How to be smarter with the same brain

Early intensive education can increase a child's IQ by 30 points, say proponents of accelerated learning. Maureen O'Connor reports
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The Independent Online
We've all seen the adverts. Improve your IQ, learn a language in double-quick time - it's a simple as ABC. But can you really become smarter or learn more quickly with the same brain? And if you can, why don't schools employ the same techniques?

The fact is that more and more schools are using accelerated learning approaches because the techniques can dramatically improve learning capability, based as they are on neurological and psychological research into how the brain works, how it acquires new knowledge, understanding and skills and how it recalls what it has learned.

Accelerated learning draws together the work of psychologists and educationists around the world, most of whom start from the frightening conviction that almost all children in school, from the brightest to those with learning difficulties, seriously underperform.

American research suggests that early intensive education can improve IQ scores by up to 30 points.

Accelerated learning does not mean fast-tracking very bright pupils. It is an approach to learning that quickens the pace and absorption of learning for all abilities. Accelerated learning methods are not difficult or expensive and can be used in any classroom.

Alastair Smith, an education adviser in Avon and an enthusiast for the accelerated approach, published a book about accelerated learning yesterday. He says: "This is all about raising pupil motivation and making use of what is now understood about learning and memory. It has to start with self-esteem and self-belief to prevent children from simply switching off. Under stress we know that the brain simply downloads and nothing can be learnt at all."

The human brain is segmented. There is a section concerned with survival, which can override everything else if it is stimulated, and another concerned with emotion. If you panic, or are under stress, you do not have any capacity to learn at the same time. So accelerated learning techniques put a lot of emphasis on creating a pleasant, non-threatening environment for students.

Another part of the brain deals with long-term memory. If learning is to last longer than the next test or exam, it has to be transferred to the long-term memory. Visual and musical clues can help. Many people find it easier to recall a song or a poem, a picture or a diagram than a chunk of prose.

Another two segments of the brain, commonly known as the left-hand and the right-hand brain, deal with the mechanics of learning. The left deals with language, mathematics, logic and linearity, and it tends to learn bottom up. In other words, if it were learning about the human body in biology it would prefer to start with the constituent parts, like the lungs and the liver, and build up to the whole organism.

Meanwhile the right-hand brain deals with spatial concepts, music, images, imagination. It prefers to learn by moving from the overview to the constituent parts.

Professor Howard Gardner, of Harvard University, is convinced that traditional concepts of "intelligence" as measured by IQ tests are far too narrow. He defines seven human "intelligences" - the linguistic, the mathematical and logical, the visual and spatial, the musical, the interpersonal and intrapersonal (the latter concerned with self-awareness), and the kinesthetic (concerned with touch and action).

As children get older, they are expected to concentrate more and more on the first two intelligences, neglecting the rest. Boys in particular have little opportunity to develop their self-reflective side. But Gardner argues that each intelligence is modifiable and can be expanded, and that success in one area tends to strengthen the others.

According to Gardner, there are three ways of learning - the visual, the auditory and the kinesthetic - and you achieve your maximum potential by using all three. Sesame Street, the television programme for pre-schoolers, used a brilliant mix of the visual and the auditory in cartoons and sketches, to teach basic language and number.

Traditionally, particularly in secondary schools, the emphasis has been on listening, reading and making notes. But in an average class, many children will be seriously disadvantaged if their preferred visual and kinesthetic approach is ignored.

There is a tendency in the UK to distrust educational theory, particularly when it touches on the suspect territory of "improve your memory" commerce. But accelerated learning projects have been tried out extensively in the United States, New Zealand and some European countries. Accelerated methods for learning languages have been particularly successful and are widely used in industry and in universities. Increasingly schools in the UK are finding that they, too, can learn from the accelerated approach.

'Accelerated Learning in the Classroom', by Alastair Smith, was published on 1 May by Network Educational Press, price pounds 15.95.