Training the eye of our pupils' minds;Curriculum

10th September 1999 at 01:00
As mindmaps and memory games gain greater recognition in the classroom, Douglas Blane goes to see the latest pack in action.

Every brain inside the head of every child contains a million million brain cells, which means each child has potentially more computing capacity than the most powerful computer in the world. But unfortunately brains are not delivered complete with mouse, keyboard, VDU and a thick instruction manual. So it is hardly surprising that many kids never get the hang of the computer in their heads. And although at school we tell them all about Pythagoras, gravitation, Shakespeare and condoms, we seldom provide them with even elementary operating instructions for their brains.

Research has shown that any healthy brain can be taught to absorb information faster, solve problems more skilfully, understand more profoundly, remember more accurately and perform, in a host of ways, far more effectively than the unschooled mind. The earlier these mental skills are taught, the more thoroughly they will be mastered. Although a variety of resources have recently become available to help children make better use of their brains, reactions from inside the teaching profession have been lukewarm, ranging from the erudite: "It's a nice packaging of Sixties social psychology and Fifties learning theory", to the dismissive: "It's just a personality cult."

But at Coltness High School in Wishaw a new package called The Learning File produced by the Quality in Education Centre (QIE) at Strathclyde University is being tested with enthusiasm. Last spring the school took part in a pilot study using third-year pupils, and this year the course is being taught to all first and second year pupils.

Today a first-year class is learning how to lock information into long-term memory using mindmaps made with crayons, scissors, stencils, drawing-pins, coloured card and glue-sticks.

"The idea is that they'll go out and use the techniques because they'll remember enjoying it the first time they met them," explains their business studies teacher, Lindsay Cole. "All the children are getting a lot out of it, as you can see. I don't think you can be too young to learn how to use your brain properly." Agnes Magowan, the principal teacher of support for learning, says: "The children in the pilot study worked really hard and we only had one person off the whole six weeks, which for after-school study was quite remarkable. We got a lot of feedback from parents too, who said things like 'We'd never seen him sitting down and studying before'." The pupils who took part in the pilot study are convinced of the value of the techniques they learned: "They showed us how to tackle problems step by step without feeling like screaming when you couldn't solve them right away," says Gillian, now in her fourth year.

"I use mindmaps for writing essays," says Azam. "It helps you plan your work and get organised. I'd always do a keyword plan when doing an essay."

Allison did a mindmap for revising her third year exams: "It saved me reading a big, long book," she says. "You only need to remember a few headings and you can remember what came in that section, so it's less work."

Ian says: "You don't really have to be artistic, and getting things into longterm memory has helped me a lot in computing, geography and English."

In addition to memory and the structure of the brain, the course covers studying, thinking, speed-reading and problem-solving, while a second strand focuses on self-esteem and motivation. Professor John MacBeath of QIE says the package is extremely popular with schools. "We've never had a product sell so well. We've sold around pound;50,000-worth in six months, and any kind of piloting we've done with schools, they come back very enthusiastic. It's been quite phenomenal. I think what they like about it is, it's there, ready made, and teachers can plug it in and use it. But we also try to make sure they get a day or so of training around it, because although it's very accessible, behind it lies a lot of research." Another reason for its success could be that The Learning File was developed, initially for his own use, by a teacher, Matthew Boyle, whose first love is teaching, not marketing an educational product.

At Knightswood secondary in Glasgow, where Mr Boyle is principal teacher of physics, a lesson in third-year science is in progress, a Standard grade course often regarded as an easy option for pupils but quite the reverse for the teacher. Mr Boyle is a calm presence, responding readily to questions and giving the children a lot of praise. Surprisingly he takes the topic "Fuses in electrical circuits" well beyond the syllabus for Standard grade science. "That's because this is a really good class," he explains.

"I think maybe you say that to all the classes," suggests one perceptive pupil.

When the children have gone Mr Boyle admits the boy wasn't wrong. "But if you believe it yourself, if you think 'you're a fantastic class', they'll pick it up from you, and it makes all the wee tensions easier because they know you care about them."

The Learning File came about when Mr Boyle had a brainwave while he was was teaching at St Gerard's in Govan. "After I got the department into shape it seemed sensible to look at the general achievement of kids around the school," he says. "I started following my interest in learning and did a summary of the literature in a form I could use myself.

"Then I went to QIE for a year to work on the package. It's all about challenging pupils' and teachers' perceptions of intelligence, and giving the children a range of tools so they can pick whatever's appropriate in different situations. I think it's a shame kids are judged on their brain and work with their brain all the time, but very seldom get taught anything about how it works."

The Learning File is 120 full-colour acetates, and a set of teacher's notes and worksheets. The package is available for pound;185 from the Quality in Education Centre, University of Strathclyde on 0141 950 3573 Curriculum 5 TES scotland plusJseptember 10J1999 A Coltness High School student gains insight into the brain's workings with The Learning Files by building a mindmap made from cut-out shapes and stencilled symbols Island of Birds By Sylvia Turtle Scottish Children's Press pound;4.99 THE READING CORNER Pupils on children's books Gerry McCann colour Island of Birds by Sylvia Turtle is a book about the islands of St Kilda.

It is an enchanting story about Flora and Neil, two inhabitants of the islands before their evacuation in 1930.

The evacuation is due to the harsh winters when the island is completely cut off from the mainland, with its essential food and hospitals because of very heavy snow and fierce ocean storms.

Flora, is devastated by the news of the evacuation, and realises she does not want to leave her island While gathering peat together on a hill top one day, Flora and Neil stumble on an injured bird.

As they gradually nurse it back to health, Flora starts to have second thoughts about leaving the island which has always been her home.

Sylvia Turtle has aimed her book at the minds of those aged eight and up, which is about right.

Although it is easy to follow, it takes some understanding to find the true meaning of the story.

The story provided us with information about the islanders' way of life in comparison to our own.

It is clear that Sylvia Turtle has done some research before writing, because she has included s lot of descriptions of the island of St Kilda, including its cliffs, the rocks and the birds on the island.

The book gave me a very clear picture of what was happening at all times.

Island of Birds is a good but different kind of story, with easily understood language.

I give it 9 out of 10.

Lorna Haire, Secondary 2, Perth Grammar School.

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