Fundamental to the Year 11 Learning about Learning was the desire to involve parents. As a result of this, parents of Year 11 students were invited to come for an hour-and-a-half introduction to “new ways of learning”, held on an evening during Learning about Learning week. The idea was to give the parents exactly what the students had also received…practical ideas on how they could exploit knowledge of how their brains worked in order to improve their chances in the GCSE exams. The evening proved to be hugely popular and very successful. Parents were able to complete questionnaires of themselves, enabling them to understand their own learning preferences. There were many, many comments of the kind “If only I had realised this about myself at school…”, “All we were ever taught was what to learn, not how to learn it”…, “My wife is always complaining that I’m poorly organised…now I know why!”.
Such was the success of the evening that it was repeated for parents of students lower down the school, drawing an even larger audience and snowballing interest in what the school was doing. One anecdote, above all, reflects what we were beginning to achieve. A few weeks after the evening we had a Year 11 parents’ evening. A mother came to me virtually in tears, thanking me for transforming her relationship with her daughter at a crucial time of her education. The girl, let’s call her Sophie, was a social animal, highly “interpersonal” in terms of intelligence. She was predicted good GCSE grades but her desire for a social life was conflicting with Mum’s ideas of what real studying was. (Mum viewed learning as being locked in silence in room alone reading and cramming).
Both Mum and Sophie received the same message from us: some people learn better by working with other people, so rather than allow this to cause us problems, we should exploit it, make virtue out of it. Sophie’s Mum allowed her to have friends to stay over weekends, but a condition of the sleepover was that they would work for 3 hours on the Saturday, revising together. This took the form of reading, explaining to each other, questioning, comparing, discussing…all of the things that Sophie most enjoyed about learning. Mum’s joy was genuine; she had rebuilt her relationship with Sophie; they now understood each other’s needs and concerns; they were, crucially, working as a team at a vital time. Another parent complain, jokingly, about the house being taken over by learning posters. His daughter had covered her bedroom walls, the stair and landing walls, even the inside of the fridge door, with posters containing pictures, words and key ideas related to her GCSE History revision. “Every time I go for the milk, Stalin is staring at me”.
In addition, the Learning about Learning week furnished students and parents, through leaflets, advice on Learning and Exercise, Diet, Music and Mealtimes. The advice was drawn from Jensen’s “The Learning Brain”, turned into user-friendly, colour-coded hand-outs. Again, this advice prompted many, many positive responses from parents.
The Learning about Learning week was followed by the launch of after school Masterclasses in History, open to an Year 11 GCSE History student. For twenty weeks, two 45 sessions per week were held on Tuesday and Wednesday after school. Tuesday sessions were about learning, and students soon found that the techniques being recommended and explored in these sessions were transferable to other subjects. Wednesday sessions put these methods into practice, in revising GCSE History for the exam. Over the period of the Masterclasses, students were encouraged to develop Mind Mapping skills, to make posters for bedroom walls to stimulate subliminal learning, to explore memory tricks like mnemonics, to take part in Active Concerts, to play games, take part in simulation exercises, talk to each other about difficult concepts, to explore music as a relaxation aid, and many other techniques.
At the same time, as the syllabus was completed and teachers began to turn to revision in normal class time, the same techniques were used across the departments with whole classes in order to stimulate active revision. A year earlier the Department had adopted an “accelerate learning policy” for approaching revision, part of a broader strategy to improve GCSE grades. (see Appendix) This was now employed fully by members of staff.
The results of the project will partly be validated by the GCSE grades this summer. We have predicted, on the basis of coursework scores and mock exam results, an improvement of about 15% in our A*-C percentage, which would lift us well beyond the national average for History. The best results that can be reported at the moment, therefore, is based largely on anecdotal evidence:
- The has been a perceptible “buzz” about GCSE History students in year 11 this year, with far greater enthusiasm for the revision process being displayed. Many students have spoken about having found the key unlock their learning styles through History.
- Possible as a consequence of more positive feelings towards the exam. Coursework scores were better and deadlines more promptly met.
- Attendance at after-voluntary-school sessions has been excellent. Students who came to more than 60% received a certificate for the RoA.
- More than 25 of the current Year 11 GCSE students have registered for our A level course in September, double the number from the year before.
- Student’s confidence is up, and parents have been generous in their praise for the work of the Department this year.
- The down side has been that the already excellent reputation of the Department in school has grown further, with demands on staff time to provide Inset in other schools. There has also been a palpable resentment about the work we are doing amongst other staff. “You seem to think of the History department as a bunch of messiahs” was one overheard comment from Science teacher to an enthused Year 11 student; another Science teacher was heard to say “Yes, but Min Maps only work for subjects like History…not for real subjects like Physics. The only was to learn physics is the way I tell you”. So there is obviously a considerable amount of work to be done whole-school, if the ideas we have been working with are to have a greater impact.
In conclusion, our enthusiasm for these approaches is unbounded. Rather than making us work in different ways, coming to an understanding of intelligence and the brain has simply served to underline that what we already knew was goo practice really does work. It has given us a quasi-scientific underpinning for our hunches. It has made us better teachers. It has undoubtedly made our students better learners. And that, after all, is what we are all trying to achieve.