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Welcome to the school that research built

What would schools look like if you took all the research around optimal learning and put it into practice in classrooms? Very different, finds Alastair McConville, and not altogether workable

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I had ticked off a life accomplishment. I had a book with my name on it. And it had some clout owing to being co-written with two American professors, Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski.

The book tries to explain to students how they can learn efficiently, using some accessible neuroscience alongside practical suggestions based upon the latest research. It’s meant to be light in tone and it has funny pictures to hook the reader in. I enjoyed the whole process of making it. I was happy.

But then the question began to dawn on me: what if some of my own students read it? Mightn’t they have a few things to say about the gap between optimal learning as we present it in the book and the way schools (including mine) sometimes set things up?

I had imagined the book as a gift to the nameless, faceless masses but, as the new term loomed, I began to imagine the sorts of critiques and demands I might face from my lively minded students who, understandably, take a keen interest in their experience of school and who, quite rightly, wouldn’t want to think it was sub-optimal.

So, if we were to take the research around learning and apply it with fresh eyes to the school experience, here are four things we might have to change.

1. Shake up the schedule

“OK, Al, we read your book, and all this stuff about how massively important sleep is for memory and connecting ideas up.” Some of my students have cornered me for a “chat”. “So how come you basically wake us up in the middle of the night and drag us into lessons when we’re half asleep? You know as well as we do that teenagers are on a different clock to you oldies. And then you complain that we don’t remember things from one lesson to the next!”

I concede that there is rather a lot in what they say. We do indeed emphasise the centrality of sleep for learning in the book. It’s at night that neuronal growth happens primarily and it’s the physical growth and strengthening of synaptic connections that makes new learning stick and remain accessible. A full night’s sleep enables the slumberer to download and organise their day’s experiences, pruning the useless material and moving the important information from short- to long-term memory. Cut a night’s sleep short and the process fails to complete. New synapses don’t take hold and they wither away. Blank faces ensue next lesson. Blank, that is, except for the bags under their eyes.

Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s Inventing Ourselves also explain how this works, and both demonstrate how adolescents effectively shift into a different time zone to the rest of us, needing, on average, to wake and fall asleep significantly later than adults. Early starts to school days clearly get most students off on the wrong footing and keep them cognitively underpowered for the whole day.

“So when’s it all going to change? We’re knackered,” my students chorus.

I murmur sheepishly about lead-in times for change and difficulties around teachers’ contracts and pick-up commitments.

But ideally, it seems clear, we would start school later for late-adolescents. Indeed, some schools already do. In the US, especially, there has been a trend towards later starts. Trials in Denmark, too, have shown measurable academic improvements. A few UK schools, such as Alton College in Hampshire, have taken the plunge and moved to a 10am start, citing the sleep science as their primary motivation (bit.ly/Alton_Timetable).

We should catch up. In boarding contexts such as my own, where we have control over getting-up times, there’s not much excuse. I add it to the to-do list.

2. Utilise ‘brain modes’ more effectively

“And all this science about how we need to be able to use ‘focused and diffuse modes’ of our brains to learn effectively. And how we need to be able to drift out of focus so we can let things sink in and be ‘creative’ about what we’re learning...?”

I cut in and agree with my students enthusiastically. Sejnowski’s work shows that the learning brain functions in one of two different modes at any one time; either we are paying close attention to something – focused, narrow, tightly conscious of our subject matter – or we’re “diffuse”, meaning that we’ve adopted a looser, more relaxed way of contemplating the matter in hand, or perhaps barely contemplating it all, mulling it over semi-consciously.

Both “modes” contribute importantly to a full understanding of a complex matter; the first, grasping something as it is in itself in its narrow context and committing it to short-term memory; the second, gradually seizing, unconsciously, how it can be applied to other contexts and playing an important role in consolidating it to longer-term memory.

My students interrupt my train of thought.

“Well, all we say is, try being ‘diffuse’ in double chemistry and see how far that gets you. It’s all very well this chess stuff about that kid Magnus Carlsen getting up and wandering around the room when he’s playing Kasparov, and what a great idea that is when you’re stuck, but if I did that in your religious studies lesson, you’d chuck a Bible at me.”

I deny this, looking over my shoulder, but assure them that we are working hard to make our lessons yet more interactive and differentiated so that they can switch modes regularly within lessons. Changes of activity between individual and group tasks, front-led and peer-led sections, and mini-breaks within a lesson are all effective ways of mixing up focused and diffuse thinking effectively.

But one student pipes up: “And why do you give us all of our ‘diffuse’ time in great big chunks during the holidays? And hammer us with ‘focused’ stuff for weeks on end without a break? Wouldn’t it be better to have more, shorter holidays to let our learning sink in but without giving us so long that we forget it all?” (OK, I’ll admit, this last comment is something only a fictional child would say, risking as it does the much-cherished long summer break).

There’s something in this. If we were starting from scratch, and optimising learning was really our aim, we surely wouldn’t design our school year along its current rhythm. It has evolved around religious festivals, which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, but hardly learning-led. We know, too, that the long vacation accentuates attainment gaps between socio-economic groups.

