Bill Lucas explores the phrase ‘accelerated learning,’ and its associated curious, if well-meaning, misconceptions
Search the Internet for ‘accelerated learning’ and you will find more than three million potential sites to visit. Not surprisingly, there is no one accepted definition of accelerated learning today. I offer this synthesis of the many definitions that I have looked at:
‘Accelerated learning combines aspects of established learning theory with brain-based approaches, in order to engage learners and speed up the process of learning.’
In many ways, the name ‘accelerated learning’ does it no favors. It has become a sort of catch-all phrase for some genuine attempts to make learning easier and longer lasting.
In this article I want to look at the sorts of things that people are doing in the name of accelerated learning and see what is based on evidence and what should be treated more cautiously.
A brief history of accelerated learning
When it began in the 1970s, accelerated learning was revolutionary. Its starting point was so completely different from anything on offer at that time. Educationalists still thought about curriculum, terms, courses and examinations. Trainers dealt in lectures, demonstrations, classes and workshops.
Suddenly, out of the blue, came an approach that seemed very different. It suggested that: a) learners and active learning were more important than teachers and courses; b) the way people teach was out of step with the way the brain works, and; c) it was possible for learners to become much more engaged and motivated in their learning and therefore learn faster.
Accelerated learning was based on the work of Georgi Lozanov, a Bulgarian medical doctor and professor of psychiatry who developed a teaching method that he called ‘suggestopedia’. He developed programs that seemed to teach young children to read significantly more quickly and gave them a better grasp of mathematics than their peers. He also developed a language learning program in which learners were understanding and retaining much more new language than was the case with other methods. His results were validated by both Bulgarian experts and by a UNESCO team.
However, no sooner had the west begun to hear of his methods than Lozanov was placed under house arrest in Bulgaria and forbidden contact with foreigners by the communist regime, who jealously guarded ‘their’ learning methods. Those (mainly in the US) who had seen something of the method in action, did their best to make sense of it, but the result was that a lot of the early proponents missed what had actually made the difference in the learning and therefore picked up on surface details.
Early advocates of accelerated learning talked about the brain, about emotions, about learning styles and much more. It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were exciting times for learning and education. Not only were amazing things happening in terms of scientific discoveries, but we were also beginning to get tantalizing glimpses of the way that the human brain works.
Throughout the 1990s, as alternative therapies and developments in neuroscience arrived thick and fast, so accelerated learning has embraced many of these too. In schools first, Colin Rose and then Alistair Smith have been at the forefront of helping teachers to develop imaginative approaches that involve accelerated learning.
There are some elements of accelerated learning, mostly those which are taken from the realm of cognitive neuroscience, which accelerated learning has placed in the foreground. It is here that accelerated learning has sometimes been its own worst enemy. For some believers have often taken big ideas and applied them too literally or approached really complex areas about which the science is still very much in its infancy and invested them with certainty and with the simplicity of pop psychology. This has sometimes led to an outbreak of neuro-babble and has unnecessarily put educational thinkers off.
Let’s look at some of the things that are said in the name of accelerated learning and examine the evidence.
Myth 1 – We use less than 10% of our brain power
This is simply not true. The more we find out about the brain, the more we realize that we are using many parts of it for much of the time. And the more we find out, the more we realize how much more there is to know!
Myth 2 – VAK – We are all either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners
No we are not! Certainly we acquire habits and temporary preferences, but the simplistic suggestion that you can somehow work out which of these three types of learner you are is fanciful and occasionally damaging. For if a learner mistakenly assumes that VAK is like a blood group, something that s/he is stuck with for life, then motivation to learn to play a musical instrument for example, may vanish if a low auditory score is ‘measured’.
