the last paragraph, I was feeling more skeptical than usual and decided to check out BIBIC. Contrary to what Pauline believes, BIBIC does not ‘work to repattern brain damaged individuals by homolateral and cross-crawl movements’. There are occasional references to Brain Gym on the BIBIC site, but (fortunately for the children involved), Brain Gym is only a very small part of what they do.
    Brain Gym is often associated with ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming’, and I see that Pauline is a Master Practitioner of NLP and an NLP Coach. I was surprised that Pauline referred to ‘brain damaged individuals’ as I’d understood that one of the tenets of NLP is that no one is damaged or broken. Anyway, more to the point, NLP, like Brain Gym, might ‘work’ for some people, but it’s based on claims that are not supported by neuroscience. Should I conclude that it’s a load of tosh, but it sometimes works for some people in some contexts?

  5. Diarmuid says:

    It IS a load of tosh and Ben Goldacre’s work is an enlightening read. Brain Gym offers advice about how to yawn in such a way that there is “increased oxidization” (ie more rusting) of the brain. As Goldacre says, perhaps they meant oxygenization. Water should be held in the mouth before swallowing, because then it can be absorbed directly into your brain. Your carotid arteries can be massaged to increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Goldacre: “I’m yet to meet any child who can stimulate his [sic] carotid arteries inside his ribcage. That’s probably going to need the sharp scissors that only mummy can use.”
    BrainGym says that processed food, ie things like soup etc, do not contain water! They say that if we connect our fingers together, we connect the electrical circuit of our body. Conclude, if you will that Brain Gym is utter b*llocks. It doesn’t work for anyone because it is utter b*llocks. But there are people who want to think that it does work for them. Goldacre offers a view on why this might be. Firstly, its basic message: have regular breaks when studying, do some light exercise and drink water, is a fairly safe bet. Secondly, it says all this in pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo which has the effect of serving as a placebo (and Goldacre is fascinated by the potential of all placebos), but also has the effect of trademarking common sense in order to turn a quick buck.

  6. Sandy Mac says:

    I would say that if “it’s a load of tosh, but it sometimes works for some people in some contexts” (P.Kerr), then it’s entirely suitable for the Tefl Trade.

    Or am I being a little too uncharitable here?

  7. Diarmuid says:

    Sandy – I don’t think ANYBODY could accuse you of being uncharitable. As usual, you are being far too accommodating here. “it NEVER words for ANY people in ANY contexts” is what Philip probably meant to write. More accurate still would have been, “It’s a load of [ ], but it has a placebo effect that sometimes works for some people in some contexts.” Now this IS eminently suitable for the TEFL trade, I would suggest.

  8. Love this post and ensuing comments. For an excellent TED talk making the tongue in cheek case for placebos (about 2.5 minutes in):

    Anyway, I’m with Mr Goldacre and hope you’ll keep ’em coming Philip.

  9. Susie Johnston says:

    Was interested to read your points. My husband is a huge Ben Goldacre fan and so I have had to listen to many a lecture. The BBC programme Bang goes the theory are currently running experiments on the benefits of brain training. We have both signed up and have to log on three times a week to complete our brain training exercises. The programme I believe will be aired in March but they are looking for as many people to sign up as http://www.bbc.co.uk/labuk/experiments/braintestbritain/

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