The Business of Brain Training

Pseudoscience and cognitive terminology is gaining a strong foothold in our schools. Brain training has become a multi-million-dollar business, and companies are getting rich from inserting their products and services into schools. Of course we want to try anything and everything we can find to be able to reach and teach our kids. But there are risks involved with falling prey to these for-profit education marketers.

Per Travers (2017), educators are easy targets for brain training companies and are responsive to marketers’ savvy sales pitches. The industry is very good at disguising themselves as scientific, often reporting their own studies as evidence for an intervention. For spokespersons or clinical trials to be cited as evidence, they should be independently funded and conducted. Sadly, companies can pay university professors to endorse their products and twist impact studies to make it seem like their services or interventions (often which do have roots in a legitimately researched method) are the latest and greatest method.

This hits home for me as a mother and a teacher. I worked in marketing and PR in the 1990s before my decade in the classroom, so I know a few things about the business world. When a nationally published magazine wrote about a pseudo-science company charging $300 per student and cited its use in a Jacksonville private school, I decided to do more research. This makes it personal. Jacksonville is my hometown;  I grew up, taught and sent my kids to our private schools.

Travers (2017) tells us that unproven interventions waste time and money. We might ask what the harm could really be, but any time lost to ineffective instruction is harmful. These brain training programs should be avoided due to risks associated with ineffective interventions, but also because professional and ethical obligations require maximizing potential educational benefit to students.

So what can we do to be smart as educators and parents?

  1. Ask critical questions about any marketer of educational products and services. Was it developed by practitioners? Is it merely a free or inexpensive product repackaged and made shinier? Is it one-sized-fits all to maximize profit, or is it individualized to maximize effectiveness?
  2. Learn how to determine an intervention’s evidence-base. Are there multiple, high-quality experiments consistently yielding positive findings?  
  3. Determine the cost benefit. Most evidence-based interventions have step-by-step practitioner guides for implementing an evidence-based practice (EBP) available at no cost to professionals. When this is the case, teachers can be confident the intervention has a very high probability of effectiveness and very low potential for harm (Travers, 2017).
  4. Follow the funding. Are the published findings found in peer-reviewed journals or in magazines with pay-to-play? Are scientists or professors receiving compensation for speaking on behalf of the company?

We have to protect ourselves and our students from companies Beall (2012) calls predatory publishers in a new model of “medical materialism” and “neuro-economics”. We want efficient and effective interventions, and we want scientific support to back up our methods. Just remember, there is never a substitute for the hard work teachers do in the classroom engaging with students. And I’m sure you agree that the only profit involved in education should be the students’ learning gains.

Beall, J. (2012). Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature, 489, 179–179.
Travers, J.C. (2017). Evaluating claims to avoid pseudoscience and unproven practices in special education. Intervention in School & Clinic, 52 (4), 195-203.
Vyse, S. (2015). Neuro-Pseudoscience: behavior & belief. Skeptical Inquirer, The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. 

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