Learning? It's all down to concentration and hard work, isn't it? But there is more than one path to enlightenment. Reva Klein visits a school that is unlocking the secrets of the brain to get the most out of its pupils.
A group of Year 7s sit waiting for the first lesson of the year with their new teacher. They don't know what to expect. This isn't English, history, maths, science, PSHE or RE. In fact, it isn't anything they - or most pupils, for that matter - have ever learned before. There's an air of slight nervousness, trepidation, uncertainty. Will it be hard? Embarrassing? Boring?
Hard? It has its moments. No one's ever had to draw a picture of the brain before and, anyway, how do you spell hemisphere? Embarrassing? Momentarily. It's not every lesson where you're told to get up and tap your head and rub your belly at the same time.
Boring? Never. How often are children asked about the most amazing thing they've ever learned in or out of school and what made it so memorable? How often are they given music to listen to as a background sound, rather than as something to focus on and be asked questions about? How often, indeed, are they told how to keep their brain happy and avoid stress (by deep breathing, talking to yourself positively, spending time with friends, planning your day). Or how to use the emotional part of the brain to make learning easier (by always having a goal in mind and imagining yourself as an excellent learner).
Then, before they know it, they've all got to stand up and do Brain Gym, a series of exercises designed to co-ordinate the left and right sides of the brain, thereby maximising brain function. That's where the head tapping and belly rubbing comes in. They're also asked to draw big lazy eights in the air, first with their left arm, then their right, then together. Next, they write their names backwards in the air in big letters and then, horrors, they're told to write their names in the air using their two index fingers, but in mirror images of each other. Moans and yelps all around. Until they have to stop to take deep breaths, to oxygenate the brain.
To get them settled again, the teacher, Jackie Beere, asks them how many brain cells they think they've got. Suggestions of two, 2,000 and a creative 2,900 are made. When she tells them the true figure - 100 billion - the room reverberates with ooohs and, when she goes on to tell them that neuro-scientists believe that we use only 1 per cent of our brain, there are exclamations of disbelief.
This is a Learning to Learn class, the first of its kind for Year 7s at Campion school in Bugbrooke, Northampton. As part of the Campaign for Learning's national Learning to Learn project in 24 schools around the country (see box), every fortnight Jackie Beere and two of her colleagues lead Year 7s on a journey of discovery into the workings of the brain, helping children feel that they're in control of their learning by understanding what kind of learner they are.
This, the thinking goes, enables them to build confidence, self-esteem and, it's hoped, an aptitude and appetite for learning.
As well as Brain Gym, Beere teaches skills such as anger management, delayed gratification and controlling moods, as described by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. She draws, too, on the Accelerated Learning model (see box) which stresses VAK (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) modes of learning. Another component to her programme is attempting to create a culture in which mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, so that children aren't afraid to take risks.
The school started introducing some of the ideas in 1997 with a group of underachieving Year 11s. Since then, there has been a steady rise in GCSE results. In 1996, the proportion of students achieving five or more A* to C grades was 46 per cent; last summer, it was 65 per cent. Campion's headteacher, Tony Downing, attributes this to "a whole school determination to raise standards, of which Jackie Beere's work is a part".
Following the success with the Year 11 group, the school decided to offer the Learning to Learn approach to all Year 7s in a bid, says Tony Downing, "to enable children to extend throughout key stage 3 the gains they made in primary school. Rather than them having to adapt to a new system in secondary school, we're adapting to them".
The basis of the approach, which is now applied throughout the science department and is permeating other subjects as more teachers become interested, is the belief that effective teaching should recognise that children have different learning styles. This is supported by brain research and backed up by various studies on effective teaching, the latest being the DfEE-funded Hay McBer study published last June.
One US study looking at "learning style profiles" of 5,300 students between the ages of 10 and 18 identified the three main learning styles as haptickinesthetic (learning from moving, touching, doing), visual (learning from pictures and images) and auditory (learning from spoken words and music), with the largest number of children falling into the category of haptickinesthetic learners.
Jackie Beere, one of the first advanced skills teachers in the country, developed an interest in the concept of learning styles from her personal experience and professional observations. Her own daughter appeared to be struggling at school five years ago, when she was in Year 8. "It seemed that something wasn't connecting for her. She found some subjects very difficult and others, like language, much more accessible. I started reading about learning styles through my interest in neuro-linguistic programming and realised that she found learning easier if she listened to tapes than if she tried to take in information from books. Also, she couldn't deal with abstract things easily. She was predicted an E in science. So we decided that she should try making tapes of all her notes.
"She'd sing some of them, just to keep it from being too boring, and then she'd study by listening to them. Against all predictions, she got a double C in science."
But what happens if you discover that, for instance, you're a kinesthetic learner and you typecast yourself as someone who can't learn by listening or reading? It doesn't work like that, she says. "We teach that the most successful learners have developed pathways in all styles of learning. The awareness of the teacher and the student of the individual's preferred style of learning is important but we make all children learn all three ways - kinesthetically, aurally and visually."
To help teachers learn the theories and methodologies, Jackie Beere has developed an MBA module in association with Leicester University. She also runs in-service and discussion groups for teachers at Campion and neighbouring schools.
David Middlewood, director of school-based programmes at Leicester University, believes that Jackie Beere's focus on VAK learning is "an interesting beginning to what is destined to be a long journey - and on the way a lot of young people are going to gain by it and lots of teachers will improve their practice. In 10 years' time, we'll have found out a lot more."
* On the VAK
The Campaign for Learning's Learning to Learn project was launched last February. Out of 200 applications, 24 schools were chosen to take part: 16 secondaries and eight primaries.
All the projects use target and control groups to measure the impact of teaching strategies over the year. Evaluation will be carried out in-school by participating teachers as well as independently.
The scheme offers practical approaches to learning based on research into brain function, multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence and other areas. The basic premise is that all children can achieve if they are motivated and taught effectively. This means creating an environment in which children feel confident enough to accept criticism. Effective teaching involves using visual, auditory and kinesthetic (VAK) approaches that allow time for reflection.
Teachers use memory maps, visual displays, quizzes, demonstrations and other interactive techniques to allow pupils to demonstrate understanding.
Campaign for Learning: 020 7930 1111