In this article, Alistair Smith explains how two schools, Stamford High School and Melcombe Primary School, have introduced whole-school learning models based on Accelerated Learning. The impact of planning, delivering and evaluating learning has led to a significant cultural shift at both schools.

Where is the evidence for the success of Accelerated Learning?

 Accelerated Learning in UK schools has a different evolutionary history than both its US and commercial counterparts. Comparisons with those are unhelpful. In this country, it is more of a grass roots development and as a result, remains stubbornly popular with classroom practitioners. Over the last ten years, Accelerated Learning has played its part in provoking debate about learning at national level, with many of its tenets now embedded in national strategies. Yet, despite its popularity, some critics remain vocal. In part, this arises through an unwillingness or inability to define what it is. It’s easy to wax on about water,music,Brain Gym® and learning styles, but in my model at least, these are not core to Accelerated Learning. In order to truly judge the evidence for success, first define what AL is – then talk to teachers!

Accelerated Learning explained

An informed professional understanding of ‘environmental’ factors – physical, physiological, and psychological – and how they shape readiness for learning, supports a four-stage cycle for planning, delivering and evaluating quality learning experiences.

Case Study:

Melcombe Primary, Hammersmith

The introduction of a whole-school learning model based on AL has led to dramatic improvements at Melcombe. The Headteacher, Janet Moffat, puts the success down to consistency of approach. ‘Pupils at the school who have had experience of one or two years of the learning model, do it automatically. It would be no surprise to see them help a novice teacher with it‘. Janet ‘wearies’ of academics looking for hard evidence before acknowledging success. ‘You can’t measure attitude – and that’s what we change‘. She points out that since the model was introduced, there have been no permanent exclusions and few fixed-term exclusions.

The school’s 2005 Ofsted report recognised that the model ensured that individual pupil’s learning needs and preferences were taken into account and acted upon. They commented on the fact that ‘teachers and pupils understand how they learn best.’ As a result of the approach being used for literacy, younger children of lower and mid-ability have larger vocabularies plus improved fluency and comprehension.

Melcombe Primary, Hammersmith

PRACTICES IN 1999 PRACTICES IN 2005
Lots of displays of children’s work around the school. Ground Rules were displayed in classrooms. Pupil/Teacher expectations were displayed. Affirmation posters reinforce the children’s perceptions of themselves as successful learners. The school’s equation for success is displayed in prominent areas around the school, along with the BASICS3 Model. There are displays that: • show the children explaining how they best learn and remember • demonstrate the children’s higher order thinking skills • demonstrate the children’s understanding of the school’s Model for Learning • celebrate learning and children’s successes.
Circle Time was timetabled, but was not always done by every class each week. There is greater emphasis on explicitly developing children’s emotional intelligence.
There were prefects in Year 6 and a Head Boy and Head Girl chosen by their predecessors. In addition there are now: • trained Mentors in Years 3-6 • buddies in Years 6 for targeted children plus a Learning Mentor.
Teachers’ expectations were discussed and published at the beginning of each academic year. Children are now stakeholders in their learning. From Year 2 upwards, children create their Goal Maps*, identifying their main goal and the targets associated with it. These goal maps are referred to regularly and formally evaluated at the end of the academic year.
There was no definitive model for learning. The learning model is now displayed in every class so the children can see how their learning is organised. They are able to see where they are in the learning process at any point in the lesson.
Teachers’ planning was displayed outside of the class for parents and children to read. At the end of each unit children are given a memory map* to take home, which previews their learning for the next half term. This is highly visual so that our EAL parents can interpret what their children will be learning. It is also displayed outside the classroom instead of the teachers’ summary of their planning. At the end of each half term, children are introduced to the Big Pictures* for the following half term in order to preview their learning on their return.
The children were told what they were going to be learning at the start of a new unit of work. The Big Pictures for literacy, numeracy, science and the foundation subjects, are displayed as memory maps in every class. At the beginning of every unit, the teacher talks through the Big Picture and highlights the connections between different parts of the map. At the start of every new unit, children discuss what they already know about it. At the beginning of every lesson, children recap on their previous learning in order to reinforce it and to enable the teacher to find out what they have remembered and understood.
The learning objective was stated and written up on the board. The key vocabulary was written up when introduced. The learning objective is shared with the children and connected to previous and future learning. The teacher visually shows where that learning objective is within the Big Picture and how it connects to previous lessons. The learning objective is written on the board and visualised for the children who cannot read it. The key vocabulary is displayed, with key visual cues to help children to understand the words.
Children were told what the success criteria for the lesson would be. This was written up on the board in some lessons. Children are told why they are learning what they are learning, at the start of every lesson and in some cases, the children think about ‘what’s in it for them’ and report back to their teacher. This has increased their motivation and enables children to attach a meaning to their learning.