The interesting thing about VAK, is that it reminds us of the importance of understanding our senses and paying much more attention to how we give out and take in data – something about which neuroscience has made us much more aware. But VAK is not a learning style, although it may give individuals insights about how they prefer to take in data in certain circum-stances. Think about it for a moment. Why do most people end up saying that they are kinesthetic learners? Because then they are likely to be using all of the sense rather than just the one or two involved in visual or auditory modes. This does not mean that it is not a good idea for more learning to be physical. In fact, this kind of switch is exactly what is required in much teaching, as Carla Hannaford and others have argued.
|Idea||Validity||Unique to AL?|
|Only use 10% of brain power||Simply not true||Mostly|
|VAK||VAK are not learning styles. Helpful if used to help understand range of senses/data input methods. Damaging if leading to limited view of self as a learner.||Mostly|
|Learning styles||General consensus that this is broadly true and helpful if used as means of expanding repertoire of learner and learner self-awareness.||No|
|Left/right brains||Technically true (brains have two hemispheres) but implied separation of hemisphere functions is largely false and unhelpful||Mostly|
|Mozart effect||Unproven. While music affects mood and pace (sometimes) claims for its impact on performance are unproven.||Yes|
|Mind and body||Mind and body, intellect and emotions – helpful to take a holistic approach and supported by science.||No|
|Relaxed/alert state||Increasing evidence to show that this is a beneficial state to be in when learning, but human brain can (and needs to) perform well under stress.||No|
|Importance of engagement process||Good literature in psychology and latterly neuro-science for this.||No|
|Multiple intelligences||Disputed area, but consensus probably in favor of this. Helpful for mind-set, unhelpful if it becomes a bogus pseudo-psycho-metric.||No|
|Emotions matter||Evidence to support this from all quarters, including long-term impact on immune system from negative emotions.||No|
|Interest in memory||A curate’s egg. Some sound principles (primacy/recency for example) but overemphasis on tricks and tips.||No, though emphasis on memory triggers is|
|Importance of demonstration||For many aspects of skill and process learning this is true.||No|
|Reflection||Lots of good science||No|
|You can accelerate your learning||A paradox: acceleration can be both helpful and counter-productive. It depends!||No!|
See the table above for what seems to be helpful about learning styles.
Myth 3 – Our left brains are logical and our right brains are creative
While there are two hemispheres in the brain, most brain activities involve both. This artificial division of the brain into two halves is largely an invention of pop psychologists. It arose out of a misunderstanding of some of the thinking of Roger Sperry and Roger Ornstein about the brain.
Myth 4 – Mozart makes you smarter
The claims for Mozart, and for baroque music more generally, are not proven. Certain pieces of Mozart have been shown to produce a temporary improvement in test scores in mathematics, but if played to your young child, will not ensure that you bring up a genius. Music does have many powerful effects on us, mainly as a powerful mood influencer, but there is scant evidence for its impact on learning performance.
Myth 5 – Views of intelligence
There has been a big debate about Howard Gardner’s radical view of intelligence, ever since it was first suggested. Not all psychologists or educationalists agree with him for a variety of reasons, including the cultural variables behind the eight categories of intelligence, the way that each of them is not distinct enough and the way talents and intelligences are confounded.
So when in the 1980s Howard Gardner threw down a gauntlet to the prevailing orthodoxy of IQ by suggesting that we have multiple intelligences, accelerated learning was only too ready to include this, too. And a few years later, when emotional intelligence came along, much of this approach was also incorporated.
It is not uncommon for some kind of assessment of each of Gardner’s eight intelligences to form part of the learning process. As a consequence, you become temporarily labelled as smart at ‘intrapersonal’ intelligence and less than smart at, say, ‘bodily kinesthetic intelligence’. As to whether or not this is in any way helpful, the jury is very much out. And at the same time, there is often a fairly slavish adherence to Daniel Goleman’s interpretation of emotional intelligence.
However, a consensus seems to be emerging that: a) IQ is discredited b) it is likely that, in conceptualizing intelligence, it is helpful to think about it as a much broader concept than IQ.
So, if you are asked to identify which of your eight intelligences is strong and which are weak in an accelerated learning session, you are probably wasting your time. But if, by thinking about talent in this way, you start to see your job as a teacher as hunting out the areas of your undeveloped potential, it can be helpful.
THE GOOD SCIENCE
Enough of the flaws! There is much that is good and scientifically proven.
Mind and body are involved
That learning involves more than your head is well documented. However, the degree to which the expression ‘whole-brained learning’ is in any way meaningful, is not proven.
The relaxed/alert state
There is good evidence that for creative learning to be most effective, you need sufficient levels of arousal to be alert, but not to be too stressed to be relaxed. So this is a helpful concept. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the word ‘flow’ to describe the ideal state for learning, expounds this.
