Patrick Barkham in class, taking part in the 'spaced learning' method. Photograph: Mark Pinder
Teenagers at a school in Tyneside are trying out a new kind of learning that combines physical activity with short bursts of teaching - and promises amazing results. So can Patrick Barkham pass a science exam after just one hour-long lesson?
A giant spidery spaceship of a new building has landed on a school field in Tyneside. Later this year, pupils from Monkseaton high school will file into their new lozenge-shaped school and take their seats before a giant video wall in a multipurpose hall. Here, they will receive a unique lesson: an intense PowerPoint presentation, repeated three times, and interspersed with 10-minute breaks of juggling or spinning plates. After one hour of this study, the pupils will be primed for one sixth of a GCSE. In theory, following this "spaced learning" method, a teenager could sit a GCSE after just three days' work.
It is a vision of the future that may horrify many parents, teachers and the educational establishment. It challenges how we teach our children and casts doubt on GCSEs and, perhaps, the validity of our entire school system. But teachers and thinkers from around the world are making a pilgrimage to Monkseaton to investigate spaced learning, which has been devised and tested in this tatty state comprehensive over the last four years.
Serving the sprawling, bleak council estates close to the mouth of the Tyne, Monkseaton is an unlikely trailblazer. Girls shuffle to their classes in Ugg boots. Sheepish boys queue by reception to be told off. Scuff marks reach so far up the corridor walls that the pupils must be able to walk on the ceiling. The staff room smells of fetid lunchboxes and instant coffee.
"The school building is basically a shack. It has a lot of faults. We don't have time to go through them all," says Paul Kelley, the head teacher, drily. Subsiding into old coalmines, riddled with asbestos and leaking water from above and below, the 1970s school was earmarked for demolition more than a decade ago. Much of Kelley's 15-year stint as headteacher has been a mission to raze the old building and create the futuristic one now finally taking shape next to the old school.
This tall, charismatic, American-born English literature graduate was diverted from his rebuilding in 2005 when he chanced across a headline on the cover of the Scientific American: "Making memories stick." It was a Eureka moment for the headteacher, well known and loved in his school for his "wacky ideas".
Douglas Fields's findings, however, were hard science. Fields, a leading US neuroscientist, took a rat and sliced out the hippocampus, a section of its brain, keeping it alive in a salt solution. From this gory-sounding experiment, he found that the stimulation of cells in the brain repeated three times had to be interspersed with 10-minute breaks before the synapse became strengthened permanently - the chemical and biological process in the brain which turns short-term recollections into long-term memories.
"It's simply a temporal pattern that looks like it works to create long-term memory," says Kelley. "It's not the magic bullet but that temporal pattern applies to anyone, anywhere, any time." After reading that copy of Scientific American, Kelley recruited one of his science teachers, Angela Bradley, and three students, and together they helped design a set of PowerPoint slides and a 90-minute GCSE science lesson plan that involved 20-minute bursts of intense learning followed by 10-minute breaks of focused physical activity, initially basketball.
A series of careful trials yielded fascinating results: 48 year 9 pupils who had not covered any part of the GCSE science syllabus were given a complete biology module in a 90-minute spaced learning lesson. A week later, they took the relevant GCSE multiple-choice exam (a year earlier than normal). Twelve months on, the same set of pupils took another GCSE science paper after a conventional four months of study. While average scores for the second paper were higher (68% versus 58%), more than a quarter of the pupils scored higher after spaced learning than through conventional study. Despite studying for just 90 minutes with spaced learning, 80% of the class of 13- and 14-year-olds got at least a D grade.
My unscientific mind is spinning from all this as I travel to Tyneside to try out spaced learning: I am a scientific ignoramus, and whatever I crammed in for my combined science GCSE, for which I somehow scraped two As in 1991, has long disappeared from my brain. When I arrive at Monkseaton, I join Bradley's year 10 class. She is teaching a biology module - one sixth of a GCSE - in one hour. Her pupils have already covered this material so, for them, the lesson is useful revision.
