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Innovation in education

A sixth of a GCSE in 60 minutes?:

Later this year, pupils from Monkseaton high school will file into their new lozenge-shaped school and take their seats before a giant video wall in a multipurpose hall. Here, they will receive a unique lesson: an intense PowerPoint presentation, repeated three times, and interspersed with 10-minute breaks of juggling or spinning plates. After one hour of this study, the pupils will be primed for one sixth of a GCSE. In theory, following this “spaced learning” method, a teenager could sit a GCSE after just three days’ work.

It is a vision of the future that may horrify many parents, teachers and the educational establishment. It challenges how we teach our children and casts doubt on GCSEs and, perhaps, the validity of our entire school system. But teachers and thinkers from around the world are making a pilgrimage to Monkseaton to investigate spaced learning, which has been devised and tested in this tatty state comprehensive over the last four years.

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A series of careful trials yielded fascinating results: 48 year 9 pupils who had not covered any part of the GCSE science syllabus were given a complete biology module in a 90-minute spaced learning lesson. A week later, they took the relevant GCSE multiple-choice exam (a year earlier than normal). Twelve months on, the same set of pupils took another GCSE science paper after a conventional four months of study. While average scores for the second paper were higher (68% versus 58%), more than a quarter of the pupils scored higher after spaced learning than through conventional study. Despite studying for just 90 minutes with spaced learning, 80% of the class of 13- and 14-year-olds got at least a D grade.

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Monkseaton’s futuristic new school opens in September. It will be where Kelley hopes to expand spaced learning, in classrooms that won’t be square (“We don’t have to have schools built in squares,” he says) and will feature special intensive lighting to boost teenagers’ concentration and wakefulness. Kelley has studied research on teenagers’ circadian rhythms that shows they get going later in the day than adults – hence those epic teenage lie-ins – and hopes to start lessons at the more teen-friendly hour of 10.30am.

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I’m inclined to believe that there must be more to making memories stick than findings derived from dissecting a rat’s hippocampus. Scientists would probably say that is because – despite my GCSE refresher – I don’t fully understand the complex advances in neuroscience. Whatever the truth of it, something special is happening at Monkseaton. And if other teachers and academics open their minds to it, this may be just the beginning of a revolution in our classrooms.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan
    February 14, 2009

    I don’t know whether this particular style of teaching is fantastic or not, but I am elated that people are now able to try different methods. We have been stuck for too long in a system designed 200 years ago with methods for teaching that are no longer relevant to today’s minds, subjects or workplaces. The more of this that goes on the better! We owe it to kids to spend some time actually working out what works best for different learning styles.

    Thanks for the link.

    J

  2. #2 Nigel
    February 15, 2009

    What is more, with all the time saved from actually learning stuff the students will be able to take (and even pass) a lot more tests. Passing tests is the whole point of education, as we know.

    Indeed, if they were to take the test right after their “speed learning” presentation instead of waiting a full week then scores and pass rates would be even higher. That week is just a waste; they could probably fit in three or four more tests (and the memorization sessions needed to pass them) in that time. Test passing productivity could be expanded enormously. (What are they doing during that week anyway? Understanding things, or some such unproductive egghead nonsense I shouldn’t wonder!)

  3. #3 Coturnix
    February 15, 2009

    Well, the entire exercise was designed to show the meaninglesness of tests. If you can learn enough to pass the test in a few minutes, what does it tell you about the testing in general? That it is crappy idea.

    Thus, you can start thinking about using these new ideas to start developing a kind of school in which some real learning occurs, for a change.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    February 15, 2009

    Or perhaps they should design better tests.

  5. #5 christopher gwyn
    February 15, 2009

    Does GCSE stand for “General Certificate of Secondary Education”? The initialism was not defined, making the article less clear than it would have been if it had been defined.

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