The guru of acceleration

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Alistair Smith's unconventional past as bouncer, footballer and labourer only add to the huge interest in his ideas. William Stewart reports.

From labourer to teaching guru, Alistair Smith is the perfect example of the accelerated learning he espouses.

The 48-year-old Scot has helped to transform the way many schools view teaching, his books sell in tens of thousands and he is one of the most sought-after speakers on the education circuit.

But with a lifelong love for punk rock, and spells as a labourer, semi-professional footballer and bouncer on his CV, he is far from being your archetypal educationist.

Smith sees his wide-ranging background as an essential part of his success in making people think about how they teach rather than just what they teach. "What I hope I am able to do is get people excited about learning generally, whether they are heads or learning support assistants," he said.

"In order to do that they need to have an empathy. If they see the disparity between you and them as too wide then the message won't lodge."

A natural communicator, he has proved adept at making a bundle of theories and concepts including accelerated learning, multiple intelligences and neuro-linguistic programming, directly relevant to the classroom.

He started out in education as an English teacher at a Carlisle secondary before working as an advisory teacher in Lancashire and then Avon. By 1994 he had finished his first book on accelerated learning, which to date has sold 40,000 copies. He took redundancy and set up on his own as a speaker and author.

Today his popularity is such that individual schools are virtually unable to book him. He now tends to speak at much larger gatherings and conferences organised by bodies such as the Specialist Schools Trust.

David Crossley, the trust's director of achievement networks, said: "He is a leader in his field. He comes from a practical background so all his examples are grounded in reality and are easy for schools to work with."

When Mary Hoather took over as head of Carisbrooke high, on the Isle of Wight, six years ago the first thing she did was to bring in Alistair Smith for a day to work with all her teachers on learning.

"He is a motivational speaker who practises what he preaches and engages on a lot of different levels," she said. "He is as good today as when I first saw him more than a decade ago. I would love to get him back once a year now. The trouble is he is too expensive."

Mr Smith's personal fee is understood to run into thousands. He refuses to reveal exactly how much but says that if schools club together they could still, depending on the circumstances, hire to him for as little as pound;10 per head.

His company, Alite, which has eight full-time headquarters staff and up to 30 people who give speeches, runs courses costing up to pound;245 a day per head and has just launched a new software package selling at pound;1,750.

The firm is also succeeding outside schools and beat the likes of the Open University to a contract to improve learning at the Football Association.

Mr Smith, a self-confessed workaholic, describes this side of the business - which has allowed him to work with many premiership managers - as relaxation.

Bill Lucas, a former Campaign for Learning chief executive who has collaborated with him on various projects, said: "Don't under-estimate Alistair, he is a really shrewd guy. He has got his business, Alite, and he is creating a kind of brand for himself."

Despite reaping many rewards from education in his adult life, his experience of it was unsatisfactory. The son of a blacksmith and a hotel waitress, he left secondary prematurely with just one Scottish higher. As a top student at his local high school in Kinross, Perthshire, he had won a place at the more academic Perth academy. But there it was assumed he was a bumpkin, and after being moved from top to bottom sets, he found other areas to excel in.

"I was possibly the best skiver the school had," he said. "My snooker came on no end. I used to hide my rods at the bus stop next to the River Tay and spend the day fishing. I just lost my way."

Higher education eventually did beckon but it came in the form of Teeside polytechnic rather than St Andrews or Oxbridge.

But before university, he spent four to five years trying to find himself.

At 17 he blagged a local educational grant of pound;250, stocked up on patchouli oil and bought a one-way ticket to Istanbul where he spent nine months in an experience that "blew his mind".

His return was less exotic and he was forced to take on a series of menial jobs working as a wool dyer, a labourer on building sites and in a sand and gravel quarry.

The quarry, the last option at Cowdenbeath dole office, was the low point.

"It was like a chain gang," he said. "All the guys that I worked with in that quarry are now dead. It was just a poor crappy lifestyle in poverty and a dead end job."

After his humanities degree in Middlesbrough, where he rubbed shoulders with strippers and his punk rock heroes as a nightclub bouncer, he won a scholarship to do a PhD at Newcastle university.

The doctorate was abandoned after he decided that "nobody gave a stuff" about his analysis of the historical novel. But his time there did bring him into contact with Robert Woof, an academic and director of the Wordsworth Trust who invited him to work as a tour guide at the trust's Lake District museum where he honed his speaking skills. "Alistair was a very engaging lovely person who reached out to people," said Dr Woof. "He was a natural communicator and a terrific guide."

And whether it is getting heads to play blindfold Jenga to illustrate leadership or persuading teachers not to imitate a leaky boiler by starting lessons with five minutes of shushing, that is what he is still doing today.



Alistair Smith has pulled together theories from various disciplines and sources and distilled them into practical advice for teachers under the umbrella term "accelerated learning".

The phrase itself was first coined in by Colin Rose in his 1984 book of the same name. He wrote about the need for learners to be in the right mental and physiological state, for them to be hydrated and to be in a suitable learning environment.

Mr Smith adapted these ideas for the classroom suggesting, for example, that pinning up pupils' work may not be the best use of wall space when it can be used to visually reinforce what is taught. He has also drawn from Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences as well as research on neuro-linguistic programming and self-esteem.

His central message is that teachers should always focus on the learners, ensuring they are properly engaged before the lesson begins, involving them as much as possible when teaching and giving them the opportunity to demonstrate and consolidate what they have learned.

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