Whole Brain Teaching…?

By Neuroskeptic | July 18, 2012 5:48 pm

Oh dear. The Kansas City Star asks: Teachers learn ways to keep students’ attention, but are brain claims valid?

Probably not. Unless you’re buying a brain scanner or a plush brain, product ‘brain claims’ are generally just marketing patter. But let’s see.

When Chris Biffle called out the word “Class!” Wednesday morning at Walsh University, 450 teachers and administrators yelled back, “Yes!”

“Class class?” he said. “Yes! Yes!” they replied.

“Classity classity,” he said.
“Yessity yessity,” they chanted back.

Biffle, one of the co-founders of Southern California-based Whole Brain Teaching LLC, is leading a two-day conference about his method. He calls the technique “Class-Yes.” Whole Brain Teaching’s website says “Class Yes” activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain and “readies students for instruction”…

Whole Brain Teaching reminds me of Brain Gym, a notorious bit of British neuro-nonsense from a few years ago. According to the WBT research page, they have over 50,000 registered teachers and 2 million views of their videos. This also informs us that:

Class-Yes: Our primary attention-getter activates the prefrontal cortex, often called the CEO of the brain… Little if any learning can take place if the prefrontal cortex is not engaged.

while even “mirror neurons” have a role to play:

Mirror: Many brain scientists believe that we learn by mirroring the gestures and activities of others. They have identified mirror neurons scattered throughout the brain that are activated by mimicking the behavior we observe. Our own experience in WBT classroom indicates that when a class mirrors our gestures and, when appropriate, repeats our words, a powerful learning bond is created between students and teachers.

There are lots of problems here, but here’s the most fundamental: the theory behind the system seems to be that activating particular parts of students’ brains, through a special task, will help them to use that part of their brain when it comes to the actual lesson a few minutes later. But I know of no evidence that bits of the brain “warm up” like that; if anything they’re more likely to “wear out” through lack of energy and nutrients although I don’t think that’s likely either.

If such warm-ups did work, your best bet for activating your primary visual cortex, for example, would be to stare at a rapidly-changing pattern of random colors for a few minutes. That wouldn’t improve your vision. It would just give you a headache.

In fact, why not just activate your entire noggin, pharmacologically? Just grab some pentylenetetrazol – a drug that blocks inhibitory signals between brain cells. Snort a few lines of that and if you survive the resulting seizure, go and learn something and see if you’re really good at it.

I’m not saying Whole Brain Teaching is useless, I’m not saying anything about the method itself, but the “brain” claims are misleading. Many of the things they recommend are teaching aids and classroom exercises, and no doubt those are helpful. Plus, psychological factors like teacher motivation, student engagement, and a positive atmosphere are vital in learning, and it doesn’t matter if you achieve them through neurosciencey gimmicks, they’re still going to help… well, except in terms of educating people to spot neurosciencey gimmicks.

But that’s teaching. It’s nothing to do with the brain.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bad neuroscience, media, neurofetish, vmPFC, woo
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07429793255785560043 Dirk Hanson

    Great post. Even weirder when flogged on behalf of youngsters, like that “Baby Einstein” crap.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02259453981627589988 Moi

    I am absolutely astounded by the amount of neurononsense out there. Every time I turn around there's something new to make me cringe, like the so-called Baby Einstein crap mentioned by Dirk above.

  • Anonymous

    So is 'lumosity.com' also neurononsense?

  • Nitric-X

    > “But that's teaching. It's nothing to do with the brain.”

