Belfast Telegraph

Get down with the kids - in the classroom, says deputy head who sat GCSE

A deputy head who sat a GSCE exam along with pupils at his school has urged fellow teachers to try out life on the other side of the classroom.

Al McConville, an arts graduate who set himself the task of learning chemistry in a year, suggested the experience of mastering an alien subject could also help parents in empathising with their children's efforts to take in new things.

The senior staff member at Bedales private school in Hampshire is a passionate advocate of a new neuroscience-based approach to learning and took on the challenge to demonstrate its worth.

It clearly worked for him as, after sitting in on classes and taking the exam in the same hall as the students, he emerged with an A*.

"I think it would be a really good idea for other teachers and other parents to get involved in learning something new for themselves alongside their kids, so they can have deep, meaningful conversations about what it is like to struggle with something," said Mr McConville.

"It's not just about talking at them about the learning process, I think it's really desirable for people in schools to be learning new things and be talking about the difficulties of learning those new things."

Mr McConville is a devotee of techniques advocated by US academic Dr Barb Oakley, whose brain training video lessons on how to defeat procrastination and embrace challenging subjects have become one of the world's most popular online courses.

Dr Oakley and Mr McConville, who are now collaborating on a book aimed at adapting her methods for a younger audience, are relating their experiences this week at the annual Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in Belfast.

Mr McConville said understanding how your brain works was key to learning something new.

"Unless you understand why and what's going on in your head to make that work, then it's just someone telling you what to do," he said.

"But as soon as a kid understands the processes that are going on physically in their brain, that means that those things lead to the kind of outcomes that they want.

"I think that casts an enormous light on it."

Dr Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University Rochester Michigan, says the method she teaches is based on the premise that the brain has two thinking modes - focused/concentrated and resting/diffuse.

Adopting an approach that combines these modes - such as working for a short burst and then walking away and enjoying a treat, like playing some music - maximises an individual's capacity to take things on board, she says.

As his treat, Mr McConville used to recite what he learned to his dog Violet.

Repetition, or "chunking", also helps the brain build up neural pathways, says Dr Oakley.

The more you repeat an equation or phrase in a foreign language, the more likely you will be to locate that pathway under the stress of an exam, she says.

She has helped create a hugely popular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with home-made videos, shot in her basement, that explain the science behind how the brain absorbs and retains information.

Her Learning how to Learn course has been taken by two million people from more than 200 countries.

"Neuroscience is making extraordinary new advances and many of these advances provide practical insights so you can learn more effectively," she said.

"People are fascinated by learning and before we have always thought teachers are the ones we should teach about learning but actually students are the ones we want to reach and teach about learning, so I think that's going to be the revolution in new education."

Both academics believe their experience with Learning how to Learn demonstrates the need for schools in the UK to embrace online courses more.

Mr McConville thinks it could be a way to address teacher shortages in key subject areas such as maths and physics - with an online expert presenting certain theory elements and the classroom teacher helping with the associated learning exercises.

Dr Oakley insists that the introduction of more online learning in schools would not be a threat to classroom teachers.

"In the old days, in the 1500s when textbooks first came out, teachers were saying, 'This is horrible, it's going to destroy our profession because people will be able to learn from the books without us'," she said.

"It just didn't happen. And now it's the same with online.

"They are great enhancements, but in no way do they replace teachers - they just allow teachers to play to their strengths in being able to interact more personally with the student."

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph