The mechanics of spaced learning are as follows:” the teacher gives a quickfire Powerpoint presentation, of about three slides a minute, and the pupils listen and read the screen, effectively taking in the information twice. After a gap, the same presentation is run, but there are missing spaces where the children have to fill in the missing words and repeat them aloud, which keeps their minds active and thinking. At this point they can also ask questions. After a second break, a similar presentation takes place. ”
The Telegraph article below takes a look at new teaching methods being introduced in UK schools.
Revealed: New teaching methods that are producing dramatic results
Innovative headteachers at schools around the country are abandoning traditional chalk and talk teaching methods in favour of widely differing visions of an educational future. Judith Woods enters a world of spaced learning, praise pods, flexible Fridays and sixth-formers in business suits.
17 Apr 2009
Lucy Barratt is weaving around the gym with her 16-year-old classmates, all dribbling basketballs. First they walk, then they jog. There’s laughter and chatter, when a whistle suddenly blows. The youngsters quickly place the balls on the floor and file back to the tables and chairs set out at the far end of the hall, because the pupils of Year 11 aren’t doing PE; they are halfway through a science lesson.
They sit down and for eight minutes are shown a Powerpoint presentation. Facts about the nervous system, diet deficiencies, hormones and the menstrual cycle, drugs and pathogens whizz on and off screen at a dizzying rate. After which it’s another 10 minutes with the basketballs, followed by the same eight-minute drill at their desks.
‘Unlike in traditional lessons, you don’t need pens or books, there’s nothing to distract you, and as you listen and watch and focus, all the information gets stored in your long-term memory,’ Lucy says. ‘During the breaks, I focus on the instructions for the physical activity, and afterwards it just seems like I am seeing a movie in my mind of the lesson that I have already seen before, and my understanding of the information presented becomes even more precise – clearer – when I see it again.’
Louise Dickson, the science teacher, says that she has seen children go up two grades using spaced learning. ‘Instead of four months of revision, we did one hour of spaced learning and the whole year got better marks than previously. But it’s not just about instant results, spaced learning really motivates the pupils. If we do it at the start of a topic they really gain confidence as
we progress, because much of it feels familiar. We’ve seen the students themselves start to believe they can achieve better grades and so set their own goals higher.’
Scott Purcell, also 16, was a D-grade student in all three sciences; after taking part in spaced learning, he achieved three Cs in his GCSE science modules. In English, he went from a D to a B. ‘I find this new way of learning far more interesting than
sitting with a textbook, and after every lesson I feel I’ve really learnt something, and I do remember it for a long time afterwards, too.’
According to studies carried out at the National Institute for Child Health and Development in the United States, connections between developing brain cells form most effectively when the brain is given regular breaks, hence the spaces between lessons are every bit as crucial as the content of the lessons themselves; today the youngsters are playing basketball, but it might just as easily be word games.
The mechanics behind spaced learning are straightforward: the teacher gives a quickfire Powerpoint presentation, of about three slides a minute, and the pupils listen and read the screen, effectively taking in the information twice. After a gap, the same presentation is run, but there are missing spaces where the children have to fill in the missing words and repeat them aloud, which keeps their minds active and thinking. At this point they can also ask questions. After a second break, a similar presentation takes place.
‘Theoretically you could do half the year’s syllabus in a couple of hours, leaving you with lots of time to do the exciting, practical stuff. But whether it would work for every single pupil in every single subject, I don’t know,’ Dickson says.
This new approach to learning has been made possible by virtue of a partnership between Monkseaton, neuroscientists at Cambridge University and Microsoft Education, which has created the IT infrastructure.
Paul Kelley, the charismatic head of Monkseaton, has been trialling spaced learning for the past two years and is convinced that it will be widely applied in schools across the country. ‘There’s an old saying, “It takes a village to bring up a child.” I believe it takes a society to educate one. We are living in exciting times, and improvements in education won’t come from government targets or even more exams. I believe that education will be improved not by political decisions or conventional wisdom, but by scientific research of this sort. The brain can process much more, much faster than we give it credit for.’
