Tom Bennett

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Weird Science: superstition, spoon bending and spurious research

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I was hugging myself with glee to read this article in the TES this week: Sydenham High School, where parents drop £12K a year to have their girls turned, out have introduced scented oils with the ‘pungent aromas of lavender, grapefruit and mint’ into their classrooms. Which sounds very lovely, actually. Nothing wrong with making your class smell of something other than Lynx, desperation and paper mould.

At this point, the article bicycles off the cliff of ‘fair enough’ into the abyss of ‘you’re kidding me on, right?’ The school claims it has adopted these oils in order to ‘aid students’ recall of key facts in exams’. Let me check that I’m on the right page: having a nice smell in the classroom will help students remember things? I’m not saying that a nicer, more pleasant classroom doesn’t have a general beneficial influence on how people feel- and it’s fairly uncontroversial to claim that people will enjoy lessons more if the room doesn’t stink of tummy gas and KFC boxes.

But that’s not the claim being made here, which is something delightfully specific: that performance can be measurably improved by the use of what appears to be Body Shop Bath Bombs. And what a wonderful world that would be, ladies and gentlemen; forget complicated strategies to raise attainment in students via well trained professional teachers, improving social welfare and tackling other deeply unsexy civic fractures- we can massage their memory cortexes by teaching them through their noses.

Says who? Anthony Padgett, the owner of Memory Oils, who claims that a handkerchief soaked in grapefruit oil helped his dyslexic daughter through her exams. “She was predicted Bs and Cs in her GCSEs,” he said. “But she came out with A*, As and Bs. She puts it down to the oils.” Great Krypton! A pupil who was predicted Bs and Cs ends up with, er…Bs, and better. Did you have a magic lamp with a genie?

That could never happen under the laws of physics as we know it- a pupil exceeding their predicted grades! Have you ever heard of such a thing? That would suggest that grade predictions aren’t some kind of immutable engine of predestination that can only be thwarted in some nightmarish dream.

I wonder how Mr Padgett established beyond clinical refutation that his daughter carrying around a smelly handkerchief in class (I imagine she was popular- ‘that weird kid with the handkerchief that smelled like a fruit basket’) was the significant factor in her impressive performance. That’s the problem with anecdotal claims about specific outcomes; unless proper, controlled procedures have been put in place to test any hypothesis to exhaustion, any reliance on an unrepresentative sample is doomed to pointlessness. In other words, I might have worn my lucky pants to the interview, but it doesn’t explain why I got the job.

Stories like these are adorable; and then they’re just depressing, because it indicates at least two

1. Professionals- teachers, SLT, LEA wallahs- waste their time on spurious, feel-good medicine- man quick fixes, rather than focus on issues that we know create good schools; effective behaviour, well trained subject experts, and supportive parents, to name a few.

2. Lazy thinking: if the people responsible for educating our youth are satisfied with the mushy-minded candy floss non-thinking required to support these kind of non-scientific claims to efficacy, then God help the kids, because they’ll be raised by people without an atom of discernment between clear, structured thinking, and accepting any old rot that appeals to their poet’s souls.

I repeat my earlier assertion: I’m all for classrooms that smell nice. Give me your petition and I’ll sign it. But to claim that it has a measurable effect, and roll out a few dubious papers of dodgy provenance to support it, is huckstering of the foulest order. Education has enough on its plate, without spoon benders and fortune tellers pimping out their simple minded voodoo on gullible, unsuspecting children. Sydenham should hang their heads in shame, or admit they like it because it ‘just smells nice’.

I’ll leave the penultimate word with Steve Garnett, quoted as the author of…well, some more spoon bending hokum; he suggests the following moonshine:

To Reduce stress – spiced apple, rose and chamomile.

– Reduce anxiety – vanilla, neroli and lavender.

– Relax – basil, cinnamon and citrus flowers.

– Energise – peppermint, thyme and rosemary.

– Relieve tiredness – woody scents, cedar and cypress.’

I suggest one more: reduce intelligence- bullshit. I wonder if I can flog that on my website too?

Hands off education, Witch Doctors, and get back to the Dark Ages. We’re on to you.


6 Comments

  1. Bryn says:

    I would think it has to do with the link between scent and memory. But for that to work, they'd have to learn/study and sit their exams with the same scent.

  2. Tom Bennett says:

    Ha! Exactly. And I'd like to add that I'm certainly not saying that there's nothing to this idea, because there's a lot of credible research into the field of mnemonics that shows how apparently incredible memory feats are attainable through practise and aide memoirs. But what drives me mad is the brainless assumption that we can easily trace causal relationships between simple factors like this and simple outcomes like examination results, when there are billions of intermediary factors that haven't been isolated and controlled for. Our kids are too precious to play lab rats for well-meaning but unprovable hypotheses.

    But like I say, I'm all for things smelling nicely.

  3. Joep says:

    Compared with all other fads teachers are being pummelled with perennially this theory seems quite harmless to me. In fact I could easily adapt my style of teaching to this S.O.A.P.Y (Scent Orientated Adaptation of Pupils' Yearnings) by spraying randomly chosen perfumes, which can be obtained at bargain prices in the local outlets, at the beginning of each lesson. It will not impede my experience based routines at all.

  4. adelady says:

    Harmless? I'm sure if people stick to air freshener sprays and the like for the nice aroma, harmless is the word.

    All it takes is for some novice enthusiast to go the whole hog and use an oil 'burner' in a school environment and we're in trouble. Most oils are just scents with some well-known effects, eg lavender for relaxation or sleep.

    Others are fairly strongly bio-active – note especially that some are used to 'regulate' female metabolism, not recommended for the happily pregnant. And several, rosemary among them IIRC, are contra-indicated for epilepsy.

    Teacher likes smell, student has a fit. Terrific.

    So I'm happy if people feel better with nice smells, rather than nasty ones, around them. Anyone who goes further than using simple perfumed products is dicing with danger.

  5. Tom Bennett says:

    Very interesting comment, Adelady. Aromatherapy, a kissing cousin of this kind of quackery is one of my favorite bulls-eyes on one of my favourite dart boards of contempt. Feng-Shui can also take a ticket and get in line for a sore face.

    Show me the Facebook page called 'Teachers who like their rooms to smell nice, and who have thought about where the chairs and tables should go', and I'll click 'like' so quickly I'll need a new keyboard. Any empirical claims that go beyond that will be saying hello to the heel of my shoe. Sadly, the DfE has bought into a number of these things, so it ceases to be a laughing matter. I personally was sent on a number of residential NLP programs as part of my Fast Track teacher training (a now defunct cash cow recruitment process, although Teach First has the same eyes.)And that was a tax-funded money furnace. Lovely pens though.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I would read the articles on the website before you write. follow http://www.memoryoils and read with an open mind and eyes. The Brown University is a well respected education site and has soem fantastic articles on memory and smell.

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