In this chapter Accelerated Learning (AL) will be described and critiqued. The implications of AL for the primary school will be considered in the light of successes reported in the media and on commercial websites. However, due to a lack of rigorous research into accelerated learning, it will be important to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from such anecdotal evidence.
Accelerated learning is a term used to refer to a broad spectrum of techniques developed to enhance the learning process. A given technique can often be attributed to a particular advocate such as Alistair Smith whose model comprises four cyclic phases . The first phase is termed Connect and corresponds to learner orientation. The second phase is termed Activate and corresponds to learners engaging in problem solving using a multi-sensory approach. The third phase is termed Demonstrate and relates to monitoring progress through feedback and variation of groupings and activity. The fourth phase is termed Consolidate and corresponds to reviewing and reflecting upon learning.
At present “Accelerated Learning” refers to a spectrum of similar techniques but lacks any unifying theoretical grounding . It would therefore be useful to consider the generalised ideas and practices that characterise accelerated learning.
Like much contemporary educational theory accelerated learning draws on the constructivist approach developed from the work of Jean Piaget . Accelerated learning explicitly places the learner at the centre of learning. Children are not viewed as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge but as natural learners who construct their own meanings through experience by building on existing knowledge. The role of the teacher is that of a highly skilled facilitator who strives to create an environment likely to provoke the learning of a particular domain of knowledge. In this broad context the goal of accelerated learning, like many approaches to learning, is to enable teachers to provide access to a curriculum in such a way that learners are motivated to engage with it.
The striking feature of accelerated learning that makes it stand out is that it “justifies its approach to teaching and learning by citing scientific research into ‘ways the brain physically works’” . In particular accelerated learning draws upon neurolinguistic programming, emotional intelligence and Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences . As such accelerated learning is informed by the idea of learning-styles.
There exist commonalities not only in the theoretical ideas but also the practical applications of accelerated learning.
Accelerated learning emphasises the importance of emotional intelligence, relaxation and motivation. Kinesthetic activities with names such as “Brain Breaks” are typically incorporated. Changes of activity, atmosphere and pace are exploited to maintain a therapeutic atmosphere.
Holistic attention is paid to the learning environment. This includes things such as the lighting and temperature; as well as music, art and even hydration levels of the brain. The teacher is part of the environment too and should be aware of suggestion through tone of voice, body language and so on. Accelerated learning also incorporates socio-constructivist principles in which social peers are considered a significant environmental factor.
The impact of the theory of multiple intelligences results in a conception of learners varying in their preferred learning styles. A distinction is made between Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (tactile and physical), or VAK, learning styles . While a learner may fall into one of these groups in the main she draws on each learning style to a different degree depending on what is being learnt.
Commercially available accelerated learning products and services are offered to the education sector and to corporate trainers. Accelerated learning, to some degree, exists as a collection of discrete programmes tuned to particular domains of expertise and aimed at demographically identifiable learners. It would not be fruitful to detail specific programmes and their differences here. It is suffice to say we can consider any given programme as drawing on practices justified by “brain science” in order to accelerate learning of a specified domain of expertise.
While accelerated learning lacks a unified theoretical grounding or practice it does have clear origins. The story began with the development of Suggestopedia developed in the 1960s and 70s by Bulgarian educator and psychologist Georgi Lozanov . Lozanov paid attention to the learning environment in a holistic sense and considered what it suggested to the learners. He developed and pursued techniques that had several influences, including, surprisingly, yoga and “pop” psychology of the time . As Lozanov’s ideas gained attention researchers began to adopt and adapt them. The influences that morphed Suggestopedia into a broad mix of approaches termed “Accelerated Learning” arguably include neurolinguistic programming techniques, multiple intelligences theory, the rise of motivational literature, the rise of “therapeutic interventions” and an increasing willingness of schools to buy “quick-fix solutions”.
Accelerated learning is popular in many countries including Britain. A Google search for the term “accelerated learning” generates over half a million hits. Accelerated learning also enjoys extraordinary boasts, such as: “Increase your child's IQ by up to forty points, starting at birth”. Unhelpfully, there is no conclusive research data available that can establish the validity or otherwise of such claims. Instead we can only consider differing arguments for and against accelerated learning.