The importance of the engagement process
Much evidence is placed in accelerated learning on the need for learners to connect with their learning, by giving them the ‘big picture’ of what is to come, by making the process active and by ‘waking up’ learners. This is good stuff, drawing on sound educational theory (e.g. being explicit about learning objectives), on notions of experiential learning, (e.g. as espoused by David Kolb and Kurt Lewin), and on the psychological literature on states of arousal.
We all have individual learning styles
The science of learning styles seems to suggest that:
a) as a result of being individuals, we have different underlying personalities;
b) learning styles are not fixed
c) VAK is not a learning style but a way of describing data input
d) effective learners learn to be effective in a range of situations and using a range of different styles
e) some learning styles tests are unreliable
We have multiple intelligences
There has been a big debate about Howard Gardner’s radical view of intelligence ever since it was first suggested. Not all psychologists or educationalists agree with him for a variety of reasons, including the cultural variables behind the eight categories of intelligence, the way that each of them is not distinct enough and the way talents and intelligences are confounded. However, a consensus seems to be emerging that: a) IQ is discredited; b) it is likely that, in conceptualizing intelligence, it is helpful to think about it as a much broader concept than IQ.
So, if you are asked to identify which of your eight intelligences is strong and which are weak in an accelerated learning session, you are probably wasting your time. But if, by thinking about talent in this way, you start to see your job as a teacher as hunting out the areas of pupils’ undeveloped potential, it can be helpful.
The emotional elements
That emotions are hugely important in all stages of learning and the idea that there is no simple emotional/cognitive divide is widely accepted. But we are only just at the foothills of our journey to understand their specific impact on memory (both embedding and recall), on performance under stress and on resilience.
An interest in memory
Tony Buzan has arguably been the pioneer in this field over the last few decades, and accelerated learning has absorbed much of his thinking. The use of Mind Maps and other memory techniques undoubtedly aids the learning process for many people. The danger here is that these tools can put too much emphasis on factual recall rather than on how pupils can use memory to transfer their learning from one situation to another.
The importance of demonstration
Proving that you know something by doing it is well-founded. There is a growing literature about the importance of certain kinds of practice if you want to become good at something!
The need to reflect and consolidate
This is soundly based in psychology and educational theory.
You can learn faster
Of course you can! What used to take three years can often now be done in one! The big question, is whether you want to learn faster or whether you need to learn slower in many situations, where complex issues are at stake. So where does this leave us? Here are my conclusions:
a) Accelerated learning is not a unified or coherent set of theories or practices.
b) Much of what is undertaken in its name is soundly based and helpful to learners.
c) A considerable amount of its thinking is conjecture or learning ‘spin’, much of it benign.
Where accelerated learning works best in practice in my experience, is where the practitioner effectively re-defines the concept so that it simply becomes a synonym for ‘effective modern learning methods’. Alistair Smith, at ‘Alite’, seems to me to be a very good example of how it is possible to take an intelligent and questioning approach to accelerated learning.
The end game with all of this is surely to help pupils to become better learners. In this important task it may be that speed is less important than substance. Of all the current thinkers, Guy Claxton in particular, with his well grounded and practically very useful notion of ‘building learning power’, is for me, the most articulate and believable advocate of the ways in which we can help children to become learners for life. TEX
- Georgi Lozanov, Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1978.
- Colin Rose and Malcolm Nicholl, Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century. Judy Piatkus Ltd, 1997.
- Alistair Smith, Mark Lovatt and Derek Wise, Accelerated Learning, a User’s Guide. Network Educational Press, 2003 (available from TEX).
- Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves – Why learning is not all in your head. Great Ocean Publishers, 1995.
- Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind; the theory of multiple intelligences. Fontana Press, 1993.
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter moret han IQ.Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996.
- 7. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity; Flow and the Psychology of Discoveryand Invention. Harper Collins, 1996.
- Guy Claxton, Building Learning Power, TLO, 2002. National Primary Trust, Issue No 11, 2004. Teaching Children to Learn.
Bill Lucas is a best-selling author and motivational speaker who works with organizations in all sectors. He is also Chairman of the Talent Foundation.
First published in Teaching Expertise magazine, Issue 9 Autumn 2005