Repetition is the key to learning, say some scientists. The problem is that our curriculum doesn't match the way the brain works. Stephanie Northen reports
Imagine some chemical messengers whose job it is to travel between a pair of brain cells. The more often they make the trip, the better they get at it. Now imagine a child try, try, trying to balance on a skateboard. Each time he gets on, the messengers set off. After several days of this, they start to recognise the skateboarding signals, their journey has become easy, and a memory has been created. We don't forget how to walk and talk because we do it so often. Practice really does make perfect.
One problem with the school curriculum, says John Geake, professor of education at Oxford Brookes university, is that it is out of kilter with the way the brain learns. We just don't give children enough attempts at things to build memories in the form of neural connections.
Brains are modular, but their divisions do not correspond to those of the national curriculum. There is no one section that deals with maths, or another that handles language. At the last count, doing a simple sum required about eight modules to get their acts together.
What this means for schools, says Professor Geake, is that "rather than vainly trying to isolate modular thinking in the brains of our students, we should be doing just the opposite, and promoting integrated thinking".
Such thinking is underpinned by a healthy set of connections between the brain's modules. As far as neuroscientists are concerned, teachers are in the business of maximising and reinforcing these connections. But how to do it? Rote learning may work for multiplication tables, but rebellion would quickly set in if it were adopted across the board. Fear, which also gets the brain's chemicals jumping, is an effective learning tool - but one best left in the Victorian age.
"Today, we take the morally preferable but time-consuming route of multiple-trial reinforcement with as positive an affect as we can manage," says Professor Geake in his paper last year on applying brain research to the middle years of school.
"The curriculum as a series of one-off learning experiences is unlikely to be very effective for many students."
For Professor Geake, integration and depth are what is needed.
"A better approach would be a spiral-type curriculum where important concepts are met over and over again but in different contexts to maintain interest," he says.
Such a curriculum might avoid those embarrassing moments as adults when we reveal that our concept, for example, of the phases of the moon, is still that of our infant years - the childish beliefs never having been properly overwritten in all our time at school. It would also help children to learn from their mistakes. If errors have become mentally engrained, a red cross on a piece of homework is not going to undo them, says Professor Geake.
"What is required is the reinforcement of an entirely new neural pathway to represent the correct concept. The music student who has conscientiously practised the wrong note needs much more practice to be put right than just a teacher's passing comment."
So what would a spiral curriculum be like? Consider teaching, say, an economic concept in this way. A class of 10-year-olds might study supply and demand, setting up a classroom system of currency used to purchase play groceries. As 12-year-olds, they might deal with a hypothetical family budget, while at 14 they could discuss Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations - "thus spiralling the concept at different levels while reinforcing earlier positive emotional responses". This could be particularly beneficial for young adolescents.
"Multiple presentations of concepts through a spiral curriculum may help address some of the emotional vicissitudes of the pubescent hormonal surge."
Or the positive emotions, courtesy of the brain's limbic system, that they attached to the memory of that grocers' shop at age 10 might make them more receptive to studying a household budget at 12.
Aside from their troublesome hormones, young adolescents are also burdened with a busily developing frontal cortex (see previoous page) Professor Geake suggests that teachers of pre-adolescent children might promote classroom practices that engage frontal brain functioning. These could include maze puzzles, crossword puzzles, and organising a school excursion or fundraising. There is also a place for "meta-analysis, such as reading a play or novel for sub-text, and meta-cognition, such as keeping a reflective diary".
But, he warns, a curriculum that encourages neural inter-connectiveness may find itself at odds with "the current political preoccupation with standardised testing and nationally prescriptive curricular guidelines".
"It would focus on depth of understanding, integrating, where appropriate, with other subject disciplines. As such, it is reliant on the specialised knowledge of each teacher, as well as the latent interests of each student.
Consequently, a student's education at school A would be somewhat different from that of a similar ability student at school B."
But, he says, "so what?"
"Adapting middle level educational practices to current research on brain functioning," by JG Geake (2003). Journal of the New England League of Middle Schools: 15(2); 6-12. The league's website is at www.nelms.org