Early this week, my "mentor teacher" and I were talking about some particularly off-task students in my classroom. She mentioned the idea of giving students "brain breaks." As she is familiar with my skeptical ways, she abruptly followed her recommendation with an assurance that the need for "brain breaks" is thoroughly evidence-based, based on the latest brain research ("brain-based learning" is another fairly recent fad in education). Unfortunately, I decided to find out for myself, and what I found - typical of the education world - is that "evidence based" often, in educator slang, means "cited in an article which was cited in an article which was...." You get the idea.
Now, the idea that students require brief "brain breaks" for every twenty-or-so minutes of real learning has strong intuitive appeal. When we introspect and, especially when we look at students, it is hard to quarrel with this idea. 90 minute periods are long, students get restless, and the idea that students require breaks for every x number of minutes "just makes sense."
But "just makes sense" is different than "has an evidentiary basis." So, when my mentor teacher suggested that brain breaks did have a strong evidentiary basis, I asked her where I might be able to find such evidence. She pulled out three books outlining the idea of brain breaks. Out of those, two did not cite any research (even though both suggested that validating research existed), and one dropped the name of an educational theorist - not a researcher - who postulated that breaks may be good things for kids.
I spent some time online as well, figuring that as there exist tons of websites extolling the virtues of brain breaks, I could certainly find references to the research that validates them. I must have gone through 30+ websites, all to no avail. I chased down any articles that were cited, only to find that articles which were cited as evidence of brain breaks were articles that themselves cited other articles, which in turn, cited other articles. I have not yet found the "holy grail" articles that vitiate this circle by outlining original evidence (rather than citing articles that cite articles). Those websites or articles that did not cite other articles simply and blithely said things like "research shows that..." without going into what that research is. This gives the impression that once one says that research exists on something (whether it does or not) enough times, people just start to assume the truth of the statement.
I am not saying that such articles do not exist, but I suspect that if there is really that much scientific research validating "brain breaks" (as adherents are quick to suggest), then articles doing so would not be so hard to find citations for. This is not just a problem with the idea of brain breaks, but with so much in education (the virtually unquestioned theory of Multiple Intelligences for instance, which has gained credence primarily by "intuitive appeal," anecdotes, and a few very poorly designed studies.) In the world of education, "evidence-based" is not a very trustworthy descriptor.
So, I will probably try out brain breaks in my classes, and I suspect that they will work, at least in their ability to better keep students focused and alleviate the drudgery of 90 minute periods. (I do not expect that they will raise academic scores, but this is a prediction only.) But I will not suggest that they are evidence-based until I can find, or someone can show me, the evidence (not an article that cites and article) of their efficacy.