Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

`Rekindling the Spark': Teachers' Experiences of `Accelerative Learning'

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

`Rekindling the Spark': Teachers' Experiences of `Accelerative Learning'

Article excerpt

Several teacher training packages called `Accelerative Learning' (AL) have recently attracted widespread support among teachers in Australian schools. AL purports to expound a `brain theory', covering various `learning styles'. This project investigated the experience of teachers who were attracted by AL. The authors surveyed AL texts, conducted participant observation in AL training, and interviewed AL proponents including 24 teachers at three Western Sydney secondary schools. We found a sense of revitalisation for teachers undertaking AL. While the brain theory of AL resonates with teachers' `scientific' training, its formulaic solutions deal with the craft aspect of teaching. Teachers are seeking immediately practical solutions to the crisis they are experiencing with intensification of their work. Appearing to `cater to' learners overlooked in `conventional' teaching, AL's formulas fix differences in cultures of learning into individual, biological ones -- reinforcing social inequalities. Nevertheless an important grain of good sense can be identified in teachers' common sense of AL, in its returning of schools' attention to pedagogy.


Over the last few years, a range of training packages in teaching style and techniques, collectively known as `Accelerative Learning' (AL), has been marketed vigorously in Australian schools. Its methods have been promoted enthusiastically in professional development programs in the state sector, in extensive collaboration with private consultants (Noble & Poynting, 1993; Poynting & Noble, 1995b). By 1994, over 3000 teachers in Western Sydney alone had received inservice training in AL courses, at the cost of several million dollars -- largely in working-class schools and supported by Disadvantaged Schools Component funding. Despite this amount of time and money, very little systematic evaluation of AL has taken place.

AL contains a lot of plain teacher common sense and progressivist teaching principles popularised in the 1970s, along with some `New Age' nuances. The `scientificness' professed for these techniques by AL proponents is claimed on the basis of a peculiar amalgam of `brain theory', in which the functioning of the brain is seen to be organised in biologically distinct parts which are taken to be the seats of different abilities. That these theories are largely discredited, incoherently conjoined, or inappropriately applied has been well demonstrated (Knight, 1993; Le Bon, Smith, Tenney, & Thompson, 1994; Noble & Poynting, 1995; O'Boyle, 1986). Nevertheless, for those practitioners convinced of its efficacy, such brain theory lends legitimacy to a pedagogy based on recognising and targeting a list of learning styles, which are held to be fixed and located solely in the workings of the brain. Thus, in addition to its lack of rigorous evaluation, AL demands research attention for its potential to exacerbate educational inequalities by naturalising differences in ability along class and ethnic lines (Poynting & Noble, 1996).

It is easy to dismiss AL, as New South Wales Premier Bob Cart did upon banning it in the state's schools, as `faddish rubbish out of America' (Allan, 1995). It is another matter to begin to explain how such untested, incoherent and contradictory folk wisdom can obtain purchase among large numbers of tertiary educated, hard-working, and dedicated teachers. This is the key question which we considered in our research, and one on which we focus here.


This article is based on a two-year research project consisting of a survey of AL texts, participant observation in AL training courses, and interviews with leading AL proponents and with 24 teachers at three Western Sydney secondary schools. The project sought to grasp the attraction for teachers of these techniques by asking, not `How does AL work?', but `How does AL work for its adherents?'. This objective of grasping social processes in terms of their meanings for the social actors involved is well served by ethnographic methods: participant observation and open-ended interviews were the methods deployed in this project. …

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