    Hmmm… I always thought that teaching is a product of the brain, just as learning is one of its functions… 😉

    Seriously: I get your point and totally agree with it – to use some crappy non-evidenced claims related to neuroscience to sell something – which is just ridiculizing neuroscience as a whole. But the problem roots deeper – whatever environmental influence you'll encounter, your brain will react to it. Even more so, it probably will undergo functional or structural changes (which again is not a categorical but rather a quantitative difference) as a response to it. Which is not at all strange, because this is precisely what your brain is there for – to react and to adapt to the environment. So for sure every teaching method will do something to your brain. The question rather is, is this specific? Is it reproducible? And is it benefical for a significant part of the audience? I guess you see where this is leading – namely, psychotherapy; it annoys me a lot that plenty of people think that it is a big surprise that PT changes whatever in the brain – I would find it rather surprising if it doesn't. Specificity rather is the interesting part of it, and while research here at least in CBT is somewhat hypothesis driven, in psychoanalysis it is so totally random – resulting in the most ludicrous “science” of neuropsychoanalysis.
    Hmm, all of that might be somewhat off-topic but … I guess it relates to the post… 😉

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Nitric-X : I completely agree. And I think we always need to ask, when considering data on brain changes, “Who cares?”

    Not in a flippant way. It's interesting to neuroscientists that (say) psychotherapy changes the brain. Neuroscientists should care because their job is to understand the brain. But for a psychotherapist, I can't see why it matters. Their job is to make people feel better, and they can do that without worrying about the brain at all.

  • http://petrossa.wordpress.com/ petrossa

    I thought that since NLP we were done with that stuff. Apparently it's pretty tenacious, most likely because it has the appealing quality of all scams: high reward for little effort.

    The suckers keep on getting born.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18379669883853001278 TheCellularScale

    Education + neurononsense = danger
    “class-yes” seems harmless, but misapplied brain jargon could interfere with real evidence-based teaching.

    what teachers need to know is how their teaching effects their student's learning. While the learning obviously requires the brains to be active, we don't know enough about the brain's learning mechanisms to make it a useful basis for lesson plans.

    you don't need to know what the paper is made of to write and read a book.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anon: “So is 'lumosity.com' also neurononsense?”

    Good question, I don't know much about 'brain training' but as far as I can see, it might be helpful for some people, but it could equally well be called “mind training” or “mental conditioning”, there's nothing specifically 'brain' about it.

  • Anonymous

    I also thought of Brain Gym whilst reading this post. What is happening to the world?

  • omg

    Classity, classity wouldn't do jack with the little ones. The older ones I get let's mimic the drill sargeant wannabe loser.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09068179032659922441 Mrs. Kameka

    Are any of you teachers? Have you ever spent time in a classroom full of 20+ students, no matter what their age is, who are growing up in a culture of instant gratification and constant over-stimulation. Not only that, often there is not a whole lot of support coming from parents of the 'troubled' students. Teachers need all the help they can get and the fact of the matter is that if a student is engaged, they are bound to learn something. Moreover, if the lesson learned is paired with a memorable experience, then it's likely to be remembered and stored in long-term memory. By the way, Chris Biffle gives his strategies away for FREE!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Mrs. Kameka: “Teachers need all the help they can get and the fact of the matter is that if a student is engaged, they are bound to learn something.”

    That's exactly what I said: “psychological factors like teacher motivation, student engagement, and a positive atmosphere are vital in learning…”

    It's nothing to do with Whole Brain or whatever, though.

    As for Chris Biffle, well, the wholebrainteaching.com website seems to have disappeared but when it was still up I remember they were selling a whole bunch of things.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02422541677124517502 Jennifer SC

    The website is up and running…. everything you need to implement it in your classroom is free. You might be right about the actual scientific effects it would have on the brain, but any teacher/student who has used this program will say that it is very helpful for getting ALL kids engaged and active in the learning process. I do it with fourth graders and they love it. My daughter does it in her high school honors math class and she loves it too. If Chris Biffle was selling the program, that would be one thing… but you can take what works and leave the rest and it is completely free.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02907077236860989176 TrueTeacher

    As an early elementary teacher I don't really care why it works, whether it's because of brain research or not. It works and that is all that matters. All students engaged and actively learning. I don't really care if it's with their whole brain or a fraction. Learning happens with the WBT method.

