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The science behind

ACCELERATED LEARNING
An exploration of the research, theory and results

Bill Lucas explores the growth of accelerated Arguably, AL all started with the work of Georgi Lozanov1,
a Bulgarian professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy, and
learning (AL) to establish its importance to his philosophy of ‘suggestology’. This simple idea aimed
successful learning at engaging all of the senses and many of our emotions

I
in an attractive learning environment, and harnessing the
s fast learning a good thing? Is it better achieved slowly, naturally positive attitude to learning that we all have within
or does it depend on what you are learning? Is AL based us. Lozanov’s thinking built on and paralleled work on
on good science about the way we learn? Is it a blend of experiential learning – undertaken by David Kolb and others
neuro- and psycho-babble masquerading as a theory of at around the same time.
learning? Or is it somewhere in between, with some useful At roughly the same moment, in another part of the world,
bits and some questionable assertions and propositions? Let’s Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) was starting out, too. I
explore these questions in a little more detail. mention this because NLP and AL have grown to share various
common characteristics over the years, so that sometimes
What is AL? it is difficult to see where one starts and the other ends.
Search the Internet for ‘accelerated learning’ and you will find Approaches to motivation and non-verbal communication
over three million sites to visit. The vast majority of these are are two examples of what I have in mind. Both AL and NLP
publishers, training providers and purveyors of educational or were early examples of learning ‘brands’ which were eagerly
self-improvement resources. There are also journals, societies ‘bought’ by many people disgruntled with the educational
and institutes. If you want, to you can become accredited as an system as it then was.
AL practitioner. In other words, like any good idea, this whole It’s worth remembering that these were very exciting times.
field has been commercialised. Amazing things were happening in terms of scientific discoveries,
There is no one accepted definition of AL today. I offer this and new technology was allowing us tantalising glimpses of the
synthesis of the many definitions that I have looked at: way the human brain works. You only have to watch what took
‘Accelerated learning combines aspects of adult learning place in the 1970s and 1980s to see the ways in which AL
theory with “brain-based” approaches, in order to achieve a absorbed much of the new thinking in neuroscience, and some
faster learning rate.’ elements of psychology, during these decades.
Different thinkers also advocate different models of the First of all, when Roger Sperry and, later, Roger Ornstein
learning process, many putting emphasis on the engagement proposed the idea of two brain hemispheres (left and right),
and demonstration stages. Let’s explore which aspects of adult this was absorbed. The same happened when Paul Maclean
learning theory are relevant, and what it is about the brain that created the idea of the triune brain (reptilian, mammalian
practitioners of AL think is important. Before we embark on our and neo-mammalian), and suggested the brain had evolved
journey, however, let me try to tell the story so far. from the bottom, providing a model for how the brain works,
especially with regard to the impact of stress.
A brief history of AL So when in the 1980s Howard Gardner threw down a
When it began in the 1970s, AL was revolutionary. Its gauntlet2 to the prevailing orthodoxy of IQ by suggesting that
starting point was completely different from anything on offer we have multiple intelligences, AL was only too ready to include
at that time. Educationalists still thought about curriculum, this as well. A few years later, when emotional intelligence
terms, courses and examinations. Trainers dealt in lectures, came along, much of this approach was incorporated, too. ➨
demonstrations, classes and workshops.
Suddenly, out of the blue, came an approach that seemed
very different. It argued that:
➜ learners and active learning were more important than KEY LEARNING POINTS
teachers and courses • AL embraces a number of different approaches to learning.
➜ the way people teach and train was out of step with
the way the brain works, and • Some of what is done in the name of AL is simply not based on any
➜ it was possible for learners to become much more scientific evidence.
engaged and motivated in their learning and therefore • Much of AL draws on widely accepted and scientifically proven approaches.
learn faster.
Early proponents talked about the brain, about emotions, • Training practitioners need to know what is true and what is learning ‘spin’!
about learning styles and much more.

