Train the brain to think positively

27th July 2007 at 01:00
Educational high command insists on labelling everything. It particularly favours labels with capital letters to designate extreme importance. Witness Vision into Action or the Basic Skills Strategy.

Such military-sounding rhetoric may well be excusable in our arena of high ideals and heroic endeavour but I think it becomes dangerous when we start to label our learners. Kinaesthetic, reflective, visual whatever the brand, it dismisses the complexity that is the human brain.

The ultimate irony is that established wisdom dictates that it is useful to dole out questionnaires to classify our learners while we are also ordered to create individual learning plans designed to differentiate between each student.

Such stereotyping is one of the major criticisms levelled at learning style instruments by the Coffield Report (2004). This report highlights the dangers of identifying styles, teaching to student preferences, making lessons comfortable rather than challenging and so discouraging personal and academic development.

Enter the new weapon in the educational armoury: whole-brain learning. My fascination with this began when I first read the Coffield Report. It not only concludes that "it matters fundamentally which instrument is chosen" but also recommends for further research the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) since it possesses the potential to encourage "flexibility, adaptation and change".

The HBDI, it goes on to say, "is grounded in values which are inclusive, open, optimistic and systematic. More than any other model we have reviewed, it encourages flexibility, adaptation and change, rather than an avoidance of less preferred activities".

I was excited. An educational Excalibur to cut through the breastplate of information, the gauntlet of method, and reach the heart or brain processes of the individual learner. I investigated.

I then followed a rigorous, lengthy training and certification process with Herrmann International to become an HBDI-certificated practitioner.

I discovered that the Coffield Report was right. The HBDI is different. For a start its diagramatic, pictorial representation of how each brain prefers to think drills down to 27 clusters of thinking skills, not three or four simplistic categories of learning style.

It is highly motivational. Its message is "I can", not "I can't". It encourages learners to take responsibility for their learning by identifying their thinking preferences, competencies and avoidances and then challenging them to improve their less preferred skills.

Ultimately, the HBDI is a personal development tool that enables students to advance into unknown domains. It seemed sensible to use its potential to launch a learning "offensive" across a whole college.

The result was the Spotlight on Learning Project at Yale College, Wrexham, a crusade to improve the quality of learning. Backed by governors and management who provided funding, and visionary staff dedicated to transforming the learning process, it combines a Learning to Learn project with academic research.

Tactics involve profiling students and staff from 15 academic and vocational subject areas, identifying thinking skills essential for success in each area, creating a learning dialogue between students and tutors and selecting appropriate learning and teaching strategies to challenge student avoidances and improve overall learning.

Statistical analysis of HBDI data is already providing information about learner thinking skills in particular subject areas; future research will identify the most successful strategies to develop them.

The results of deep HBDI forays into student thinking will be used to improve cross-college learning. Education isn't solely about instruction and training. It is about nurturing independent thinking minds, capable of autonomous thought, creating commanders, not foot soldiers.

Carolyn May is professional development manager at Yale College, Wrexham

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