By Jack Kenny
Applying scientific method to innovation is at the heart of headteacher Paul Kelley's work. At Monkseaton High School, in Whitley Bay, he constantly questions the status quo and the role of schools, and looks for ways to develop.
One of the first developments pioneered by Kelley was the introduction of degree studies to schools and colleges across the UK in partnership with the Open University. Around 50,000 students have benefited, most of them on science-related courses. Another innovation is degree apprenticeships. Students can obtain a degree while they are at school.
"We are now doing internships," he explains. "It's still at an early stage; students are working with architects and PR companies. We manage them and their OU work. The essential point is that these developments are higher education brought down below the age of 18. It allows students to obtain degrees while they are working, without incurring debts."
Monkseaton, the UK's first Trust School, has not just looked out for its own students; it has looked outside itself and has conducted collaborative modern-language work with primary schools. Around 1,600 primary schools are using Monkseaton resources and courses at key stage 2. "This is a national priority," says Paul Kelley. "We are giving a complete language course and CPD for languages. It is all self funded and we cover French, Spanish, Mandarin and German."
Neuroscience – 'What makes memories stick?'
The most startling work is the development of spaced learning: the application of new neural science to learning. It has been four years in development. "A great many of the things that we do take time," emphasises Paul Kelley. "It is applying some of the big breakthroughs in neural science. In essence, what has been achieved by scientists is the replication in the laboratory of the creation of memories. One fundamental puzzle in learning and neuroscience was: how does short-term memory - which lasts less than a minute - become long-term memory? In other words: what makes memories stick?"
In February 2005 a team of neuro scientists in the USA, led by Douglas Field came up with some conclusions. They showed that the important factor in memory was time. If the cells were stimulated in a particular pattern, "the relevant gene turns on". However, the stimuli cannot be repeated one after the other. Instead, there must be intervals of inactivity - around 10 minutes - between each stimulus. If the pattern of 10-minute gaps was used, the permanent neural pathways formed. Constant stimuli – as, for example, in an ordinary lesson – did not work.
Paul Kelley thought it would be possible to create learning sequences based on Douglas Fields' discoveries and Dr Terry Wharton at the OU agreed: "Eventually we compressed a presentation, one of the science GCSE courses, to 20 minutes – mind bogglingly fast. It was played to students.
"Recently we have done a longitudinal study to see what happened. It shows that there is no observable difference between two hours of spaced learning and eight months of teaching in terms of outcomes. What all this shows is that education is very inefficient. Kids are learning things in conventional lessons and then are forgetting things and being taught again.
'Better ways of learning based on science, not tradition'
"The simple message appears to be that if we want children to remember things, we may have to fundamentally change our approach to learning. Spaced learning is not 'the solution' to how pupils learn. But it indicates how quickly students can assimilate complex information. What spaced learning certainly does is demonstrate the potential of unconventional lessons and challenge us all to create, test and share better ways of learning based on science, not tradition."
Science has also led to changing the start of the school day. Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University, has drawn attention to the mechanisms in the brain that create the 24-hour pattern based on night and day. His research demonstrates that hunger, learning and health are all influenced by circadian rhythms [a 24-hour cycle].
It has always been assumed that learning early in the morning is best. Kelley unpicks this assumption: "Unfortunately, it is not true for teenagers. 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 result is that his school now starts at 10am.
Research has also shown that there is a relationship between light, learning and mental health. Light levels are important. The design of the new Monkseaton building ensured that there are no areas where students experience a light level below 1,000 lux.
So what are the processes in the Kelley brain that lead to innovation? Dissatisfaction with the status quo is one. "I am driven by knowing that things are wrong. For us, working with partners in higher education, such as the OU, and with large companies like Microsoft and the BBC, has been important. Both are young organisations which are agile because they are in hostile, fast-moving environments."
The main process for Kelley is working with the classic research and development paradigm: you have a problem; you find a solution; you evaluate. For evaluation they use The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), based at Durham University. "With us their role is external evaluation to academic standards. It is only when you evaluate thoroughly that you ensure that an innovation is valid.
'Innovation is not about ownership, making money'
"Innovation is about constantly trying to question and improve and that is part of our public service. We should be trying to improve the service and share the improvement with others. It is not about ownership, making money. In the end it is a moral argument.
"You have to accept failure. You have to ensure that every one involved with you benefits professionally in some way. Our golden rule is that students have to benefit more than they would have if the innovation had not happened. We have to be convinced that students will do something better or faster, or be more effective and efficient.
"At the heart of our work is the scientific method, derived from science and medicine, applied to education. The hard bit is that this is not what educators are trained to do. The idea that education and learning can be improved like technology and science is not accepted. It is my view that the scientific method is well tried, tested and works. Medicine didn’t move on by applying theories that were not based on evidence. They did it bit by bit by finding things that work like Pasteur. It is a methodology."
So what has inspired Paul Kelley? His immediate reaction is: "The Open University." He remembers that he benefited from it; they took him in when no one else would. "It is a comprehensive university and does not exist in a conventional way. It was set up in the teeth of negative reaction."
Appropriately for an Anglo-American (he hails from California), a further source of succour is an English-born founding father of the United States, Thomas Paine: "Tom Paine is an inspiration because he aspired to free people from 'mind-forged manacles'".
'Education is woefully inadequate - like medicine 300 years ago'
Paul Kelley also talks warmly about Sugata Mitra, head of a research and development at NIIT, a training and software company in Delhi. Mitra had a simple idea. He installed a computer on the outside wall of his office that was facing a slum – and observed. Children came and figured out how to use the computer and access the Internet. Within minutes they were surfing the net. Within days the children were able to browse the Internet, cut and paste, copy, drag and drop items and create folders all from from incidental learning and peer-to-peer learning. Those developments inspired similar initiatives across India.
The time for educators and schools to make decisions based on evidence is here, says Paul Kelley. It's a top priority. "I am absolutely convinced," he says, "that education, as it currently stands, is woefully inadequate; it is like medicine was 300 years ago."
Conditions for innovation
- I feel that what is happening now is a paradigm shift in education from a craft to a science.
- Innovation is the process of intelligent change.
- Use scientific method where at all practicable.
- Never accept conventional wisdom.
- Never reject conventional practice just because it is convention.
- Start all innovation with the aim to achieve an infinitely scalable solution that is more effective, efficient and enjoyable.
- Be rigorous about your work – get external quantifiable validation from university rigorous evaluation.
- Work with others – companies, universities, government.
- Don't be afraid.
- Start (very) small.
- Ensure students aren't disadvantaged.
- Ensure students benefit in a rigorous way and then share the outcomes.
- If you're right, don't give up.
- If you're wrong, stop.
- This is the most exciting and important time in the history of education – be part of it.
Sources of inspiration
School architecture: Alex de Rijke (dRMM)
School timing (neuroscience): Russel Foster, University of Oxford
The science of learning: Douglas Fields, National Institutes of Medicine
Frances and John Sorrell and their principles: the Sorrell Foundation
Monkseaton also runs, with partners, its own Innovation Trust
Making Minds: what's wrong with education - and what should we do about it?
By Paul Kelley
Published by Routledge