Learning should be stimulating for teacher and pupil, but all too often rigid approaches stifle creativity. Reva Klein meets Alistair Smith (left),a man prepared to rip up the rule book.
Alistair Smith tells the story, one of many in his repertoire, of sitting at the back of a lesson while the headteacher admonished a class of Year 7s. "I hope no one's going to disrupt class today like big ears over there did last week," she hissed, whereupon the entire class turned their gaze to a boy with, yes, indisputably big and now smouldering red ears, who at that moment doubtlessly yearned to disappear down a deep hole, ears and all.
The fast-talking Scot relates this story not to illustrate how terrible teachers can be but to show how they can be their own worst enemies. Set a negative agenda, by saying, for instance, "I know how disruptivestupid you lot can be but hope you can somehow refrain from displaying it for the next hour", and it'll be a miracle if at least one pupil doesn't act the prat. Like all self-fulfilling prophecies of the pessimistic variety, there are no winners in this game.
He remembers from his own chequered school career how teachers' low expectations can push pupils into corners. When his family moved from the country to the town of Kinross, near Perth, he was moved from the top set to the bottom, because the headteacher at his new secondary school assumed he was a bumpkin. "Suddenly I saw myself in a different light and had to develop strategies to cope with this change, like fishing and playing snooker."
Mr Smith loves telling these stories and can get away with holding a mirror up to teachers' behaviour because, despite his inauspicious pupil profile - a "premature departure" from secondary schooling followed by a stint as a labourer and a wool dyer - he became a teacher himself. It also helps that he's funny, a natural performer and an astute observer of human behaviour. He puts it all to good use. As a trainer, consultant and author, he travels around the UK and abroad helping teachers to get the best out of themselves and their pupils.
He calls himself a responsible subversive, getting people to challenge and test their assumptions. He's not afraid of getting up and uttering heresies to teachers such as: "Why do you stick children's work all over the walls? It's because we all think children will learn by osmosis, isn't it?" The real reason children's work is put on the walls, he says, is because teachers know it's on inspectors' checklists. But, he asks, so what? Wouldn't it aid their learning more if data and information were festooned around the classroom in a way that reinforced and complemented teaching?
University researchers are given similarly irreverent treatment. "I have no time for tomes of work about school structures and systems, arguing in arcane ways about whether there are 12 or 11 factors in an effective school," he says.
What he does have time for, and ploughs his considerable energies into, is training teachers in accelerated learning, a range of practical strategies to stimulate the learning process. Described as brain-friendly learning, it is a composite of approaches encompassing aspects of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, mind-mapping and research into, among other topics, the effects on the brain of drinking water and listening to music.
"One of the key concepts is that children are naturaly motivated to learn," explains Mr Smith. To help sustain that motivation, he has developed what he calls an accelerated learning cycle, a process designed to create a supportive learning environment in which pupils feel they can take risks in their learning. The emphasis of his model is on contextualising and clarifying the learning process itself.
In practice, this means pupils are told every step of the way what the teacher is doing and why. "I separate content and process by saying 'We're going to do x but we're doing it like this instead of how it's usually done'. It's a clearly stated learning and modelling process, where learners know what they're doing at each stage, what they've done and what's next."
Children are told what the outcomes of the lesson will be and are then led through activities and demonstrations before reviewing what has been covered to help their recall and retention.
It's a powerful and effective antidote to the concept of learning as defined by one Year 7 pupil from Bradford who, when asked by Mr Smith what happens when he learns something, replied: "We learn when the teacher talks and then we do writing afterwards."
That's just another example of how, in Alistair Smith's words, "we've allowed ourselves to become a profession that doesn't understand motivation. We tend not to think outside our contents box. We don't draw on psychology and neurology in our thinking and practice. Human attention is at the core of education, not a smiley face in a workbook or a commendation."
Mr Smith, who has written many books on accelerated learning, is on the advisory group of a Campaign for Learning pilot project, Learning to Learn, which is exploring the accelerated learning strategies of 24 primary and secondary schools. While each has been developed by different teaching staff and informed by different ideas, the common denominator is an attempt to cater for a range of learning styles, most specifically for the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learner.
The two-year action research project, which started last September, brings together the Royal Society for Arts, the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit and the Economic and Social Research Council's teaching and learning programme in an advisory capacity. The projects will be evaluated in terms of measurable test results and pupils' motivation as well as teaching methodology.
Although it's too early to draw conclusions, Bill Lucas of the Campaign for Learning has his own favourites among the schools. "The ones I really like are those where teachers are generating novel approaches, making it up as they go along with the children. They're growing the culture in the classroom, becoming laboratories for change."
For Mr Smith, it's an exciting initiative, not least because of the way it is energising the teachers involved. "I get a lump in my throat when a teacher comes up and tells me how I've helped them to feel positive about teaching again, how my humour has opened them up to experience success with difficult pupils."
Details of Alistair Smith's training programme and publications are available on his website: www.alite.co.uk. For information on the Campaign for Learning and the Learning to Learn project, telephone 020 7930 1111. To find out more about Learning to Learn, see the April issue of TESPrimary magazine, pound;2 from newsagents