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Throughout the 1990s, as alternative therapies and about which neuroscience has made us much more aware.
developments in neuroscience have arrived thick and fast, so But though it may give individuals insights about how they
AL has embraced many of these too. prefer to take in data in certain circumstances, VAK is not a
• visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles learning style.
• the Mozart effect, and Think about it for a moment. Why do most people end up
• men are from Mars and women from Venus. saying that they are kinaesthetic learners? Because then they
are likely to be using all of the senses rather than just the one
Theories of adult learning or two involved in visual or auditory modes.
Part of the thinking behind AL draws on theories about adult
learning. Indeed, it essentially belongs to a tradition of Our left brains are logical and our right brains
constructivist thinking that goes back to John Dewey and also are creative
includes David Kolb and the concept of experiential learning. While there are two hemispheres in the brain, most brain
In terms of its thinking about motivation, there are direct lines activities involve both. This artificial division of the brain into
to the humanistic tradition espoused by Abraham Maslow, the two halves is largely an invention of pop psychologists. So
notion of a hierarchy of needs, and Carl Rogers. while it certainly helps to sell books about the eternal struggle
between the sexes, there is little scientific basis to the claim and
Brain-based learning it is not clear what the implications for learners are.
However, there are some elements of AL, many of which were
the very things that first made it seem so different, that had not Mozart makes you smarter
previously been talked about by educationalists and trainers. The claims for baroque music are not proven. Apparently it
These are mostly those taken from the realm of neuroscience. improves test scores in mathematics and, if played to your young
And it is here that AL has sometimes been its own worst enemy, child, will ensure that you bring up a genius. Music has many
believers have often taken big ideas and applied
them too literally, or approached really complex
areas about which the science is still very much Idea Validity Unique to AL?
in its infancy, and invested them with certainty
Only use 10% of brain power Simply not true Mostly
and with the simplicity of ‘pop’ psychology.
This has led to an outbreak of neuro- or VAK are not learning styles. Helpful if used to aid
pscyho-babble and has unnecessarily put VAK understanding the range of senses/data input methods. Mostly
people off. It has owed much more to branding Damaging if leading to limited view of self as a learner.
and the need to position AL distinctively in a General consensus that this is broadly true and helpful
crowded market than to good science. Learning styles if used as means of expanding repertoire of learner No
and learner self-awareness.
The myths surrounding AL Technically true (brains have two hemispheres) but
We use less than 10 per cent of our Left/right brains implied separation of hemisphere functions is largely Mostly
brain power false and unhelpful.
This is simply not true. It’s shock tactics to get Unproven. While music affects mood and pace
people to pay undue attention to brain facts. Mozart effect (sometimes), claims for its impact on performance are Yes
The more we find out about the brain, the more unproven.
we realise that we are using many parts of it
for much of the time. If this were rephrased as Mind and body, intellect and emotions – helpful to take
Mind and body No
a statement about people mostly only realising a holistic approach and supported by science.
a small percentage of their potential, then that Increasing evidence to show that this is a beneficial
would be true. But as it is, it implies that whole Relaxed/alert state state to be in when learning, but human brain can (and No
parts of our brains are somehow shut down only needs to) perform well under stress.
to be opened up through AL!
Importance of engagement Good literature in psychology and latterly neuroscience
No
VAK – We are all either visual, auditory process in support of this.
or kinaesthetic learners Disputed area, but consensus probably in favour of this.
No we are not! Certainly we acquire habits Multiple intelligences Helpful for mind-set, unhelpful if it becomes a bogus No
and temporary preferences. But the simplistic pseudo-psycho-metric.
suggestion – present in much of the literature of
AL – that you can somehow work out which of Evidence to support this from all quarters, including
these three types of learner you are is fanciful Emotions matter long-term impact on immune system from negative No
and occasionally damaging. For example, if a emotions.
learner mistakenly assumes that VAK is like your A curate’s egg. Some sound principles (primacy/recency No, though emphasis
blood group, something that you are stuck with Interest in memory
for eg) but over-emphasis on tricks and tips. on memory triggers is
for life, then motivation to learn to play a musical
instrument may vanish if a low auditory score For many aspects of skill and process learning this is
Importance of demonstration No
is ‘measured’. true.
The interesting thing about VAK is that it Reflection Lots of good science. No
reminds us of the importance of understanding
our senses and paying much more attention to You can accelerate your A paradox: acceleration can be both helpful and
No
how we give out and take in data – something learning counter-productive. It depends!

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effects on us, mainly as a mood influencer, but there is scant
evidence for its impact on performance.