"You're going to have some fun in the break," says Bradley brightly. The boys I sit with aren't impressed. "It's one of them space things," says one. "You've got to juggle," says another. "Oh great," says a third with world-weary irony.
Alongside another teacher, Louise Dickson - two voices keep it more interesting - Bradley talks through the slides, projected on to a scruffy old white board. They are as quick as rappers or actors in a Reduced Shakespeare production.
I want to write stuff down - that's how I remember - but pens and paper are considered a distraction. The slides flash past. There are amusing little sketches or photos on some, "hooks" says Bradley, which help, but it's too fast for me and I start berating myself for having such a decrepit, sluggish mind.
After 15 minutes, we stop and try juggling. No one can do it but, apart from my desk mates, most of the class of 20 are cautiously positive. "It gives you a chance to have fun while learning," says one girl. "So you don't have to concentrate all the time," says another. Steven Skedge, 14, reckons it is particularly useful for revision. "Some people would prefer to write big essays," he says. Yes, I nod, my kind of people. "But most people would rather do this."
James Rodgerson, 14, got an A* in his first biology exam. "If you're sitting there writing it gets boring and you lose concentration but stopping and doing something like juggling for 10 minutes keeps it interesting. It does help me take things in," he says. "It works better for some subjects than others. I don't think it would work in maths."
During the second presentation of the same information, the teachers miss out words and encourage the class to shout out the answers. One of the boys near me is really good at this. Bradley later reveals he has behavioural difficulties but thrives in spaced learning classes ("Lads who are drifters and don't like written work do better," she says).
Next there is more juggling, this time with three balls instead of two, and then a final 10-minute session of work in which we go through a handout and answer questions. I can't complete mine in time.
Afterwards, Bradley gives me my GCSE exam paper: Biology B1b (Evolution and Environment), one sixth of a combined science GCSE. I wait five days to fully test if the lesson really has strengthened my synapses and forged long-term memories. Then I sit down, on my own, without the internet, and take the exam. The pale blue paper causes me to cough up even longer-term memories, of exam halls and school ties and making your calculator read "BOOBLESS".
What do I remember from the lesson? Um, well, Miss Bradley was distractingly attractive. You juggle by chanting throw-throw, catch-catch, and throw both balls in the air. You don't just pass them from hand to hand. Something about a primoid. No, plasmid. Enzymes are like scissors. Dolly the sheep was, in effect, aged six when she was born. Sulphur dioxide is a pollutant that comes from coal-fired power stations.
Struggling to concentrate, I stumble over the first question. Then my fear of failure recedes and I remember a surprising amount from the lesson: pictures and the teachers' words. The presentation seems to have reinforced whatever limited general knowledge was swilling around my head.
Back at the school, Kelley is persuasively messianic about spaced learning. My lesson was 60 minutes; in theory I could cover a whole GCSE in a day. But the three-day GCSE: that's still a media exaggeration, right? "No," he says carefully. He believes spaced learning is a "paradigm shift" in our ideas about schooling as dramatic as Einstein's theory of relativity. Spaced learning is "working from demonstrable, replicable, peer-reviewed scientific study towards an educational practice, rather than educational practices being contested against each other, one tradition against another".
It is already being used in Monkseaton as far more than just a useful revision tool for "factual" subjects. It is being used to explain coursework, theories of study and it has also been deployed in A-level history lessons, where the teacher reported it helped year 12 pupils gain an overview of Hitler's rise to power and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Bradley admits there are sceptics among the teachers at Monkseaton. Beyond the school, educationalists are uneasy about extrapolating from neuroscience - say, experiments on the dissected brain of a rat - into the classroom.
How can these rapid-fire lessons create understanding rather than just aid factual recall? How can it work in subjects that demand more than the acquiring of basic facts? How can one teaching method suit everyone?