* see references for further information

PRACTICES IN 1999 PRACTICES IN 2005
Children put their hands up to respond to a question asked by the teacher. Questions were targeted at individual children. ‘Hands up’ is now an extinct practice. Children are given 14 seconds ‘thinking time’ to process a question before they share the answer with a partner. Throughout every lesson children are given plenty of opportunities to share their learning and respond to teacher-directed questions with their peers. We call this ‘chatterboxing’. This is used at the start of the lesson to activate prior learning, and to check understanding of the learning objective and associated vocabulary. If we want a whole class response to a question, instead of getting them to shout out, they use thumbs up or down for a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ response and wave their thumbs if unsure. This approach has had a huge impact on behaviour, stopping certain children dominating the teaching input and engaging those who were previously passive at this stage.
Children were asked a range of questions, but insufficient emphasis was placed on developing children’s question skills. Children and staff were not always clear as to what type of questions they were asking. The introduction of higher order thinking skills has had a huge impact on the level of questioning by the staff and the children. The Question Tree* is displayed in every classroom and children have been introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Higher Order Thinking*. Teachers are far more skilled at asking a range of questions that reflect the six levels of thinking, and children are more confident in raising a range of questions and identifying what type of question is being asked. There are more question-driven displays.
Teaching inputs were not always actively involving the children. Visual cues were used in some lessons. Teachers were not aware of different learning styles of pupils. Teaching inputs use VAK (Visual Auditary and Kinaesthetic) to ensure active involvement.
Work was differentiated to reflect the different ability groups. A range of resources was used to help children access the task. A range of frameworks/toolkits are now available to help children access the task and make choices about demonstrating their learning. We use: Memory Mapping* / Double Bubble* / Venn Diagrams* / Story S* / Fiction Paint Box* / Sentence Snake*.
Lessons were taught in one-hour blocks with no breaks. Brain breaks* are used to chunk learning and for the teacher to reinforce the learning objectives. The Key Teaching Point* is made explicit in the lesson before the children go off and do the task. Children are reminded of the KTP during the task. The KTP is made memorable and written up and placed in the KTP bag. Children know the importance of remembering the KTP, as this is the vital learning in the lesson.
Plenaries were used, primarily in literacy and numeracy, but the quality was variable. Plenaries are now considered to be the most important part of any lesson and at least ten minutes is allocated for children to show what they have learnt. They start with the key question ‘What have you learnt and how do you know?’ Further questions can include ‘How did you learn it?’ and ‘What will you do with this learning?’ Plenaries are also used to preview the learning in the next lesson.
Children would sometimes review their learning orally at the end of the day and at the end of the week. At the end of every day, children review what they learnt with their teacher and at the end of the week, time is allocated on the timetable for children to formally review their learning in their Learning Logs
There were discussions about how children learn best, but no definitive model was used. The Model for Learning (see figure 1) is displayed in every classroom and is understood by teachers and pupils. Parents are given written information and oral presentations about the school’s model for learning. Year 6 write explanations of the model and these are on display for parents and visitors to read.

* see references for further information

Case Study: Stamford High School, Tameside

Stamford High School is on the Mossley Road, Ashton-under-Lyne. If you happen to drive by and do so in a high gear, you may miss the unprepossessing frontage to the school. Slow down, because you are missing Tameside’s fastest growing and most improved school. That’s what the leadership team are proud to tell you when you visit.

Four years ago, it was the Stamford Zoo and even really good teachers found it hard to teach‘, says James Inman, Assistant Head. ‘It was dangerous. We had falling rolls for five years in succession. We had a mixed Ofsted report, which pointed out some major weaknesses and the fact that we had GCSE results that were amongst the lowest in the country. We had to do something‘.