In some ways, spaced learning is simply a modern twist on a very old-fashioned approach, that of rote learning. Chanted facts may no longer be drummed, Mr Gradgrind-style, into small heads; instead, technology is being used to bombard children with key points, flow charts and data.
‘I have to admit that, initially, I thought the kids would never wear it and that it wouldn’t be at all easy to compress large chunks of the syllabus down into eight minutes,’ Kelley says. ‘But the kids are on board and we’re seeing the results. I suppose the thing that finally convinced me that we were on to something was when I sat in on one of our lessons and afterwards I discovered I knew chapter and verse on hormones – and had still retained the information months later.’
Every child at the school has had some spaced learning lessons. The information that is compressed deals not only with key facts, but also with the fundamental principles of the subject, such as mathematical formulae, and gives examples of how to apply these. Some subjects, such as English, are harder to compress, but it can be done.
Energetic and hands-on, American-born Kelley adopts the ultimate open-door policy towards his students: his headmaster’s ‘office’ comprises a single, clutter-free desk in the school’s IT atrium.
He is no stranger to controversy, having made headlines in 2000 when he publicly criticised Magdalen College, Oxford, when it rejected one of his top-flight pupils. Laura Spence failed to gain a place to study medicine, for failing to show ‘enough potential’ – despite the fact that she was predicted to gain five As at A-level. She received a £65,000 scholarship from Harvard to study biochemistry, and then took up a postgraduate place to study medicine at Cambridge.
While Monkseaton remains a pioneer, schools from elsewhere in Britain and as far afield as the US and Malaysia have been in touch wanting to find out more about the concept.
Rowena Coxon, a parent with two children at the school, Jenny, 16, and 14-year-old Elanor, admits that she had her doubts about spaced learning. ‘I was sceptical at first, because it seemed to me that the students were spending a lot of time not actually learning, but what I found most striking was how much my daughters enjoyed it – far more than conventional cramming.
‘Jenny has always been a worrier when it comes to schoolwork, but she was really relaxed about her science GCSEs because she used spaced learning to revise. Her results were two As and an A*, better grades than any other subject.’
Kelley certainly makes a persuasive advocate for the appliance of science in education, and indeed it would be hard for parents with children at other schools not to feel a kneejerk sense of dismay that their children are not being offered the tangible benefits of spaced learning. Elsewhere in the country, other schools are taking very different paths in pursuit of higher standards. From remote online learning to Continental-style school days that start early and end at 1.30pm, secondaries where there are no bells, to schools where children attend in morning or evening shifts.
‘Over the past five years we’ve moved from an education system of very tightly regulated structure, curriculum and assessment to one where there’s more freedom around the curriculum and much more freedom in the way schools organise themselves; and schools have seized the opportunity to go their own way,’ Professor Chris Husbands, at the University of London’s Institute of Education, says. ‘It’s a long-term consequence of devolving management of schools; most secondaries control their own budgets and so of course they’re looking for ways to use those budgets more innovatively and more creatively.’
At Leasowes Community College in Dudley, outside Birmingham, the absolute antithesis of the eight-minute lesson is being hailed as the way forward. Here, classes can last up to five or six days.
Students are immersed in a single subject, allowing them to complete practice, theory and coursework in a single block, and – so the theory goes – gain a deeper, more fundamental understanding of the topic. The corridors of this 1,200-roll school are papered with signs bearing stirring mottos such as success is a journey, not a destination, and Albert Camus’s dictum you cannot create experience, you must undergo it.
John Howells, the headteacher, is adamant that the one-size-fits-all model of education no longer has a place in modern schools. ‘Education is no longer about children sitting in rows in front of a blackboard with the teacher imparting wisdom and the children taking it all down like it was the Holy Writ. Times have changed – children have changed – and schools need to change with them,’ Howells says.
‘We are combining the traditional with the innovative; we still teach languages, which is becoming increasingly rare, but we also recognise that part of our job is to prepare children to be successful in the world, so our aspirations are higher than getting them to pass a few exams. The sort of personal development we seek to promote doesn’t fit into the culture of rigid one-hour lessons.’
