Adapting teaching to suit the science?

Posted on 05th October 2018

Learning How to Learn: how to succeed in school without spending all your time studying; a guide for kids and teens by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski with Bedales Director of Innovation & Learning, Alistair McConville, explains some of the latest research in cognitive psychology and how it might be applied for optimal learning. In an article for TES, Alistair considers how schools might look if the book’s recommendations were put into practice. Very different, is his conclusion, and not easy to make work.

Four things might have to change, says Alistair. The first concerns the importance of sleep, and the fact that teenagers are on a different clock to adults. Early starts to school days clearly get most students off on the wrong foot and keep them cognitively underpowered for the whole day. Alistair says: “Ideally, we would start school later for late-adolescents. Indeed, some already do. The rest of us should catch up”.

The second concerns the effecting use of ‘brain modes’. Sejnowski’s work shows that the learning brain functions in one of two different modes at any one time; either we are paying close attention to something or we’re ‘diffuse’, meaning that we’ve adopted a looser, more relaxed way of contemplating the matter in hand.

Both modes contribute importantly to a full understanding of a complex matter; the first committing it to short-term memory; the second helping to consolidate it to longer-term memory. Is it realistic to promote the value of paying diffuse attention in a subject such as Chemistry? Alistair explains: “We are working hard to make our lessons yet more interactive and differentiated so that pupils can switch modes regularly within lessons”.

Wouldn’t it be better to have more, shorter holidays to let our learning sink in but without giving pupils so long that we forget it all? Yes, says Alistair: “If we were starting from scratch we surely wouldn’t design our school year along its current rhythm. It is hardly learning-led, and we know that the long vacation accentuates attainment gaps between socio-economic groups. Still, it would be a brave Education Secretary who proposed anything radical on this front.”

The third concerns the value of the Pomodoro Technique of concentrating for 25 uninterrupted minutes, and then rewarding oneself with a break. Are schools geared up for this approach? Alistair says: “The traditional classroom and timetable don’t seem optimised for the kind of individual focused work that pupils need to do as part of the process. However, we mostly advocate this for use during individual homework and revision sessions.”

The science suggests that people learn at different speeds, having either a ‘race-car’ or a ‘hiker’ brain, and that it can be good to take things slowly so that more can be taken in. Alistair concedes that there are issues with speeding through masses of information in class, exacerbated by recent curriculum reforms. However, says Alistair, Bedales addresses the issue by requiring pupils to do fewer GCSEs alongside cross-curricular projects (Bedales Assessed Courses).

Finally, the science confirms the value of ‘picture walks’, which provide pupils with an overview of the whole course and its issues, and of shuffling though material in a non-linear way. Such ‘interleaving’ deepens a pupil’s grasp of how complex information fits together, and strengthens their memory and understanding. Alistair concludes: “It’s part of the reason that cramming is so ineffective, and we must take this issue seriously given the current linearity of A Level and GCSE courses”.

The full article can be read on the TES website (subscription may be required).

TES | Alistair McConville | Learning How to Learn: how to succeed in school without spending all your time studying | Bedales Assessed Courses