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.
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.
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.
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.