Method to keep attention of students faces questions

Dale Sharpe (center) a dean at Arlington High School in Indianapolis, Indiana and Angela Stewart, a teacher at Tindley Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis, participate in a learning exercise during the Midwest Conference on Whole Brain Teaching at the Barrette Business and Community Center on the campus of Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

NORTH CANTON, Ohio — 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 at Walsh about his method. He calls the technique “Class-Yes.”

The research page of Whole Brain Teaching’s website says “Class Yes” activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain and “readies students for instruction.” It’s one of seven techniques the company says “are validated by contemporary brain research.”

The method might be fun, engaging and popular, judging by teacher testimonials and company-conducted polls. 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

“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.”

Jeff Battle, a middle school science teacher in North Carolina who says he keeps current on brain research for the company, said teachers aren’t bound by the same level of scientific rigor as neuroscientists. “I’m not going to give a Ph.D.-level dissertation to a kindergarten teacher who wants to have a vague idea of why this is working so they can explain it if they need to,” Battle said. “We’re not pure science, we’re practitioners who are applying what we’ve learned so far.”

But, Daniel said, when educators misrepresent the science, they make it harder for researchers who are struggling to translate neuroscience into something teachers can reliably use in the classroom.

“It drowns out the softer voice of what’s credible. That’s what’s harmful,” Daniel said. “There are people doing really good work. ... But they’re getting drowned out by people who are better at marketing.”

Biffle and two other teachers founded the private company in 1999 in Southern California that describes itself as “one of the fastest growing education reform movements in the United States.”

The company receives speaking fees for seminars, but otherwise materials to teachers for free. Battle says the company operates on a “shoe-string” budget with a staff of about a dozen educators.

The techniques involve a highly structured gesturing and repetition of catchphrases that are supposed to capture and maintain student interest by making the rules more fun to follow than to ignore.

The Whole Brain Teaching website’s research links seven techniques to seven brain areas or systems. The “class-yes” technique, for example, is supposed to improve learning by activating the prefrontal cortex, a highly evolved part of the brain associated with decision-making, planning and regulation of behavior.

“There’s no evidence that the ‘class-yes’ especially activates the prefrontal cortex,” Willingham said. “Second of all, if that were true, it’s not obvious what that would do, why that would make them more ready to learn.”

Figuring out how to evaluate such claims is the subject of Willingham’s new book, “When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education.”