Accelerated learning techniques are gaining a wide audience. Maureen O'Connor finds out why.
Children are reluctant to admit that they don't understand something in front of their class-mates. Turn their problem into a game and you'll relieve some of their anxiety. All the better if the game provides specific clues about what's clear to them and what's still opaque.
"Traffic lights" is one such game, invented by Alastair Smith, who promotes theories of accelerated learning, or "How to be smarter with the same brain". He gives pupils a choice of colours to indicate understanding - a green light when they have grasped what is being taught, amber if they need a bit more reinforcement, and red if they are really stuck. Then they're much more ready to seek extra help.
Another tactic is to start a lesson by explaining "the whole picture". This particularly helps children who like to know the context of their studies and how parts relate to each other. Another is to make sure that visual aids are not only used but are displayed above eye level, for maximum effect.
The theory of accelerated learning is based on the enormous research advances that have been made over the last 15 years in the understanding of how the brain learns most effectively.
Smith is a former adviser in Avon, where he worked successfully to improve performance in schools. He has written a book about accelerated learning and is travelling the country offering one-day in-service courses on practical applications in the classroom.
The final session of last term was held in west London, but it attracted teachers from as far away as Lincolnshire and Dorset, working in a range of schools, including an independent school head from Northants and a special-needs teacher from Kent.
By the time Smith had persuaded six of them to act out the functions of the different parts of the brain - a hilarious exercise - few of those present are ever likely to forget the roles of the reptilian brain, the limbic system and the various bits of the neo-cortex.
The serious point behind the fun was that most people use only a tiny proportion of their mental capacity, so most can learn very much more effectively than they do at present. But this can happen only if the reptilian brain, the bit responsible for the "fight or flight" response to stress, is kept calm. Aroused, the reptile in us makes rational thought and learning almost impossible.
Accelerated learning theory makes use of the latest understanding of the functions of the left and right-hand sides of the brain - the logical, linear side and the spatial and imaginative side - and how to involve both for optimum learning. It applies the work of Professor Howard Garner of Harvard University. He argues that we all need to learn by aural, visual and kinesthetic (practical) means, and that we all have at least seven different kinds of intelligence, which can all assist learning. Schools have traditionally concentrated on the logical side of the brain and on mathematical and linguistic intelligences to the detriment of many children who learn more effectively by other means.
The aim of the class teacher, Alastair Smith argues, is to minimise stress, to raise self-esteem and confidence, and to involve the whole brain and all the different kinds of intelligence in a range of activities.
His teacher in-service approach is nothing if not challenging. He drops startling and memorable statistics into the discussion - like the fact that children can concentrate for roughly as many minutes as their age plus one, or that without a review process, recall of a lesson will drop by 70 per cent within 24 hours. Visual reinforcement, above eye level, of what has been learned will improve recall by the same percentage.
Some of his strategies are simple, some more complex. One or two of his clients in west London wondered how they would get the message over to colleagues; others felt it would take time to practise the sort of positive reinforcement that he advocates.
But most seemed convinced that his 21 strategies were at the very least useful. By the end of the day they were using terms like "positive strokes" and "the big picture" with interest if not with confidence. Some accelerated learning had clearly taken place.
Accelerated Learning in the Classroom is published by Network Educational Press, Pounds 15.95. For workshops, tel: 01785 225515.