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Just five more minutes mum!

Alarm clock

Innovation which stems from scientific research is rare in the classroom but recent discoveries in neuroscience, for instance in long-term memory and sleep patterns, mean it is time for a rethink, argues Paul Kelley. 

Much of what is done in education is based on conventional wisdom about what works and what doesn't, not scientific knowledge. Leaders rarely have time to consider new approaches, and 'innovation' is often just another word for 'change'.

Yet I believe that we can base learning on scientific knowledge about how the brain works - if we change our approach.

Foremost, I believe that innovation should be a process, not an outcome and that neuroscientific research can lead to educational innovation, if done through rigorously controlled trials.

In the past ten years at Monkseaton Community High School, we have been working to create this kind of rigorous system, and now it is happening. For example, one fundamental puzzle in learning and neuroscience was how exactly does short-term memory - which lasts less than a minute - become long-term memory. In other words: What makes memories stick?

In February 2005 The Scientific American reported that a team of neuroscientists, led by Douglas Fields, had come up with an answer.

They concluded that the important factor was time. If the cells were stimulated in a particular pattern "the relevant gene turns on".

But the stimuli cannot be repeated one after the other. Instead, there must be intervals of inactivity - around ten minutes - between each stimulus burst.

If the pattern of ten-minute gaps was used, the permanent neural pathways formed. Constant stimuli - as, for example, in an ordinary lesson - did not work.

It thought it would be possible to create learning sequences based on Douglas Fields' discoveries and consulted Dr Terry Wharton at the OU who agreed. With Terry's advice, we planned and delivered lessons using this pattern of ten-minute gaps.

We started with the design: an hour's session on the human heart with three elements we hoped would offer a similar stimulus of a neural pathway. It was based on a presentation created by Angela Bradley, the lead teacher on the project, and a group of three students.

This was repeated three times separated by ten-minute gaps in which the students did 'Simon says' and other physical activities.

The delivery was through controlled trials with experimental and control groups, which reduced external variables.

The results of the first trials suggested the method worked. We then ran a host of other controlled trials: younger students, different teachers, different subject areas, different content areas and, finally, the whole of year 10 GCSE science exams.

The results were consistent: highly significant improvements compared with conventional methods.

The simple message appeared to be that if we want children to remember things, we may have to fundamentally change our approach to learning.

Another area to which I believe neuroscience can be applied is timetabling. Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University, has drawn attention to the mechanisms in the brain that create a circadian rhythm in our lives (that is, the 24-hour pattern based on night and day).

His research demonstrates that our hunger, our learning and our health are all influenced by circadian rhythms.

Recently it has emerged that this has important consequences for secondary schools and universities. It is now known that circadian rhythms change with age in humans.

We have always assumed that learning early in the morning is best, probably because it is best for young children and adults. Unfortunately, it is not true for teenagers.

Our circadian rhythms dictate that, at around age 12, we begin a journey in time where morning - for our hormones and our mind - begins later and later in the chronological day until, in the late teenage years, it begins  two hours later than for everyone else.

Of course, there are variations for each individual but until 19 for women and 20 for men, our neurological alarm clock drifts later and later into the day.

The implications for us as school and college leaders are obvious. As Professor Foster says, "Teenagers show both delayed sleep and high levels of sleep deprivation and these problems have been largely ignored in terms...of the time structure imposed on teenagers at school".

So, we now know. Our brain controls both the rhythms of memory acquisition and rhythms of night and day which, despite technology, continue to order our lives.

For me, the message from these findings is clear: in order to capitalise on what the neuroscience is telling us, we need to change our approaches to learning and to rethink how our school days are structured. 

Paul Kelley is headteacher of Monkseaton Community High School. His book Making Minds: What's Wrong with Education and What Should We Do About It? is published by Routledge. 

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Leader magazine welcomes opinion articles from all members on education-related topics. Please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk for details. ASCL offers a modest honorarium.

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