A little neuro-science can go a long way in the classroom, as Gerald Haigh discovers.
Mike Hughes once observed a lesson in which a young teacher was explaining the difference between an atom and an element. Afterwards, he says, "I collared the children, ushered them into the next room and asked them if they knew the difference between an atom and an element. They hadn't a clue. They'd received the information all right, but they didn't understand it."
His message is the familiar one that teachers teach and children learn, and the connection between the two is neither inevitable nor easy to make - that there exists a "learning gap".
He goes further, though, by bringing into the debate his extensive knowledge of how the brain works (acquired by wide reading), finding ways of putting the principles to work in the classroom, so teachers can more effectively help their children to learn. "I'm trying," he says, "to take neuro-science and apply it to the classroom."
He is interested for example, in how to involve both hemispheres of the brain in learning, and his book contains activities that set out to do this - for example: "Describe (left) a picture or diagram (right)" and "Visualise (right) a written description (left)". Similarly, he points out that there are visual learners, auditory learners and kinaesthetic learners (for whom learning is connected with body movement) and suggests teachers should know at least roughly which children are which, and, more importantly, vary their lesson activities to engage all learning types. "During any given class activity, it is safe to assume that approximately two out of every three children are working outside their preferred learning style," he says.
Mike Hughes describes himself as "fascinated and frustrated" - fascinated by the workings of the brain; frustrated by the way classroom practice takes so little account of it.
His interest in how children learn goes back 10 years to a time when, as a young geography teacher in Cheltenham, he caught the eye of Gloucestershire authority and was seconded for one day a week to help with in-service training. He became interested in the effectiveness of teaching styles, and as a result, in 1993, wrote his first book, Flexible Learning, Evidence Examined.
Then in 1994 he became a deputy head in Halesowen, West Midlands. "The brief was to improve the quality of learning," he says. "They all say that, of course, but when I got there I found that the head actually wanted me to do it. It was a daunting challenge."
His priority was to concentrate his colleagues' attention on the business of teaching and learning. To this end he abandoned all routine meetings, telling teachers the only need was for discussions about questions such as:
"How do you teach trigonometry to Year 9 boys?" All the time he had to work by example, convinced that top-down lectures would be inappropriate, not least because of his comparative youth - his deputy headship came in his early 30s, and two-and-a-half years into headship he is still well under 40.
In 1997, more and more in demand as an in-service trainer and leader of workshops - the kind teachers like, with classroom credibility and the ability to "walk the talk" - he published a second book, Lessons are for Learning (all his books are published by Network). The title sums up his central obsession with the notion that schools are places where children learn, and that everything in them has to be directed to that end.
Flipping open the battered box file that serves him as a briefcase he reveals, inside the lid, a picture of his own children and the printed slogan: "I am here to help children learn." Similar messages, mounted in frames, hang on the walls of his office.
Summing up his experience to date, Closing the Learning Gap provides teachers with classroom techniques rooted not in folklore and "common sense" but in good science.
How many teachers, for example, use the time-honoured technique of starting a lesson by revising the previous one, firing "recall" questions at individuals? The problem with this, Hughes suggests, is that it not only ignores the need to cover new key learning early in the lesson, when children are most receptive to it, but also increases stress in the room to the point where learning can be inhibited. Stressed children do not learn, but challenged children do. This calls for good professional judgment because, the book says: "There is a massive difference between challenge and stress, but only a very thin dividing line; the problem for the teacher is that each child will draw it in a different place."
There are many books on neuro-science, many of them from the United States, some for the general reader. Hughes has installed a library of them in the staffroom. He knows, though, that teachers rarely find time for lengthy reading sessions, and Closing the Learning Gap aims to take that sort of material and put it into digestible, classroom-friendly form.
Thus it has on many of its left-hand pages a large-print "soundbite" summary of principles that are explored more fully on the right. (The paragraph on challenge and stress, quoted earlier, is one of these. These soundbites could be used as overhead projector material in staff training.) Mike Hughes now wears two hats - one as trainer and author, the other as head of Lakers School in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. He is acutely aware that mixing the two activities in any high-profile way is not on. Lakers is a good secondary school in a difficult environment with pockets of extreme deprivation. To the visitor it feels comfortable and welcoming, with confident, purposeful teachers and pleasant, personable, rugby-mad children. Hughes appreciates what is already there, and sells his message gradually, building on success and leading by example as a classroom teacher of geography.
He digs out some of the work from his Year 7 geography group - maps of Africa which children have converted into collages, with real sand for the deserts, blue paper for lakes and rivers, leaves for the tropical rainforest, grass for the savannah. He explains: "The brain learns best when it's trying to make sense of something. Here the children were asked to change a map into a model.
In another lesson I'll take in a model and ask them to change it into a map." (He played African music during the lesson. He knows a lot about when to play music in class and, based on research, what sorts of music can help learning).
Towards the end of my tour of the school, Mike Hughes, a language teacher and I are having a quiet conversation at the front of the class. "This work is quite difficult," the teacher tells me. A girl's voice pipes up from the other end of the room. "No it's not. I can do it." Perhaps she has read the book.