Although much of the week does conform to the conventional school day timetable, ‘flexible Fridays’ run from 8.30am to 1.30pm, giving students the chance to concentrate on one particular subject at length, and throughout the term, days are given over to blocks of learning, or fast-track weeks.
Today, one Year 10 group is on the second day of three days of drama in the school theatre, working on Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, one of their set texts for GCSE. Another Year 10 class is working on three days of PE, including physical activity, assessment and theory. Down a nearby corridor, sprawled out on the classroom floor, scribbling furiously, Year 8 are looking at the subject of teenage runaways, using extracts from novels and poetry, as part of an English day.
‘We’ve found we can achieve more in a five-hour block than we can in eight hours of conventionally spread lessons,’ Howells says. ‘In chemistry, the theory and practice can be carried out in the morning, with a test in the afternoon. We save a lot of time this way, because setting up experiments and clearing away eats into a short lesson; it’s the same for technology.’
In the digital artroom, 15-year-old Tyler Hinton is working on an animated film. He already has a grade B in GCSE media and is now working towards a further qualification, an NCFE in animation. ‘I think three-day and longer lessons are a great idea, because you’re not trying to put different bits of information from different lessons together, so you learn much better,’ he says. ‘The teachers also have more time to spend with you, if you need help cracking a particular problem.’
Howells believes that early success breeds motivation, and pupils at the school are encouraged to do one or two GCSEs early. By Year 11, 80 per cent of children have at least one GCSE. Five-day lessons in business studies have led to particularly spectacular results. Pupils are required to wear business dress for the whole block and are taken to visit businesses and listen to speakers from various professions. They also complete coursework. Previously, 40 per cent of students achieved grades A-C; under the new regime, 91 per cent of children in both Years 10 and 11 achieved A-Cs.
When translated into grades, week-long lessons make for an argument every bit as convincing as that of eight-minute lessons. So what, exactly, are parents to think?
According to Professor Stephen Heppell, an education policy adviser and professor of new media innovations at the University of Bournemouth, the reason why such diverse approaches work is simply because almost anything is better than the factory schooling that preceded it. ‘When teachers do things differently, the alternative is always better and more successful than traditional methods, because the earlier model of education wasn’t built around the best way children can learn, but the best way to organise learning.’
Change is undoubtedly in the air at primary level. About 900 pupils at 16 schools in Scotland are required to play on a Nintendo DS before lessons every day, after a pilot scheme in Dundee showed regular sessions on the game More Brain Training from Dr Kawashima improved children’s attainment in maths, and behaviour and concentration levels.
In Rotherham primaries, stress levels are being reduced and academic confidence boosted by using a ‘praise pod’. This can be anything from a futuristic chair to a screened-off area, where children are sent when they perform well in class or for good behaviour. Here, a camera records them as they explain their achievement, and the clip is later shown in assembly or burnt on to a DVD and sent to their parents.
Jayne Hepworth is a teaching assistant at Rosehill Junior School in Rotherham, and operates the praise pod – which is situated in the main entrance hall – on a daily basis. She says that the children find it inspirational. ‘It’s not only about rewarding the children who are top of the class, but any child who puts in a lot of effort, or is kind, or puts their hand up in class a lot. The children who may not have been motivated before really do strive to get into the pod; it instils in them a desire to do their best.’
According to Prof Heppell, getting children interested is always the key to success in the classroom. ‘It doesn’t matter what the idea is, it’s the active engagement of the children that’s the secret,’ he says. ‘When children are engaged with the process of learning, their attitude changes; being a good learner is becoming cool, rather than being the child most likely to fall off the chair or the most disruptive in the class.’
Schools clearly still have some way to go: at present, one in five children leaves primary school unable to read, write and add up properly. In late 2007 a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that, in reading levels, 15-year-olds in Britain had dropped from seventh place in 2000 to 17th – behind countries including Estonia and Liechtenstein. In maths, pupils fell from eighth to 24th, placing them below the international average, and in science, secondary school students dropped from fourth to 14th position. Poor teaching was the suggested cause, and the study went on to conclude that the advantage of being educated at an independent school was greater in Britain than in almost any other country.
