Learning in the fast lane

6th September 1996 at 01:00
An exchange to New Zealand changed Mark Haward's teaching practice radically. Lucy Hodges reports. Year 4 sit quietly reading books and listening to baroque music. Their brains need the music to prepare for the science lesson ahead, according to Mark Haward, their teacher, who became a passionate fan of accelerated learning techniques while on a teacher exchange in New Zealand.

"As a classroom teacher I was grabbed by it immediately," he says. "It's just brilliant. It makes my life so much easier. It leads to better behaviour but most importantly very fast learning. It has changed my attitude to teaching, which is perhaps what it should have been in the first place, which is not 'What am I going to teach?' or 'What technique am I going to use?' but 'How do children learn best?'" Whole-brain learning is the buzz phrase for afficionados of accelerated learning. It is about getting children to use both sides of their brains when they learn - to combine the list-making and analytical with the emotional, creative and sensuous side. "It's using colour, visual, spatial awareness, logic, lists, emphasis, all the natural abilities our brains have, to give them a tool that enables them to apply their whole brains to a subject area," according to Mr Haward.

This has nothing to do with Labour leader Tony Blair's idea of accelerated learning for the most able. Instead it is all about teaching everyone how to learn better. Mark Haward appears to work miracles with his Year 4 class at Merland Rise Primary School, Epsom Downs, Surrey. Bright-eyed, eager, gasping, hands up, they are not unlike the Taiwanese children in the Panorama TV programme on primary teaching methods. And these are ordinary eight and nine-year-olds, many from a local housing estate, some with learning difficulties, who are busy drawing "mind maps" of materials in the science lesson that follows.

The map looks a bit like an airship floating in a piece of white paper. The airship is labelled "materials". From its side come other words - "types", "changes" and "properties". The children have remembered from a previous science lesson that there are three types of material - solids, gases and liquids. They give examples and label their diagram some more. They remember experiments to change materials - salt dissolving into water, ice melting, water evaporating.

The techniques Mark Haward is using are based on ideas formulated by gurus like lateral-thinkers Edward de Bono and Tony Buzan. In fact Buzan invented mind maps which are used in industry all over the country. Accelerated learning, according to Mr Haward, is based on 20 to 25 years of research on how the brain works. We know, for example, that different kinds of brain waves are associated with different states of mind. For a learning state you need to be relaxed and alert, he explains. In other words, you need to be in an alpha wave state, which has a certain frequency. If you are not in that state, you can't learn physiologically. Hence the baroque music and Mr Haward's upbeat manner.

Once the children are in a responsive state, they are able to absorb large amounts of material very quickly in the way the brain learns best, which is total immersion, according to Mr Haward. Children are capable of far more than we think, he believes. Once children have had something explained, using his techniques, and with links made to other issues covered, they are challenged to prove they know what they have learnt.

Mr Haward's classroom methods - developed in New Zealand by a man called Chris Gamble, creator of the company Mind Kind Education - appear to be successful, though Mr Haward could quote no independent research evaluation of them. They have spread to Australia and the next stop is Singapore. With spelling, Year 4 children are achieving 100 per cent scores every week with words that are two to three years above their chronological age. The children can spell the words forwards, backwards, whatever way you want, says Haward. They achieve such results by splitting words into two and colouring the two halves to make a picture in their heads.

The learning tools are described in Chris Gamble's book Learning Solutions for the 21st Century, a breathless and wacky description of how to teach children to learn more and faster, complete with maps, spreadsheets and checklists. Mr Haward has now left Merland Rise and is joining Mind Kind this autumn. He is hoping to be the first United Kingdom franchisee for the company, setting up learning centres, selling resources, including computer programs, and being invited in to schools for presentations.

One of his converts is Mrs Pam Wilson, head of the 374-pupil Merland Rise, who says of accelerated learning: "Having seen how it works in the classroom, we're certainly going to be buying in Mark's training package next year. He has made an impact on the way in which children learn. He has made them use their whole brains when they approach any learning task."

Another is Reigate Priory, a neighbouring primary school, where Mind Kind laid on a two-day training course at a cost of several hundred pounds, including computer programs and the book. Also included in that sum is an evening course to which members of the public are invited and charged an entry fee.

Surrey education authority is interested too. Paul Gray, director of education, has asked the county's head of educational psychology, Anna Wright, to examine the techniques. The ideas behind Mind Kind have been around a while, she says. A man called Reuben Feuerstein used a technique called instrumental enrichment with Jewish refugees after the Second World War. Mind Kind also draws from neuro-linguistic programming used to enhance people's performance in business.

"They're not new ideas, but the way they're being packaged is," she says. Surrey wants to know if there is proof of the technique's effectiveness. "Certainly the schools that have been involved with training have been very positive," she says. "The jury's out at the moment. We have not had a chance to look at them in detail."

* Information on Mind Kindfrom Mark Haward,20 Coneyberry, Woodhatch, Reigate,Surrey, RH2 7QA

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