It's not what you know, it's how you get to know it;Briefing;Research focus

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Heather Straker describes how one school developed a learning package based on how the brain works

The tide of interest in how people learn has ebbed and flowed over the centuries - as indeed have discussions about what to teach or how to teach. Interest is sometimes sparked by a need to blame someone for our ills, or gain power, or make money.

Recent excitement over learning theory does, however, seem to be linked rationally and positively to new knowledge. This is centred on understanding, in greater detail, the workings of the brain.

Neurology, psychology and education are making a sustained improvement in our understanding of intelligence and are not only describing with more authority how the brain works but also demonstrating that this knowledge can be put to practical use in learning and teaching.

Castle Rock high school in Coalville, Leicestershire, has been quietly interpreting and making use of such developments for two years. We were stimulated partly by our 1994 Office for Standards in Education inspection to consider how we could stretch our understanding of students' individual learning capabilities.

At first we focused on differentiated worksheets and task materials for different abilities but it soon became clear that in its cruder form this could lead to a watering down of content. What we needed was to fine-tune our teaching to take account of different learning styles.

It was a happy coincidence that significant discoveries about how the brain receives and processes information had been taking place - among other places - at Harvard University. Also, some Californian schools had been putting the findings to practical use, and I spent three vacations studying their work.

Part of the fresh knowledge of how language, both verbal and non-verbal, affects our nervous system has become known as neuro-linguistic programming. The application of this programming appears to have provided a tonic to many schools and has inspired both teachers and pupils to develop strategies to accelerate the learning process.

At Castle Rock we were able to put together a package on how to apply "brain-based" learning. Workshops were devised so that pupils and teachers would understand how their brains received and processed information.

The whole staff analysed their teaching techniques to ensure that they catered for all sensory learning preferences - visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Multi-sensory stimulation was perceived as crucial in order to reach all learners. The staff even analysed their own sensory preferences in order to appreciate any bias that might creep into their teaching.

The teachers then shared this knowledge with the pupils. A tutorial programme was devised partly to develop each pupil's least preferred sense. In other words to become flexible learners.

Following this we conducted a staff workshop on brain dominance and the seven intelligences as identified by the psychologist Howard Gardner. We examined the importance and value of recognising all intelligences. Linguistic and mathematical intelligence tend to receive most attention while visual and auditory stimulation are taken for granted.

It is therefore unsurprising that those who need body movement in order to learn may be more likely to drop out.

With the help of Loughborough University we analysed responses to questionnaires about sensory preference and dominant intelligence and form tutors were provided with pie-chart profiles of their form group.

As a result we will now be able to offer pupils varied lessons based on how we learn, rather than what we learn. In future, this will empower pupils to learn independently in different situations; an important asset when few people will have a "job for life".

But the benefits are already evident. On handing me his workshop questionnaire my back-of-the-class, withdrawn 14-year-old commented: "I'm not thick. I'm intrapersonal. I can't tell you what I think. But I do think. I'm all right Miss, aren't I?" Anecdotes may only be about individuals; but, there again, learning cannot be too individual - if you're the learner.

Heather Straker is engaged in an M Phil at Loughborough University on individualised learning programmes in schools. She was an English teacher at Castle Rock high, Coalville, Leicestershire, from 1992-97 where for one year she held the post of co-ordinator for individualised learning.

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