Working out with a Mr Motivator

Emma Burstall

Emma Burstall on what made a former teacher turn to thinking skills workshops

Question: What can a 29-year-old ex-teacher with two years' classrooom experience tell someone who has been doing the job for 30 years?

Answer: More than you might think.

Former French teacher Ian Gilbert launched his own business - Independent Thinking Limited - last August, providing thinking skills workshops for teachers and pupils. He spends most of his time teaching motivational skills to sixth-form students but one of his workshops - Learn to Learn - is aimed at teachers, focusing on the different ways children learn and explaining how staff can use different teaching methods to achieve better results. To their own surprise, teachers taking part in the workshops have found them very useful.

Ann Buckby, head of the upper school at Southfield School in Kettering, where Gilbert ran an in-service training day earlier this term, said: "I've been teaching for 30 years and it really made me think.

"One member of staff told Mr Gilbert that every time she saw a particular class her heart sank into her boots. He pointed out that the children would pick up on this and showed us strategies for coping, such as standing by the door as they entered and looking pleased to see them rather than daunted.

"It sounds simple but it worked. Within a few weeks that teacher said her class had transformed."

Martin Sacree, head of the upper sixth form at Uckfield Community College, East Sussex, where Gilbert spent another day, added: "He did several one-hour workshops with sixth-formers where he talked about the seven different ways of learning and suggested new strategies for revising, such as using rap to remember things. "

The idea of seven different ways of learning, or multiple intelligences, is taken from Professor Howard Garner's book, Frames of Mind, first published in 1983. Garner rejects the idea of intelligence as a single factor and talks instead of seven different intelligences - linguistic, musical, spatial, logico-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, and two kinds of personal intelligence - understanding others and understanding yourself.

Gilbert, from Market Harborough in Leicestershire, graduated from Durham University in 1988, then completed a one-year Diploma in Entrepreneurial Management at Durham University Business School. He then went into advertising as a copywriter with a large agency in the north-east but soon signed up for a PGCE at Leicester University. He taught French for two years in a Northampton comprehensive where he loved working with students, but disliked school politics and the constant changes in education.

By this time he had decided to set up his own company. "Since business school I had been reading widely and going to motivational seminars; it seemed to me there was so much really useful material that wasn't getting through to schools.

"At the root of my teaching is the belief that we can all be more successful than we are. I thought that if there was information that could help a 16- year-old achieve more and a teacher teach better they ought to be getting it."

Gilbert's workshops are based on a wide range of educational and psychological research, mainly from America. He is convinced schools are failing vast numbers of children because they are using the wrong teaching methods or too narrow a range. "If you always present material in the same way, certain students are always going to benefit and others will always get left behind," he argues. "For example, many teachers introduce a new topic bit by bit before explaining the whole thing, but research has shown that slower learners don't always understand this approach. It's like asking them to do a puzzle without seeing the overall picture.

"I give teachers a variety of alternatives as to how they can get the message across."

Disruptive pupils, he continues, often learn better if they become physically involved in what they are doing. "Some pupils don't take visual or aural information in well. Certain children learn to read far more quickly if they are allowed to walk while reading aloud, for example." He quotes research on learning styles by American educational psychologists Rita and Ken Dunn which shows that lighting, temperature and the time of day can all affect pupils' ability to learn.

"If you pinpoint somebody's precise learning style and teach them to that style then they learn more. We're not talking about quick fixes ... This is about being aware of the different ways the brain works and trying to improve people's performance," he maintains.

Gilbert has a distinctive style of address that clearly appeals to young people as well as adults. Earlier this year at grant-maintained Northampton School for Boys, he gave a one-hour "motivational taster" to lower sixth- formers. the boys sat in attentive silence as he cracked topical jokes while hammering home the message that they could achieve whatever they wanted if they had a vision, set themselves a goal, and planned how to get there.

"On your deathbed you can lie back and think: 'I blew it. I screwed up every opportunity I had.' Or you can say: 'I did all that I could. I went to lots of places and met all the people I wanted to.' The choice is yours," he told them.

Gilbert charges Pounds 50 for a one-hour motivational "taster" and Pounds 300 for a full day. Too much for some schools perhaps, but he does offer a "satisfaction guarantee" - in other words, if you don't like it, you don't pay.

Big companies, he argues, have had motivational workshops for staff for years and it's time schools followed suit.

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