Still, it would be a brave education secretary who proposed anything radical on this front.

3. Rethink the set-up

“And you say that we learn most efficiently when we’re undistracted, and that we should work in 25 minutes bursts and then have a break. And a reward! But then you put us in great big classes with all our mates and keep us there for 75 minutes. And you’re not too hot on doling out the rewards either. What’s that all about?”

I applaud them for noticing the tension and remind them that I do, in fact, give them a five-minute break in the middle of the longer lessons. They are alluding to the Pomodoro Technique of timing oneself for 25 uninterrupted minutes of focusing on a task, then taking a break and doing something nice, thereby creating a Pavlovian virtuous circle by rewarding yourself for your burst of activity. It’s a tremendously helpful antidote to the teenager’s inveterate tendency to procrastinate.

I point out that we are mostly advocating this for use during individual homework and revision sessions, but take their point and invite them to suggest alternatives to the traditional classroom model.

“How about you make us all our own little soundproof booths for when we need to concentrate, and then we all have a break and come back to some nice central area with sofas and hot drinks and other ‘rewards’ so we can discuss it ‘diffusely’, clarifying our understanding and asking for help where we need it? Wouldn’t that be better?”

I grant them that, in some ways, it would. The traditional classroom and timetable don’t exactly seem optimised for the kind of individual focused work that they need to do as part of the process, the benefits of social learning notwithstanding. Still, they’re not having my office for their booths.

“We’re not finished yet,” they continue. “You and these professors say that people learn at different speeds, ‘race-car brains’ and ‘hiker brains’, and that it can be good to take things slowly so that you can take more in, and that can be better in the long run. Like that bloke Santiago who found out about neurons.”

I concur, delighted that they got this far in the book. Santiago Ramón y Cajal was, indeed, a slow learner with a poor memory. He failed his entrance exam to medical school three times before making the breakthrough in the contemporary debate about the nature of neurons and effectively laying the foundations of modern neuroscience.

“Well, how come we just speed through masses every lesson and then go on to the next thing while half the class still doesn’t get it? Aren’t we going to end up with a pretty superficial level of understanding even if we’re lucky and have ‘race-car brains’? Or none at all if we’ve got ‘hiker brains’?”

“Ah – this one isn’t my fault,” I say, and begin to explain the recent curriculum reforms, with the sudden and uncalled-for burgeoning of curricular material.

They protest: “So? Why don’t we all do fewer GCSEs so we can do them properly and then those with spare space in their brains and time to kill do cross-curricular projects in things they’re interested in?”

“Hear hear,” I say. “No argument from me. It is, in fact, what we do at Bedales.” A bright spark moves the conversation on.

4. Embrace non-linear learning

“We liked the bit about ‘picture walks’, when you get a proper chance to get an overview of the whole course and its issues before you just launch in at the beginning without any idea about where you’re going, or the kind of tests you’re going to come up against. Can we do more of that? Normally we just get given a syllabus and mark scheme that goes in the back of our file, and then we work through it one topic after another. Aren’t we supposed to mix it up a bit, jumping around between topics? It seems a bit weird to us… And shouldn’t we keep revisiting things before it all just comes up in a massive test at the end of the year?”

I am pleased with their grasp of the issues. As researchers such as professor Robert Bjork have shown, there are benefits to shuffling though material in a non-linear way, hopping back and forward between topics.

This is the practice of “interleaving”, and it deepens a student’s grasp of how complex information fits together by introducing ideas and material in a range of contexts, and strengthens their memory and understanding through “spaced repetition” of the relevant material and concepts.

It’s part of the reason that cramming is so ineffective, I say, finger-waggingly. There’s no scope for material to be viewed from different perspectives, revisited over time, and reinforced to the point of mastery.

A-level and GCSE linearity has given us a new impetus to take this issue seriously. For example, I explain that I’m running a rapid overview of the entire A-level course in the first few weeks of the autumn term so that all of the main questions have been addressed at some level at the start, and are bubbling gently in the backs of their minds, before delving back into things in more depth non-sequentially. When we come to consider divine omniscience in the upper sixth, they will, to a certain extent, have been pondering it for a year, whether they know it or not.

Sneaky, they say, failing to notice my omniscience pun.

So, as I make my excuses to leave before my teaching and learning gadflies raise any other meaty issues for me to fret about, I summarise mentally, as follows:

* Reschedule the school day to allow students a proper night’s sleep.

* Petition the education secretary for a reshaping of the school year and for a diminution of curriculum content.

* Pitch for a new teaching and learning centre that has bespoke facilities for focused and diffuse activities.

* Re-plan curriculum delivery around good interleaving principles.

That’s all? Easy. My fault, I guess. I wrote the book. I’ll get on with it. I should be done by Christmas.


Alistair McConville is director of learning and innovation at Bedales School in Hampshire and co-author of Learning How To Learn