‘There’s a lot of innovation going on in the independent sector, but it’s subtle, not sexy; we don’t jump on every gimmicky bandwagon,’ Vicky Tuck, the principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College and president of the Girls’ Schools Association, says. ‘We don’t teach in the way we did 20 years ago, it’s not just chalk and talk. Teachers lead, but they don’t dominate; there’s more group work, more independent study, more use of IT in research. Often, where we innovate is by giving the students more opportunities to use their own initiative – the most powerful learning experiences are often where they are given a personal challenge, such as putting on a play over a single weekend.
‘In the classroom, pupils need continuity, not constant change and adoption of new fads. There’s no substitute for an inspiring teacher passionate about their subject giving a well-planned lesson.’
Back in the state sector, a lot of investment has gone into the vision of a new educational future. The Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough, a futuristic cathedral to education designed by Lord Foster’s architectural firm, looks more like the headquarters of an international conglomerate than a school, with its sleek corporate glass-walled science lab, busy overhead walkways and triangular windows. The reception area, housed in a vast domed ‘nave’, positively cries out for a plasma screen showing rolling updates of the Hang Seng and Dow Jones.
Its design aside, this £49 million, 2,200-pupil school caused a stir when it opened in 2007 because there was no playground, no scheduled break time and no bells – all in order to promote a more adult work ethic among the students. Attending school, Alan McMurdo, the headteacher, said, would be ‘like going to the office’.
McMurdo remains unrepentant about his stance, although he concedes that plans are afoot to place benches round the grounds of the school, so the children can have somewhere to sit outside, amid the playing fields, tennis courts, sculpture park and wildlife pond. The school replaced three existing secondaries and in its first year 85 per cent of students achieved five A-Cs at GCSE, up 10 per cent on the scores of the previous schools. The A-level pass rate was 96 per cent, and 100 per cent of pupils who were entered passed the International Baccalaureate.
‘No one’s asking for a playground, or playtime,’ McMurdo says. ‘But what the students are missing is the opportunity for some fresh air, and we’re on to that. Our school day begins at 8.45am and there are lessons until 2.30pm for the younger pupils, but we stay open until 6pm and the teachers work flexitime beyond the core hours of 8.30am to 4.30pm, with time off in lieu where appropriate. The students can spend the afternoon doing a whole range of sporting and other activities such as drama and music. Years 10 and 11 have an extra period and the sixth form has two extra periods.
‘We have no bells here because they create a herd mentality. We want to foster personal responsibility; students can go to the loo when they want or fetch themselves a drink of water without asking permission. The teachers give them a break when they feel the kids need one.’
Dr Gillie Anderson, a GP whose son, Jonathan, is in Year 12, and daughter, Francine, is in Year 10, says she has been very impressed by the school. ‘It’s a very different sort of school in terms of the structure of the day, and we knew it would be
a steep learning curve for everybody, but an exciting one, too. My children are quite different – my daughter is very sporty, and my son is more academic – but the school suits them both. Francine has already been on a netball tour to Barbados and a hockey tour to Holland. Jonathan is very interested in design technology and maths and the facilities are excellent. The students in Years 12 and 13 are also allowed to wear their own clothes, but they don’t just slop around in jeans, they have to wear business suits, shirts and ties. Not only do they look fabulous, it also boosts their confidence and maturity, and gives them the feeling that they have a professional edge.’
Traditionalists, brought up in the never-did-me-any-harm system of obedience – verging on obeisance – towards authority may find the modern vogue for individualism wholly at odds with their own school experience. Yet personal development has become the new clarion call across all areas of secondary education. Whether that can be achieved in tandem with outstanding exam results remains to be seen.
‘If people went to the doctor and were treated the same way today as they would have been 30 years ago, there would be a national outcry. So how can we expect schools to stay static?’ Alan McMurdo says. ‘Kids have higher expectations these days and they can multi-task and access new technology to a degree – and at a speed – that adults can only dream of, so if education is to remain relevant to them, we have to adapt, whether we like it or not.’