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Thumbs up to insightful seminars

Hilary McRobbie is all in favour of CPD after an accelerated learning talk not only gave her some best practice tips but also boosted her enthusiasm

I had had a bad week. In fact, I'd had a series of bad weeks. I was on exchange to Horowhenua College in Levin, New Zealand, not far from Wellington, and I was finding it tough. There was a professional development seminar about accelerated learning on offer and I thought I might as well go. Karen Boyes, a former primary teacher, was the speaker.

I attended that seminar one wet Wednesday evening. For three hours, Karen kept us stimulated, reignited our enthusiasm and gave us ideas on how to deal with some of our more disruptive students.

As a teacher, Karen had found herself wondering why she had chosen to enter the profession. She mentioned this to her father. "He said to me: 'Karen, when you were little and you fell off your bike, what did you do?' and I said: 'I cried.' He said: 'Then what did you do?' and I replied: 'I got back on,' and he told me: 'Karen, get back on', and that's what I did."

Her way of helping others to "get back on" in teaching has created a business which sees her run evening seminars, weekend and holiday courses for teachers, as well as making visits to schools and offering students accelerated learning seminars.

Her enthusiasm for teaching and the sheer enjoyment she gets from it are infectious.

The seminar began with a discussion of the five main learning styles and, because of the limited time of the seminar, an in-depth look at the three dominant ones: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. The last was particularly apt in New Zealand because, as Karen pointed out, many Maori students are kinesthetic learners. These students find it hard to sit still; they swing on their chairs, rarely face the way teachers want them to and they want to doodle or fiddle with pens or pencils. That's not a problem just for Kiwi teachers!

Her suggestions were that in primary school, kinesthetic students can be allowed to move around the classroom; in secondary, allowing students to draw a frame around the page, which then became a space for doodling, might help. Koosh balls were also advocated for them to handle while working.

After about 10 minutes, we were asked to "Please turn to your neighbour and discuss", which allowed time for information to be processed. This routine was followed throughout the evening and was also suggested for classroom use.

We were offered tricks for making lessons memorable: change activities every 20 minutes or so in an hour's lesson, for example. There were suggestions for increasing the information students retain, such as putting posters containing key points on the wall. We heard about the need for students to be able to drink water during class, and the possibility of offering popcorn to those unable to survive a complete hour without snacking.

We were also shwn the power of affirmations, the potential of visualisation and the skill of storytelling to get a point across.

Karen took us through a simple process which involved giving a thumbs up and then twisting around as far as we could. We were to make a mental mark on the wall which showed us how far we had turned. We were then taken through a visualising exercise which let us picture our thumb moving easily beyond where it had reached. Now was the test: we gave our thumbs up and twisted again, all of us turning much further than we had the first time. Our applause was spontaneous. If we could achieve so much by visualising something as basic as that, how much more could we achieve by visualising, say, an interview in advance?

Before the seminar, we had been greeted with music: the Beach Boys singing "Surfin' Safari". This piece was Karen's countdown to starting the seminar. "In high school, kids are expected to get from one class to another in a couple of minutes. I use the music to say that the class is about to start. Students learn that once the song is finished, they should be in class and ready to begin."

Music - usually Kenny G - was also played at any time when we were discussing the most recent information.

Karen talked about the benefits of using music in the classroom for long-term memory retention. Baroque, with its 60 beats a minute, equivalent to the resting heart rate, is "ideal for studying and learning", she said. But whatever the music is, it should be wordless because if there are lyrics you listen to them, rather than focus on your task.

Her tidy-up music is about two minutes of the William Tell Overture. "They rush around putting things away and once they've done that I direct what else is to be done."

The seminar was one of the most inspiring ones I've ever had the chance to take. In my classroom there are now posters which give definitions of frequently used terms, such as simile, metaphor and emotive language. This information is high on the wall to benefit visual memory. I use a visual auditorykinesthetic dominance test to help students identify their favoured learning style and we talk about how to use our senses to improve memory retention.

My students think I'm mad: when I get started on using Karen's material, I'm so much livelier, more enthusiastic about what I'm doing that they find it hard to reconcile that person with the one they already know.

I've used the visualising technique with at least three classes, and each time it has had the same effect: we all reach further when we have practised in our minds.

As I look over the McCrone report, I'm delighted that he believes in continuing professional development. And I'm hoping that when Professor McCrone refers to CPD, he's meaning Karen's kind - the kind which refreshes the parts other courses cannot reach.

Hilary McRobbie teaches English at Falkirk High

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