The strongest case for accelerated learning is its apparent success. Clients find it works well and come back for more. Accelerated learning ‘gurus’ display authoritative testimonials from high-profile professionals. Media reports suggest a correlation between AL and outstanding Ofsted reports . The Times Educational Supplement regularly carries flattering stories, as will be seen later. One thing seems clear: AL works and the evidence exists . However all such evidence is purely anecdotal. The significance of this is that factors such as the Hawthorne effect are almost certainly at play.
Another argument for Accelerated learning is its scientific basis, as stressed by commercial websites: “the result of research carried out in over eighty universities around the world.” More sober claims, along with evidence cited from various disciplines, can be found in the accelerated learning literature such as Riding and Rayner (1998) . However critics may be quick to point out that accelerated learning has origins in “new-age” ideas and even that its practitioners are “snake-oil sellers”. Undeniably scientific ideas have influenced development but, nonetheless, accelerated learning has no overarching theoretical grounding. Worse, the ideas incorporated are by no means accepted by all or even most scientists. For example, many psychologists would agree that “Gardner confuses sampling theory with exhaustive inventories of skills”
Nonetheless, proponents can argue that AL does appear to work and that this is unsurprising. Many of the principles make sense such as creating a motivated learning environment that caters for various styles of learning. Beale (1997) argues that AL is a “new science” and accuses critics of reductionism; liking them to classical physicists struggling to come to terms with relativity.
The lack of substantial, rigorous research means the implications of accelerated learning for the primary school are unknown. The only evidence available is anecdotal accounts published in the media. A small selection will be briefly considered here to provide an impression of how AL might benefit primary schools. However, it cannot be over-emphasised that media reports represent neither a fair nor a large sample of experiences.
• A year 5 teacher used a “Science Physical CD” to combine a science lesson on human anatomy with a dance lesson. Each lesson has a structure typical of AL including “an exploration and discovery phase and review and recall activities.” The teacher noted the children seemed more engaged and pensive, concluding that it will “probably have more impact than a traditional lesson.”
• A former year 5 teacher provides non-contact time to colleagues by teaching each class French. Lessons adopt a “multi-sensory” approach of “doing, saying, seeing and listening”. The success is no surprise, according to the head teacher, because AL is based on “modern research about accelerated learning and enlisting the whole brain.”
• The head teacher of a primary school notes that pupils’ progress varies independently of ‘intelligence’. After attending a course on Emotional Intelligence he considers issues of self-esteem and motivation and ‘learning styles’. Four years later behaviour and progress has improved across the school.
• A year 6 teacher decides to look at “the impact of motivational posters on children in becoming responsible and independent learners, as part of a multi-sensory approach”. The children had “learned more about independent learning and setting themselves targets”.
What conclusions might be drawn that would help inform a primary school considering whether to adopt accelerated learning?
Firstly, exercise caution. Accelerated learning cannot reasonably be defended as an established academic approach to improving learning and cannot, pending further research, be demonstrated to deliver on its extraordinary claims. Accelerated learning may yet turn out to be a castle in the sky and its reported successes a flash in the pan. Secondly, a popular myth abounds that accelerated learning is grounded in extensive scientific research. It is important to acknowledge that AL has selectively picked-and-mixed that science which is palatable to its philosophy. The perception of accelerated learning as having been derived as an application of rigorous research into mainstream scientific knowledge is certainly false.
That said, accelerated learning does endorse many principles that are widely accepted. It draws on constructivism and places the learner at the centre of learning. The emphasis on motivation, problem solving, varied activities, social considerations and reflection is congruent with most contemporary theories of learning. In this sense accelerated learning is preferable to many existing classroom activities such as lessons structured around a textbook containing knowledge covered in the syllabus.
However, such theoretical concerns may be removed from the practicalities of a primary school. For teachers there may be significant pragmatic benefits to adopting accelerated learning. The widespread enthusiasm for accelerated learning is very real whether misguided or not. accelerated learning’s dubious intrinsic value notwithstanding, the excitement it induces is infectious and motivating. Even if the positive impact is a simple case of ‘a change is good as a rest’ the impact is no less positive. “Accelerated Learning” is often a rallying cry that unifies teachers towards a common goal of improvement. “Learning styles” encourages teachers to reflect on individual learning needs even if academics doubt VAK are in fact intelligences. Away from the classroom, public relations pressures on a school can make a new innovation, which is popular in the press and associated with good inspection reports, very attractive indeed.
There are reasonable pragmatic reasons for a primary school to adopt Accelerated Learning, but whether or not it is a passing frenzy remains to be seen.
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