It's all in the mind

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Using Brainpower in the Classroom By Steve Garnett Routledge pound;16.99

The Learning Brain By Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith Blackwell Pounds 16.99

Teachers, Change Your Bait By Martha Kaufeldt Crown House Publishing Pounds 16.99

It's funny to think that we ignored the brain for so long. You'd assume, as teachers engaged in developing pupils' learning, we would have spotted that a working knowledge of the brain might be useful. Instead we blithely labelled pupils as "bright" or "less able" or shunted them off to an "alternative curriculum" if we thought they weren't very academic. We relied, perhaps reluctantly, on tests that reinforced certain forms of knowledge (factual), hybrid skills (analysis), and a narrow range of learning styles (memorisation). As a result, our most successful pupils were often passive, conformist, and rather lucky to inherit a schooling system that suited the formation of their brains.

I say students in our schools "were" like this, as if we've entered some zone of pedagogical enlightenment, which of course is far from true. Walk into most secondary school classrooms and chances are you'll see a nodding recognition that pupils learn in different ways, but little tangible change in the actual teaching and learning. And while you can hardly attend a curriculum meeting without someone name-dropping VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles) or MQ (multiple intelligences) or EQ (emotional intelligence), the problem is how to tell what actually makes a difference in the classroom from what's merely fashionable.

Here are three books that aim to provide a practical translation of brain-based learning into strategies for classroom use. The most straightforward is Steve Garnett's Using Brainpower in the Classroom. If the learning styles juggernaut has passed you by until now, this book is a handy synthesis of current thinking. There are chapters on learning, cognition, gender, structuring lessons and the physical environment. The benefit of Steve Garnett's book is its simple, clear format (it's one of the most spaciously designed texts I've come across) and uncomplicated style. That's important because these are topics that people too frequently feel it is in their interest to complicate.

The book is strongest in its resume of the latest, though not always jaw-droppingly unexpected, research: boys tend to be more competitive; they are more prone to horseplay; girls often take more care with presentation.

Each chapter then has a section that is designed to show the classroom implications. So, for improving boys' attainment, we should promote active learning such as debates and role plays; develop higher-order thinking skills such as moving from knowledge to evaluation (perhaps by referring to Bloom's taxonomy of thinking skills, the useful checklist published in the secondary strategy); give more positive feedback; and sit pupils boygirlboygirl. There are also case studies of practice from schools.

Overall I found little here that surprised me, perhaps because I have probably read my own not inconsiderable body weight of books on this topic.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith are neuroscientists at University College London. Here are people who literally know the brain inside and out. As you start to read The Learning Brain, you immediately know you are in the hands of experts. Chapters include "The Developing Brain", "The Mathematical Brain", "The Adolescent Brain" and "Harnessing the Learning Powers of the Brain". This is a refreshingly accessible synthesis of real research about the brain and how it learns. Tellingly, it has no reference to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which often feels like a pedagogical cul-de-sac.

So if your interest is to go back to first principles of finding out for yourself about the brain from people who know, this is the book. But it's up to you to see how those insights might translate into classroom impact.

Martha Kaufeldt's Teachers, Change Your Bait wins this week's prize for most self-consciously wacky title. It's written with the full age span of school learners in mind and the presentation - heavy on clip art - tries to create a sense of fun and accessibility. This fits with what we are told about the author: Martha Kaufeldt is a teacher and presenter from Santa Cruz, California. Her case is that "we can't wait for the neuroscientists to tell us what to do with our classes of unique learners". That's where she parachutes in with strategies that are "compatible with how the brain learns". Consequently, using her son's interest in angling as a template, she encourages us to think about the best time of day for learning, choose the best location, stock our tackle boxes with strategies and diverse lures. You get the idea.

There are chapters on hooking students' interest, varying the physical environment, and building understanding. If you can inoculate yourself against the occasional excesses of Californian wackiness, this is a hugely practical book. It's written by a teacher who clearly knows how to engage and motivate young people, and that charm and enthusiasm comes shining through in the book. Not that Martha Kaufeldt is (wait for it) fishing for compliments.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.The brain and visual perception is the subject of the Inside Story on page 8 of this week's Teacher magazine

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