When schools discover children's individual learning styles, it can dramatically improve results. Reva Klein investigates an action research project. Photography by Steve Hill.
Ask Peter Mountstephen what the bottom line is for successful learning and he doesn't hesitate: "Children have to know they're loved," says the head of Christchurch C of E Primary in Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. "It's the conduit through which they learn. They need to have a clear sense that their teacher really cares - not just professionally, but as one person for another."
Bradford on Avon is not what you'd call a bastion of hippiedom. Picturesque and ancient (boasting the oldest church in Britain), it bears all the hallmarks - jolly outdoor market, majestic church spires, knicky-knacky shops - of a traditional English village. But despite its appearances, Bradford is the setting for what may be one of the most intellectually driven primary schools you're likely to come across.
Peter Mountstephen isn't the kind of head to let things ride or take the easy way out. "There's a danger in a school like this of running on unhelpful assumptions like 'just leave them to get on with it and they'll get their level 5s'," says Mountstephen.
Nor is Christchurch that kind of school. While it prides itself on achievements, such as improving SATs results - from 59 per cent at Level 4 when Mountstephen took over as head six years ago, to last year's results of 89 per cent at Level 4 and 40 per cent at Level 5 - it is the process that brought about those improvements that excites the head and his staff:
"We achieved those results by shifting some of our energies from the national curriculum on to generic learning skills, specific attitudes and proclivities." Put more simply by one of his pupils, a Year 6 boy with learning difficulties: "Christchurch Primary is a place where you go to find out more about yourself so that you'll want to go on learning for ever."
Behind the school's approach is a carefully considered pedagogy that draws on a number of different sources, but is best described as an exploration of the learning process. It involves drawing on the work of Daniel Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence" and Howard Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences" as well as on the staff's own philosophical discussions around teaching and learning. It also derives from the school's collaboration with Guy Claxton, visiting professor of learning science at the University of Bristol and member of the advisory board of Learning to Learn, an action research project being run by the Campaign for Learning.
The project explores and evaluates the effectiveness of accelerated learning approaches, a mix of brain-based research concepts put into practice. After hearing a conference speech by Professor Claxton, Mountstephen invited him "to climb out of his ivory tower and come to work with real children."
The result is Christchurch's own Eclipse research project, "Learning by Heart". The aim of Eclipse is "to teach the capacity to learn", by giving teachers more autonomy in the way they teach and more time to reflect on and discuss their methods.
While some would call it accelerated learning because of its focus on metacognition (thinking about thinking), it's a term that Mountstephen distances himself from. He voices a rare cautionary note: "I think accelerated learning can be dangerous in amateur hands because we don't really understand enough about brain-based learning. It's worrying that these ideas have filtered down to practitioners who believe that if you put a child in a room with a banana (for a high-potassium, brain-stimulating diet) and a tape of a Mozart symphony (believed to help focus thinking and control disruptive behaviour), they can learn anything."
Through its work with Guy Claxton, Christchurch has become an "honorary participant" in the Learning to Learn project, standing slightly apart from the 24 primary and secondary schools officially chosen (from 500 applications), each of which has developed its own approach to accelerated learning. This will be the first time these methodologies will have been critically examined.
You won't find a banana or a Mozart tape lying around the classrooms at Christchurch, but you will find a little monkey logo that helps younger children think about what to do when they're uncertain. For older children, there's a learning wall, drawing on the concept of metacognition and giving tips on what pupils can do when they get stuck (see box on page 23).
There's also artwork inspired by Turner Prize winners and, at registration time, each child is asked how they're feeling. It gives them the opportunity to talk about things that might be bothering them.
Most important of all is the way teachers are encouraged to approach the business of teaching. "Teachers," says Mountstephen, "should be basing each action and activity on what they believe really matters. I'm trying to give them as much freedom as possible in a climate of rigorous academic expectation. Teaching here is hard work. It's not a soft option."
When the school has planning reviews, there's no "very good, well done", but rather "why are you doing what you're doing?" in a spirit of reflection and dialogue about methodologies. Explains Mountstephen: "I felt what was going wrong in primary education was that we were being told what to do. We were no longer soldiers in a war of conscience but mercenaries. And mercenaries don't win wars, because there's no light in their eyes."
Instead of teachers feeling disillusioned and fed up with being deskilled and devalued, the approach at Christchurch is to give them the latitude they need to help develop learners, rather than learned children.
* STRATEGIES FROM CHRISTCHURCH PRIMARY
Percy Vere is a monkey logo used as a prompt to help Year 4 children at Christchurch Primary when they come up against something they can't do. When they see Percy, they're encouraged to think about positive strategies they can use to deal with their difficulty, rather than avoiding it altogether. It's the learning equivalent of the Green Cross Code - instead of "stop, look and listen", the children think to themselves "don't give up, try talking it over with a friend or the teacher, or do something else for a few minutes."
The Learning Wall is an ever-changing, constantly growing display-board used in Year 6. Whenever they have tips and useful strategies that they think might help others, the children write them on a post-it and stick it on the Learning Wall. Messages that appear on the wall range from "When I found a science question hard, I talked it over with my friend and she said have you thought about looking it up in a book" to "When I was tired this morning I asked Mrs Jackson if I could go out and walk around the track to help wake me up."
Another strategy used in the past is the Learning Journal, in which children record things they've found difficult and things they've succeeded in, as well as social challenges and relationships with teachers. It's a diary that teachers are allowed to share in except for pages where a child puts an asterisk. The journals encourage and develop children's capacity to reflect and engender trust between children and teachers.
* A DIFFERENT FOCUS
The focus is slightly different at Ladysmith first school in Exeter, a pilot school in the Learning to Learn project.. With support from the University of Plymouth, different strands of accelerated learning are brought together.
"From the outset," says headteacher Jen Cartwright, "we told the link tutor from the university that yes, we take on the (accelerated learning) ideas of Alistair Smith and Howard Gardner, but the emotional intelligence angle is just as important for us."
Explains deputy head Helen Thompson, "We'd been talking for a long time about giving children tools for independent learning, emotional intelligence and decision-making. Linking up with the project has helped us drive it further."
The teachers observe pupils to identify their preferred learning styles, while exploring their own learning styles to see if these impact on their teaching. To help in this they make videos of each other during lessons. This also makes them aware of the need to vary teaching styles to accommodate different learning styles.
Year 3 teacher Chris Bryson explains:"There have been one or two surprises. A couple of boys enjoy doing intricate artwork, and we have girls who enjoy construction work. The project has made me question my assumptions. I was a more visual teacher but, since becoming aware of that, I'm trying to be more kinesthetic and auditory - the children are learning and I'm learning from them."
The project will impact on the school long after it packs up, but Jen Cartwright has criticisms of how it has been run. "The principle is very good but I hope the authorities take more interest, because there's a risk that the schools will run out of steam."
That there's a need for schools to engage with the way children learn and teachers teach, she's in no doubt. "If we give children the skills they'll need in the much less formal settings of the future, they'll be able to face the changes ahead. What we're doing is about learning in its broadest sense."
* To find out more about the Campaign for Learning and the Learning to Learn project, tel: 020 7 93 0 1111.