In Autumn 2003 the Senior Leadership Team set out a vision for the Governors. The ’emphasis was going to be on Learning to Learn‘. The mechanism for planning, delivering and evaluating learning would be the Accelerated Learning Cycle. Pupils would ‘gain an understanding of how they learn best and be encouraged to be active participants in the process.’ Staff would be encouraged to be creative, to provide ‘exciting, challenging and appropriate learning experiences.’ In the future they would be selected and appointed based on that vision. It was bold, but would it work?

The impact on Year 7 was immediate. All lessons are now planned using the four stage Accelerated Learning Cycle. The Cycle is in all pupil planners. A customised observation proforma helps teachers give each other evidence-based feedback and has played a part in opening up honest dialogue. Engagement with learning has improved to such a degree that recently students and teachers sat down to review lessons together and planned improvements using the Cycle. As the approach has spread, the school has become a calmer place. Gradually more and more departments have been brought on board.

The benefits are obvious. The school now accepts new pupils at a rate of three per week. Truancy is down. Staff absence is down. Teachers who had been sceptical are increasingly enrolling in the methods. As James Inman says, ‘for many who see the improvement in the pupils’ learning and attitudes, it’s caught their curiosity and made it OK to try it out.’

Six months after starting out, an HMI visited the school, primarily to look at aspects of the Key Stage 3 Strategy, but also looked at the trial groups in Year 7. He was so impressed with what he saw that he intimated that ‘this approach is already causing a significant cultural shift‘, and later observed ‘that Accelerated Learning on its own is fine. Learning to Learn is a good idea. Put them together and you have something powerful’.

When I visited the school, ten of the Year 7 pupils I spoke to came into the school at below level one. They could all contribute to a discussion about their learning, many with insight and maturity. We visited six months later when they were in Year 8 and recorded a collection of their thoughts on video.

  • ‘The teachers give me confidence to express my feelings and be myself’
  • ‘I can follow what we’re doing in the lesson ‘cos it’s in my planner’
  • ‘We all learn in different ways and we know how. I’m trying to get better at the other ways’
  • ‘We use the 5Rs in teams to help us work together and not argue or be left out’
  • ‘Transfer skills means take it to a different lesson’
  • ‘Peer support means you help each other’
  • ‘Success is when you start out with a challenge but it doesn’t really matter if you succeed because it’s the process that’s important’.

Visiting teachers agree that Stamford’s evidence of success is there to see. Jen McIntosh of Longdendale School says the best thing about her visit ‘was seeing the culture of learning embedded in Year 7 and the staff.’ For Janet Biltcliffe of Harper Green it was ‘the connection between Learning to Learn lessons and the pupils’ very impressive knowledge and understanding of their own learning.

For those of us at Alite4 – now with more than a decade of experience of working with, and in, UK schools on Accelerated Learning – we feel we’ve gone beyond debates about the peripherals and are sitting on some really solid evidence of learner success. To visit either of the two schools mentioned in this article, please contact Alite. For more information about the AL approach visit www.alite.co.uk TEX

References

  1. Smith, Lovatt and Wise, Accelerated Learning: A User’s Guide, Stafford: Network Educational Press, 2004
  2. Call, Nicola and Smith, Alistair, The Alps Resource Book, (The 5 Rs: resilience, resourcefulness, responsibility, reasoning, and reflection). Stafford: Network Educational Press, 2001
  3. Call, Nicola and Smith, Alistair, The Alps Approach, (BASICS: belonging, aspiration, safety, identity, challenge, and success). Stafford: Network Educational Press, 2001
  4. Alite Ltd – Accelerated learning in Training and Education www.alite.co.uk

The above references also contain more information about the techniques and ideas marked *

Further reading and resources

  • Smith, Alistair, The Brain’s Behind It, Stafford: NetworkEducational Press, 2003
  • Close Up – Accelerated Learning in Secondary Schools, 2004, Alite DVD (features 12 lessons and interviews)
  • Close Up – Accelerated Learning in Primary Schools, 2005 sAlite DVD (features 11 lessons and interviews)#

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2006.

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