Does Spaced Learning signal a way to a bright new learning future, or is it a modern spin on rote learning which addresses only the lowest and least valued aspects of learning?

The term ‘Spaced learning’ has been bubbling under in educational circles for a while now, and even finding its way into the main-steam newspapers.  In ‘Classes apart’, by  Judith Woods in the Telegraph magazine (18.04.09) she describes how ‘Education today has moved away from the ‘chalk and talk’ philosophy of previous generations’ and leads with the following description of lessons at Monkseaton School at Whitley Bay in the north-east of England:

‘Lucy Barratt is weaving around the gym with her 16-year-old classmates, all dribbling basketballs. First they walk, then they jog. There’s laughter and chatter, when a whistle suddenly blows. The youngsters quickly place the balls on the floor and file back to the tables and chairs set out at the far end of the hall, because the pupils of Year 11 aren’t doing PE; they are halfway through a science lesson.

They sit down and for eight minutes are shown a Powerpoint presentation. Facts about the nervous system, diet deficiencies, hormones and the menstrual cycle, drugs and pathogens whizz on and off screen at a dizzying rate. After which it’s another 10 minutes with the basketballs, followed by the same eight-minute drill at their desks.’

 

 

Ray Fleming, writing in Microsoft’s UK schools News Blog, attempts focuses a little more on the details of the methodology:

 

 ‘The mechanics behind spaced learning are straightforward: the teacher gives a quickfire Powerpoint presentation, of about three slides a minute, and the pupils listen and read the screen, effectively taking in the information twice. After a gap, the same presentation is run, but there are missing spaces where the children have to fill in the missing words and repeat them aloud, which keeps their minds active and thinking. At this point they can also ask questions. After a second break, a similar presentation takes place’

 

The school’s own website, credits how Douglas Fields of the National Institute for Child Health and Development in the US led the team investigating the science behind how the brain actually creates a memory and  focused on how each cell was ‘switched on’ and became linked to other cells.

The most important point of the teaching system though seems to have been rather brushed over in much of the other writing on the topic of ‘spaced learning’: the role of the spaces themselves.

 

‘Surprisingly, constant stimulation of the cell did not make the cells ‘switch on’.  Stimulation had to be separated by gaps when the cell was not stimulated.  The breakthrough came when the team ‘began to realise that the important factor was time’. 

 Fields’ research team showed that to form a pathway which would be fixed and therefore remembered, cells had to be repeatedly stimulated and then not stimulated, in a particular pattern.  The length of stimulation was not vital, but the gap between stimulations was.  Fields’ team demonstrated that when three stimulations were separated by two 10 minute gaps, the cells ‘switched on’ and a pathway – a long term memory- was formed.  

Their model adopted at Monkseaton then is as follows:

 

‘The core structure of spaced learning is based rigidly on Fields’ discoveries, with three stimulations separated by two ten minute gaps:

·               Teacher input of key facts/explanations ( and therefore pathway stimulation)

·               10 minute ‘break’ from the input

·               Teacher Input  of key facts/explanations

·               10 minute ‘break’ from the input

·               Teacher input of key facts / explanations’

 

None of the articles featured though, seems to address the nature of the learning going on. Presumably this has been researched but not reported. Trying to reduce the learning content into bite-sized chunks seems to suggest that it is likely to be of most benefit when there is a discrete area of knowledge to be learned and explicit answer given. This might explain the comment  reported from the school that ‘Some subjects, such as English, are harder to compress, but it can be done.’

In term of the hierarchy’s now at the heart of much pedagogy – particularly that linked to creating ‘future-proofed’ education –  this sort of thing seems bedded firmly at the bottom cognitive models such as Bloom’s taxonomy

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its place, but surely it has to be considered as one tool in the ‘kit’ teachers use. But an interesting question for any teacher is how it would be received by those ‘Managing Performance’ and performing ‘Quality Assurance’ of teaching and learning? Would they be content to see the focus on these necessary but lower-order levels?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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