Memory happens in the hippocampus


Everyone got very excited when it was thought that the
hippocampus areas of the brains of London taxi drivers were
larger than ordinary people. At last, it seemed, the source of
memory had been located. Indeed, some AL literature subjects
the learner to a sort of ‘naming of brain parts’ experience, in
which you are invited to play trivial pursuits with the geography
of your brain. This is as silly as assuming that the only method of
improving your memory is to reduce everything to acronyms.
As well as drawing from neuro-science, AL has also absorbed • Gregorc’s Styles Delineators
new thinking from psychology, principally in describing • Herrmann’s Brain Dominance Instrument
intelligence. Following on from Howard Gardner’s thinking, • Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles
much emphasis is placed on the eight intelligences that form • Jackson’s Learning Styles Profiler
part of this approach. It is not uncommon for some kind of • Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory
assessment of each of these eight intelligences to form part • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
of the learning process. As a consequence you become • Rider’s Cognitive Styles Analysis
temporarily labelled as smart at ‘intrapersonal’ intelligence • Sternberg’s Thinking Styles Inventory
and less than smart at, say, ‘bodily-kinesthetic intelligence’. • Vermunt’s Inventory of Learning Styles
As to whether or not this is in any way helpful, the jury is
very much out. And at the same time, there is often a fairly The science of learning styles seems to suggest that:
slavish adherence to Daniel Goleman’s interpretation of ➜ as a result of being individuals, we have different
emotional intelligence. underlying personalities
➜ learning styles are not fixed
The good science ➜ VAK is not a learning style but a way of describing
Enough of the flaws! There is much that is good and scientifically data input
proven in AL. Notice that I say ‘some approaches’ because ➜ effective learners learn to be effective in a range of
there is simply no way of knowing what different advocates situations and using a range of different styles.
think and practise.
We have multiple intelligences
Mind and body are involved There has been a big debate about Howard Gardner’s radical
That learning involves more than your head is well documented. view of intelligence ever since it was first suggested. Not all
However, the degree to which the expression ‘whole-brained psychologists or educationalists agree with him for a variety
learning’ is in any way meaningful is not proven. of reasons. At issue are the cultural variables behind the eight
categories of intelligence, the way that each of them is not distinct
The relaxed/alert state enough, and the way talents and intelligences are confounded.
There is good evidence that, for creative learning to be most However, a consensus seems to be emerging that:
effective, you need sufficient levels of arousal to be alert but not ➜ IQ is discredited
to be too stressed to be relaxed. So this is a helpful concept. ➜ it is likely that, in conceptualising intelligence, it is
Where it can stray into neuro-babble is when assertions are helpful to think about it as a much broader concept
made about brain waves or when it is implied that all stress than IQ
is bad for learners. Work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi3 on the So, if you are asked to identify which of your eight
state of flow4 also corroborates this. intelligences is strong and which are weak in an AL session,
you are probably wasting your time! But if, by thinking about
The importance of the engagement process talent in this way, you start to see your job as a trainer or a
Much evidence is placed in AL on the need for learners to learner as hunting out the areas of your undeveloped potential,
connect with their learning, by giving them the ‘big picture’ of it is probably a helpful idea.
what is to come, making the process active and ‘waking up’
learners. All of this is good stuff, drawing on sound educational The emotional elements
theory (being explicit about learning objectives, for example), That emotions are hugely important in all stages of learning
on notions of experiential learning, for example as espoused and that there is no simple emotional/cognitive divide
by David Kolb and Kurt Lewin, and the psychological literature is widely accepted. But we are only just at the foothills of
on states of arousal. our journey to understand their specific impact on memory
(both embedding and recall), on performance under stress, and
We all have individual learning styles on resilience.
In a recent and very sceptical review of learning styles
by Frank Coffield4, an amazing array of approaches was An interest in memory
described, including: Over the last few decades, Tony Buzan has arguably been the
• Allinson and Hayes’ Cognitive Styles Index pioneer in this field. AL has absorbed much of his thinking. The
• Apter’s Motivational Style Profile use of mind maps and other memory techniques undoubtedly
• Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles aids the learning process for many people. The danger here is
• Entwistle’s Approaches and Study Skills Inventory that the emphasis can easily be on factual recall rather than on
for Students the transfer of important learning processes. ➨

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An interest in music ➜ Much of what is undertaken in its name is soundly
The Mozart effect is simply unproven, as is much that is alleged based and helpful to learners.
with regard to the power of music. What is not disputed is ➜ A considerable amount of its thinking is conjecture
music’s undoubted impact on our mood and its legitimate place or learning ‘spin’, much of it benign. Such tenuous
in learning. connection with scientific evidence is potentially
counter-productive.
The importance of demonstration
Proving that you know something by doing it is well-founded. Where AL works best in practice in my experience is where
There is a growing body of literature about the importance the practitioner effectively redefines the concept so that it simply
of certain kinds of practice if you want to become good becomes a synonym for ‘effective modern learning methods’.
at something. Alistair Smith at Alite, Kimberley Hare at Kaisen Training and
Suzanne Hitchen at Instep UK all come to mind as exemplary
The need to reflect and consolidate practitioners of this approach.
This is soundly based in psychology and educational theory.
The author of this article can be contacted at bill@bill-lucas.com or visit
You can learn faster www.bill-lucas.com
Of course you can! What used to take three years can now
be done in one. There are efficiency gains to be found in all References
human activities. The big question is whether you want to learn 1. Georgi Lozanov, Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy, Gordon and
faster or whether, as many of us believe, you need to learn Breach, 1978.
slower in many situations where complex issues are at stake. 2. Howard Gardner, Frames of mind; the theory of multiple intelligences,
Fontana Press, 1993.
The verdict 3. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity; flow and the psychology of discovery
Where does this leave us? My conclusions are as follows. and invention, Harper Collins, 1996.
➜ AL is not a unified, or coherent set of theories or 4. Frank Coffield et al, Should we be using learning styles; what research has
practices. to say to practice, Learning and Skills Development Agency, 2004.

36 Training Journal July 2005