  • Anonymous

    These Whole Brain Teachers are an unscrupulous lot. Don't kid yourselves, folks. Biffle is making thousands of Title 1 dollars (and/or other public school funds) per session as an “education consultant.” This huckster even charged (and was paid) 250 bucks in travel expenses to a school 25 miles from his home/Whole Brain Teaching Headquarters.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08740064582729260256 Gail Tanner

    My knowledge of neuroscience is minimal, so I can't speak to the science of Whole Brain Teaching. I can however offer my opinion as a teacher. I have used Chris Biffle's WBT strategies for three years, in three different educational settings – both private and public school. It has been a fabulous success in all. The students are engaged and respond readily to the interactive aspect of it. Instead of sitting passively, they are moving, verbalizing, and repeating information. In my experience, it is a fabulously simple way for students to be active learners.

  • Anonymous

    Here's what “Executive Board Member” and seminar presenter Farrah Shipley has posted on their Whole Brain Teachers Facebook page.-
    Farrah LeAun Shipleyposted toWhole Brain Teaching
    August 25
    So I am watching Law and Order (taking a break…bad teacher) and the witness in the trial says that a man committed the crime because the pre-frontal cortex which controls emotions was defective…lol! I had to laugh so hard…I yell for my husband and make him watch it and then say…oooohhh I should be a juror on that trial because I would so tell them that the Pre-Frontal Cortex is the boss of the brain and Lymbic System is what control emotions!! Hubby just rolled his eyes and walked away. Thanks to WBT I can't even watch a TV show without thinking about WBT LOL!”

  • Edward

    I'm doing a research on the effect of the use of WBT in teaching English to adults. I'd love to be able to include some founded criticism to the method in the sense of its neurological assumptions.

    Is there any article you would recommend me to read?

    Thank you very much.

    • Jennifer

      I am interested in your research, where can I find out more?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    I don't know of any articles about WBT specifically, although I haven't searched very hard. But if you google “Brain Gym Goldacre” you'll find material from Ben Goldacre about Brain Gym, a British scheme which is very similar in many ways. Much of the points he makes also apply to WBT.

  • Rhazor

    Thanks, Neuroskeptic. I'll do that…

  • Anonymous

    Edward, you also might reach out to the two critics at public universities in Virginia (USA) who were quoted in that article:

    But the techniques are not validated by contemporary brain research, according to two experts in the relationship between neuroscience and education who reviewed the claims for the Akron Beacon Journal.

    “Nothing I see here indicates that there is any neuroscientific backing for anything they’re suggesting,” said Dan Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia.

    The Beacon Journal also asked David Daniel, managing editor of the peer-reviewed science journal Mind, Brain and Education to examine the research page at http://www.wholebrainteaching.com.

    “I think he has these ideas that may or may not work, and he’s using brain stuff to market them,” said Daniel, a psychology professor at James Madison University. “The brain stuff on the web page is very cursory, very shallow. That could be just his way of communicating or it could be his level of understanding. Either way, it’s misleading.”


  • Anonymous

    What I like about the WB teaching is even the teacher is engaged and interested. Having worked in a school for 30 years as a speech pathologist all too often I walk into a room of students sitting…borderline falling asleep to the hum drum boring 'presentations'. Nope no engagement at all….. well other than the brainiacs that find everything fascinating no matter how it is presented. Teachers need change and should be encouraged to offer new ways to engage the students. The students need to feel apart of the learning community not stagnant souls being drilled information into their heads with an occasional chance to comment since you must raise your hand to have a turn to speak. And there isn't much time to speak because the teachers need to TEACH so much. Who is truly learning anything?

  • Edward

    Thanks, “Anonymous”. I'll try to reach Dr. Willingham. You were very helpful!



  • Máté Wierdl

    Is this helpful beyond mimicking what teacher is doing, saying? Does it help to think, argue, discover, understand, .etc?



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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