Stress-free schools may sound great, but it can take an ugly turn…

The past 3 weeks dr. Ashley Deans gave a string of public speeches on stress-free schools or consciousness-based education. In fact it is a talk about using transcendental meditation (TM) in schools. I want to give a short oversight of what has happened the past few days ending with newspapers declaring these free lectures an attempt of a cult trying to infiltrate education.

On my dutch blog I received a lot of questions about how scientific this story is. I first wrote a blogpost with a mild critical warning as I examined the background of Ashley Deans, take e.g. this interesting story:

Ashley Deans says party of meditators, yogic flyers can cure Canada’s ills Armed with secrets, allegedly born in antiquity and possessing earth-shaking power rivalling the impact of Galileo’s telescope, Ashley Deans believes he has the cure for all that ails Canada. If only the country would listen to him.

Like the famous Renaissance man, persecuted by the Catholic Inquisition for claiming the Earth orbited the sun, Deans says his Natural Law Party labours under the criticism of fools.

“The history of science shows that when there are those with new ideas, there are those who dismiss you,” Deans, the NLP deputy leader, said at a news conference in St. Catharines Wednesday. “But we have the scientifically proven technologies that work.” Over time, he said, more people will accept his party’s platform and will adopt its policies.

Deans said eventually, once the transcendental meditators and yogic flyers of the NLP banish sickness, crime and conflict, the party will be looked upon as a candle of truth in an era of ignorance, just like Galileo. However, critics say the NLP has misappropriated Galileo’s legacy.

“Look, they laughed at Galileo, they laughed at Edison, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown, and the NLP is Bozo the Clown,” said James Randi, a Florida-based skeptic. “Galileo had the saving grace of being right.”

At the end of the blogpost I asked for scientific proof. And did I get it. I became a ‘victim’ of a kind of scientific DOS-attack, an enormous amount of references for which you’ll need to write a PhD to check them all. But I’m quite a neurotic type, so when I started examining those enormous amount of articles I got pretty fast the impression that the research I found that wasn’t related to people promoting TM seems quite correct:

Canter PH, Ernst E (November 2003). “The cumulative effects of Transcendental Meditation on cognitive function–a systematic review of randomised controlled trials”. Wien. Klin. Wochenschr. 115 (21–22): 758–66. doi:10.1007/BF03040500. PMID 14743579. “All 4 positive trials recruited subjects from among people favourably predisposed towards TM, and used passive control procedures … The association observed between positive outcome, subject selection procedure and control procedure suggests that the large positive effects reported in 4 trials result from an expectation effect. The claim that TM has a specific and cumulative effect on cognitive function is not supported by the evidence from randomized controlled trials.”)

Ospina MB, Bond K, Karkhaneh M, et al. (June 2007). “Meditation practices for health: state of the research”. Evid Rep Technol Assess (Full Rep) (155): 1–263.
“Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence. Future research on meditation practices must be more rigorous in the design and execution of studies and in the analysis and reporting of results.”

Also: Maria B. Ospina, Kenneth Bond, Mohammad Karkhaneh, Nina Buscemi, Donna M. Dryden, Vernon Barnes, Linda E. Carlson, Jeffery A. Dusek, and David Shannahoff-Khalsa. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. December 2008, 14(10): 1199-1213. doi:10.1089/acm.2008.0307.

“Most clinical trials on meditation practices are generally characterized by poor methodological quality with significant threats to validity in every major quality domain assessed. Despite a statistically significant improvement in the methodological quality over time, it is imperative that future trials on meditation be rigorous in design, execution, analysis, and the reporting of results.”

If I checked the most cited researchers in the lists that were posted as a reaction to my question, the most of them were connected to the Maharishi or TM-movement. In the meantime some other researchers also started to answer, debunking a lot of the claims made. At the same time I received testimonies of people who actually visited one of the lectures. They described a speech with first a lot of physics with a lot of scientific explanation, followed by bold claims that were highly speculative.  Questions about what the actual approach were, weren’t answered in the free lecture. No, this time you would need to pay (quite a lot actually).

This Saturday the stress-free schools lectures became first-page news in one of the leading Flemish newspapers disclosing the movement behind the lectures as a cult with also other scientists debunking the scientific claims, the story was soon picked up by the other newspapers.

Important note: this doesn’t mean that stress in education shouldn’t be a topic, nor does it mean meditation can’t help stress relief. But as the Maharishi school is bringing the same story worldwide, it’s maybe a good thing to share whit you what happened in Belgium.

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