Spaced Learning – the Sunday Telegraph gets all positive about education


I’m so used to reading negative press reporting on education – especially now that the national papers all read the TES on a Friday, to see what newsworthy cases of disrepute are up in front of the General Teaching Council – which then make it into Saturday’s papers. So it was a surprise to open the magazine in this Saturday’s Daily Telegraph and find a positive article about changes happening in schools up and down the country.

And this wasn’t just a news item relegated to a dusty page in the paper – it was a four page story in the magazine which was overwhelmingly positive about schools today. It was called “Revealed: new teaching methods that are producing dramatic results” , and the sub-heading stayed on the positive theme:

FirstquotesInnovative headteachers at schools around the country are abandoning traditional chalk* and talk teaching methods in favour of widely differing visions of an educational future. Judith Woods enters a world of spaced learning, praise pods, flexible Fridays and sixth-formers in business suits.Endquotes

The lead school featured is Monkseaton, in Whitley Bay, where the head teacher, Paul Kelley continues his decades-long focus on educational improvement through researching and monitoring the impact of changes made within the school and curriculum. I first met Paul over a decade ago, when he was experimenting with video conferencing to remodel the school’s foreign language teaching. Now the school is at the forefront of curriculum change with a concept known as ‘spaced learning’. As the Telegraph reports:

FirstquotesBased on the latest neuroscientific research, short sharp lessons are interspersed with an entirely different activity and repeated at regular intervals. And high-speed learning is proving far more effective in helping children improve their concentration – and their grades – than conventional lessons.

The mechanics behind spaced learning are straightforward: the teacher gives a quickfire Powerpoint presentation, of about three slides a minute, and the pupils listen and read the screen, effectively taking in the information twice. After a gap, the same presentation is run, but there are missing spaces where the children have to fill in the missing words and repeat them aloud, which keeps their minds active and thinking. At this point they can also ask questions. After a second break, a similar presentation takes place.Endquotes

You read much about spaced learning, and the school, on the Daily Telegraph website (or in Saturday’s magazine, especially if you’ve got a hoarder in your household!) – and the stories of the other schools featured.

You may also be interested in watching Monkseaton’s progress in the TES Schools Awards, where they’ve made it into the 6 finalists for the “Secondary School of the Year”

* I used to wonder about the phrase “chalk and talk”, thinking that blackboards didn’t exist any more, but came across a school last week looking for somebody to repaint their blackboards, so there are obviously plenty out there still being used in classrooms – and not just because you can get a pupil’s attention with a small piece of chalk in a way that a whiteboard pen won’t 😉

Comments (3)

  1. sprince says:

    New techniques such as the spaced learning approach are interesting and worth following up, but it is sadly typical of the press that they are quick to state the bold claims of geniuses and snake-oil peddlers alike before thorough research has been done.

    While Monkseaton’s endeavours make prove to be truly groundbreaking, I feel it is because of the uncritical attitude of the press (and school staff) that we see a rise in highly dubious "proprietary" teaching methods, sold as training courses under NDA, with copyrighted materials.

    Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog has covered the ground in great detail, for example:

    http://www.badscience.net/2008/02/banging-your-head-repeatedly-against-the-brick-wall-of-teachers-stupidity-helps-to-co-ordinate-your-left-and-right-cerebral-hemispheres/

    If someone claims a technique is truly beneficial it should be put through a process of scientific scrutiny before being unleashed on thousands of pupils.

    Sam

  2. Rayfl says:

    Excellent points. I received Bad Science, the book, for Christmas, and enjoyed it.

    I don’t think that the point is just about Monkseaton – and of all the schools I know, Monkseaton have a more rigorous approach to measuring results by external research – working with the OU, and (from memory) Durham University.

    But only this weekend I was wondering why we have an approach to educational improvement that doesn’t mandate measuring the impact of a change. After all, we wouldn’t do that in the health service, but seem to accept it in education.

    I arrived at this thought when listening to EdTech Roundup, a weekly podcast, where they were debating the benefits of various VLEs – but the debate was between individuals who had only used one VLE – the one in ‘their’ school. It made me think that it will be impossible to work out the defining features of a good VLE and a less good VLE unless there was a valid external testing and validation of the different ones in the classroom (NOT the kind of testing and validation that gets done by the techie types, but a "How does it impact learning" validation).

    I know that Ofsted recently published on VLEs, but it was based on a small sample of schools, and didn’t strip out the various surrounding factors that could affect outcomes.

    What we may need is the same kind of approach to improving education that we see in the development of new drugs – blind testing, rigorous external researchers etc etc.

    I’m not sure if we can afford it, in this fast-paced change environment. But then I’m not sure if we can afford not to.

    After all, spending £1 billion a year on education IT, and £61BN a year on schools through DCSF, it seems strange that we don’t do it.

    In 2007/8 the DCSF + DIUS budget was £82BN whilst the NHS budget was £91BN, so it’s a fair comparison!

  3. sprince says:

    I think one of the press reports said Monkseaton had worked with Cambridge University (a minor university somewhere in the Fens 😉 ).

    I agree wholeheartedly with your VLE comments. It’s a topic that crops up regularly on Edugeek.net: people asking for others’ views on <insert vle here>. Of the people responding, very few have real-world experience of more than two VLEs, so the information gleaned from those threads is very sketchy as a basis for decision-making. Add to that VLE providers creating bogus accounts to talk up their own VLE (no kidding) and the picture is even worse. Sadly the people reading those forums are probably still amongst the best-informed when it comes to advising schools on which VLE to go with… but it’s not saying much!

    I’m not a huge fan of BECTA in general and I think the advice they have given on VLEs typifies the way they regularly fail schools. As an organisation I feel they are far too afraid to offer useful, concrete information when there are commercial parties involved. If you compare BECTA’s wishy-washy VLE advice with the Schools Food Trust’s straightforward review of nutritional analysis software for school catering departments:

    http://www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk/content.asp?ContentId=487

    it’s pretty clear that the "non-IT" people are advising schools on software purchases more effectively.

    BECTA are well-placed to conduct large-scale studies, or at least surveys, on VLE usage and to monitor the comparative effectiveness of their 10 whitelisted VLEs. As a very naive attempt they could plot reported VLE usage (e.g. % of active teachers) against exam grade improvement or the government’s favourite, CVA. (I know you like trendlines Ray!) They could break that down by VLE supplier and publish the results if they really wanted to stir things up. They could even publish the raw data for other people to mash up… but perhaps that would be crediting them with a bit too much web 2.0 savvy!

    Thanks for more thought-provoking stuff!

    Sam