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, accepts that Monkseaton's spaced learning attempts to implement the latest understanding of short and long-term memory. "But there is a tremendous leap between human physiology and education," he says. "The point of education is to acquire a deeper understanding than just learning things to reproduce in exams. Tests and exams are meant to be a proxy for the deeper learning that is taking place, not instead of it."
Smithers points out that studies show that innovative classroom methods make a big difference at first, simply because they are different. Separating the sexes for the study of science gives a similar short-term boost to learning. But when novel techniques become the norm, their beneficial effect subsides.
Then there is "teacher effect". No amount of physical exercise could elevate lessons given by a boring teacher with a dull presentation. I can't tell if the juggling fired up my brain but I do know that Bradley's lesson and PowerPoint slides were first-class: the kind of fast, effective and well-balanced lecture you might expect at a top university.
David Reynolds, professor of education at the University of Plymouth, has worked with Monkseaton and supports spaced learning. He says other schools and academics have been slow to embrace Monkseaton's innovations simply because there is no tradition of using cognitive neuroscience in British education, unlike in the US. He also says it is because the government has focused improving education at a school-wide level rather than looking at what is actually going on in the classroom.
Reynolds admits it is "dangerous" to look for one - neuroscientific - cause for what he calls the "awesome" results from the trials at Monkseaton. A big factor could be the presence of a charismatic teacher. "Angela Bradley is an extremely talented teacher and is very committed to the method. The PowerPoints are very high quality and the whole setting is that there are lots of people at Monkseaton who are enthusiastic about the method. There are all kinds of other things happening that make one wary of saying it is only spaced learning that is producing what is going on."
However, as Reynolds adds: "There is no existing study of what an effective teacher or good methods gets out of kids that suggests that those things could produce those gains [in the trials at Monkseaton]. Nothing comes close. It's unprecedented."
Monkseaton's futuristic new school opens in September. It will be where Kelley hopes to expand spaced learning, in classrooms that won't be square ("We don't have to have schools built in squares," he says) and will feature special intensive lighting to boost teenagers' concentration and wakefulness. Kelley has studied research on teenagers' circadian rhythms that shows they get going later in the day than adults - hence those epic teenage lie-ins - and hopes to start lessons at the more teen-friendly hour of 10.30am.
The implications of spaced learning are "a bit scary at times", admits Kelley. "Think of all the time we waste in school. The students know when they are wasting time. If we could find a solution we could find the time for other," he gives an impish grin, "nice things. It would be quite good."
Reynolds agrees with Kelley that spaced learning could be liberating. It need not mean more rote learning but better, quicker, basic learning, freeing pupils to spend more of their school day doing scientific experiments, acquiring practical skills or pursuing music, drama, sport or art. "If this method is as powerful as it seems, we can get the basic skills done in a fraction of the time, thus releasing children to do things which we might call higher-order thinking," says Reynolds. "We've got time to alter children's psyches and hearts - not just their heads."
The day after I sit my exam, Bradley emails me my result. It is an A*. I'm astonished. So is she. "I am quite amazed that you achieved this, are you sure you haven't done any science for a while?" she asks.
Perhaps it was neuroscience what done it. Perhaps Bradley's lesson stuck in my mind because, for me, it was a novelty. Perhaps I only got an A* because I had a well-planned lesson from an excellent teacher - or because I am a grown-up with 34 years of acquired general knowledge. Or maybe I did well simply because the paper was not difficult. You know, that old chestnut: GCSEs are getting easier.
I'm inclined to believe that there must be more to making memories stick than findings derived from dissecting a rat's hippocampus. Scientists would probably say that is because - despite my GCSE refresher - I don't fully understand the complex advances in neuroscience. Whatever the truth of it, something special is happening at Monkseaton. And if other teachers and academics open their minds to it, this may be just the beginning of a revolution in our classrooms. -guardian.co.uk/