Reva Klein visits a school where different ways of seeing, listening and feeling are increasing children's mental powers
There is nothing about the office of Pat Preedy, the headteacher at Knowle primary school, that hints at its occupant being at the cutting edge of innovative teaching. Dusty pink from floor to ceiling, complete with pink flowery curtains, pink cushions and paintings on the wall best described as sugary pink, it creates an atmosphere of femininity and calm, yes, but enlightened vision mixed with a bit of risk-taking?
It just shows how misleading looks can be. From this most rosy of settings in the pretty village of Knowle, Solihull, Pat Preedy runs a school that is anything but traditional. In her commitment to support all pupils, she is tapping into the latest data and thinking on the brain.
She uses the "accelerated learning" approach, a mix of strategies based on the work of Bulgarian psychiatrist Dr Georgi Lozanov, designed to help the left and right sides of the brain work together better.
In this approach "imaging" is considered central to understanding. Learners are encouraged to draw mind maps as they develop new ideas, in order to help them retain and develop their thoughts and make connections. Background music is used in all classes to relax, stimulate and inspire and careful consideration is given to colour - hence the riot of pink. A regime called Fit for Learning gets bodies moving, oxygenating the brain and enhancing learning. Drawing on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, accelerated learning ensures that children learn in ways that are most meaningful for them, be they sensory, verbal, kinaesthetic or spatial.
But this stuff isn't all touchy-feely. If it's measurable outcomes you want, Knowle has them. Last year's Year 6 test results speak for themselves: 98% in English, 94% in maths, 100% in science.
It's all done so effortlessly, so seamlessly at Knowle primary that it appears the most natural and sensible way in the world of going about the business of teaching. Take the Year 2 class writing winter poems. The teacher planned the programme to enable them to see, hear and feel what winter meant. Many kinaesthetic children - those who learn best through touch, for instance - find visual learning difficult. So to start with, the class took a long walk outside, which combined feeling, listening and seeing. Then they engaged in a visual exercise by drawing pictures. They started off by looking at a picture of winter, then removed it and wrote down what they saw before drawing their own. Finally, they listened to poems about winter.
Next, they used two mind maps. For the first one, they did a group brainstorming session to find nouns that evoked winter, such as bare trees, frost, snow. The other mind map used descriptive words to conjure an image of winter: freezing, icy, gloomy. They also did what's called a fishbone, where at the head of the fish they wrote "winter" and then went through the length of the fish noting down relevant sights, sounds, feelings and tastes.
This led to sentence work, focusing on different parts of speech. The teacher started with "the trees" and then children would suggest other bits of the sentence, which were written down under each other in a zig-zag fashion. One sentence devised by the group was "the trees - bend - gracefully - in - the wind." To help with structuring the poem, another fishbone was drawn to help the children identify who, what, when, why, where and how.
But that's not all. Before the children sat down to do their writing, they had 15 minutes of Fit for Learning activities, which are based on the understanding that children's brains need oxygen if they are to function at optimum levels. An important part of the regime is Brain Gym, a series of physical movements intended to make the brain more responsive to learning. To make the Fit for Learning session relevant to the winter poem the class was working on, the teacher incorporated movements of trees (spiky fingers for bare branches) and a gentle snowfall (fingers fluttering, bodies swirling around) along with the usual stretching and relaxing exercises.
In the nursery, concepts are reinforced through a strongly sensory environment. The colour purple dominated the play area last term: the modelling clay was purple and scented with lavender from the school garden and the biscuits were purple. Children made up songs about purple things and wrote poetry, using the "fishbone" mind map structure, about purple. Weekly themes, too, are experienced by nursery children through a range of sensations and channels. The story of the Three Bears involved a week of activities, from baking bear biscuits to touching furry things and talking about them to taking small, medium and large steps in PE and writing poems about the story.
For Pat Preedy, accelerated learning means "having an intellectual underpinning to whatever we're doing." For instance, in art, speaking and listening are integrated into the lesson, as they are in science, technology and maths. "All the time, we're getting the children to think about what they're doing, to help strengthen cognition and make connections."
By making oracy a feature of the art lesson, children who are less visually and spatially oriented are given verbal routes. "The key is to enable children to place information in a number of different areas in the brain to facilitate retrieval. If they experience something visually, auditorily and kinaesthetically, they will be able to make cognitive connections more easily."
She gives the example of a girl who had been struggling with maths. "She was first given clay to work with, and spent time making numbers. Then she moved on to do complex computations. What transformed her was the fact that she had built up her visual and kinaesthetic understanding by working with numbers in ways that were meaningful for her."
A similar strategy is employed for children with spelling difficulties: making letters in clay helps them to remember the sounds and sequences.
Accelerated learning isn't going to be every school's cup of tea. It requires rigour, planning and commitment, fuelled by an intellectual engagement with the ideas behind the practice.
For Pat Preedy, the ethos of such a programme is part of a continuum of a former life she led, when she was involved in the early pioneering work of the hospice movement.
She sees a confluence of the two revolutionary approaches: teamwork, the primacy of training, a clear vision of the dignity of the individual and, in her words, "moving from routines to caring for the individual according to their needs."
But most of all, their similarity lies in the humanity that underpins them. "In schools generally, we often teach children not to be persistent but compliant," she says. "Here, we encourage persistence and investigation. We don't want children to be easily satisfied with what they've achieved. Learning is interactive and we are careful not to put a ceiling on it." And for detractors who say that they've got their work already cut out for them without looking for new ways of teaching, thankyouverymuch, she says simply: "There's room in the national curriculum for flair and for talented teachers to shine."
As a beacon school that has been given funding to help develop accelerated learning in a partner school in a more deprived area, she's convinced that "these are universal ideas that can be used and shaped by others."
Knowle primary school will be hosting a national conference, Focus on Learning, on accelerated learning on May 4. To find out more, look up the school's website at www.knowleprimaryschool.co.uk or ring 01564 776209.
WHAT IS BRAIN GYM?
A methodology developed from research with learning disabled children and adults, Brain Gym is a series of 26 simple movements easily incorporated into classroom activities. Each one is called a balance and is performed to accomplish a specific goal. The aim is to create an "integrated state", a fully functioning mind and body system. When there has been emotional trauma, the brain operates in a homolateral state, allowing only one brain hemisphere to function at a time, reducing mental coordination and leading to frustration and underachievement. (Left brain functions are largely responsible for language, logic, numbers, sequence and analysis. Right brain functions broadly control forms and patterns, spatial manipulation, rhythm and musical appreciation, pictures, imagination).
Its proven benefits for learning and behaviour have led to its being included in 12 "Exemplary Learning Strategies" by the US National Learning Foundation. Teachers can use cross-lateral exercises in the classroom, to help bring oxygen to the brain and stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, helping to enhance concentration. On the next page are two easy examples that you can do to start off the day or at any time when you want to heighten children's concentration and ability to focus.
EXERCISES TO KEEP THOSE GREY CELLS IN THE PINK
Exercise 1: Write the alphabet on the board. Underneath each letter, write L or R for left and right. Tell the group they are to recite the alphabet and raise their left or right hand as they say each letter, depending on whether there's an L or R underneath. The first time, go through it slowly. The next time, do it a bit quicker. The next time, do it backwards.
Exercise 2: Tell children to stand up and touch their left foot with the right hand, then their left knee with their right hand. Then have them hold their nose with their left hand and then hold their left ear with their right hand. Then do the whole exercise in reverse, ie, touching their right foot with their left hand, etc.
Country dancing, says Pat Preedy, is another great exercise, matching cross-lateral movements to music. For more information, look up www.BrainGym.org.