For high quality education it is important not only to know what one should do but also what one should not do. For example, students should be taught about effective learning strategies (such as retrieval practice) but also about study strategies which are much less effective (such as rereading). There exist a variety of alternative educational techniques which are not supported by rigorous evidence but are nevertheless popular in the classroom. In his doctoral thesis, Stuart Ritchie critically examined the evidence for several of these alternative educational techniques.
Ritchie looked at the following educational techniques:
- Brain Gym: A set of in-class movements and exercises that are claimed to boost a variety of cognitive functions
- Drinking (a lot of) water: supposed by some to be a constant requirement for peak cognitive function;
- Fish oil supplements (such as omega-3): shown to be effective for some medical conditions, but also claimed to be effective in improving learning abilities;
- Brain training video games: phenomenally popular and now being introduced to classrooms in an attempt to enhance cognition;
- Chewing gum: shown in some experiments to improve functioning in adults, but also advocated by some for the school classroom.
After reviewing the available evidence, Ritchie concludes that all of these alternative educational techniques are not supported by any kind of evidence or are even contradicted by the evidence. He further states that, “[u]nfortunately, the enthusiasm of proponents too frequently gives the impression that unproven or disproven educational techniques are effective, and sales pitches are often highly irresponsible.”
Some advocates of these (or similar) alternative techniques might claim that because their techniques are not disproven it is perfectly acceptable to recommend their use. However, this is a misunderstanding of how the scientific method works, and specifically that of the burden of proof. If we require no evidence to advocate the use of an educational technique we should uncritically accept any suggested educational activity as long as there is no clear evidence against it. This would lead to a bizarre educational system.
We can be confident that more of these alternative techniques will appear in the not-so-distant-future. For teachers and researchers this means that we should not uncritically accept these suggestions, but await extensive tests to verify the efficacy of new techniques. By learning from past mistakes, we can prevent future ones.
Ritchie, S. J. (2014). Studies concerning the application of psychological science to education.