Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Reading Shakespeare excites the brain in a way that keeps it “fit”, researchers say. A team from the University of Liverpool is investigating whether wrestling with the innovative use of language could help to prevent dementia. Monitoring participants with brain-imaging equipment, they found that certain lines from Shakespeare and other great writers such as Chaucer and Wordsworth caused the brain to spark with electrical activity because of the unusual words or sentence structure.

Referring to “functional shift” — such as when a noun is used as a verb — Philip Davis, of the university’s School of English, said that the brain reacts “in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off-guard in a manner that produces a burst of activity — a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

Professor Neil Roberts, from the university’s Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre, said: “When the word changes the grammar of the sentence, brain readings suddenly peak. The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.” The researchers are now investigating which areas of the brain are most affected and the implications for maintaining healthy brain activity. Professor Davis, whose book Shakespeare Thinking is published next month, believes that reading classic literature helps children in their wider studies.



Children will spend more time being taught through play rather than formal classes when they start primary school under a shake-up of the curriculum. An increasing number of children entering primary one from next August are to learn through techniques traditionally used in nursery school. Schools will still use traditional methods when necessary to teach pupils to read, write and count. But the Scottish Executive also wants teachers to use play-based techniques.

It means drama, music, art, sand and water will replace worksheets or teaching from the blackboard. The changes have already been introduced in some schools, including primaries in East Renfrewshire and Shetland, but the executive wants to see all local authorities backing the approach. The aim of the changes is to bring Scotland closer to the approach taken in Scandinavia, where children start school at the age of seven but still go on to achieve high academic standards.

Some experts feel the current system creates a gulf in a child's experience between nursery and primary as learning through play is immediately replaced by more formal techniques. Education Minister Hugh Henry said every local authority across Scotland must have reviewed, or be reviewing, their policies on P1 education by next summer. He added: "One of the things I am particularly concerned about is the tendency in Scotland to start the formal education process at too young an age. "I want to see more of a gradual transition from the nursery years into primary education. "We need to move away from the concept of teaching where pupils are given worksheets and are instructed, to a process where children can develop on their own through purposeful play."

However, Judith Gillespie, policy development officer with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, warned the executive to take a cautious approach. She said: "I think the difficulty with these kinds of ideas is that when they are introduced there is a tendency to go overboard in one direction. "Whilst play is an important part of learning, youngsters have to do the hard work and at the end of the day there is a reward for hard work. "Learning can't always be fun - there is hard work required and it is a mistake to think that the big incentive is to make everything fun."

SNP education spokeswoman Fiona Hyslop MSP said her party had been calling for the changes for some time. She added: "However, the Lib-Lab government must ensure that there is more time for teachers to implement these proposals and work with children in structured play".


Australian science courses mystify teachers

School science curriculums are poorly written, unnecessarily complex and so laden with jargon that experienced science teachers and academics struggle to understand the intent of the courses. Education researchers from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia argue that science curriculums are overwhelming for newly qualified science teachers and the growing numbers of non-specialist teachers forced to teach science because of the shortage in expert teachers.

In an article published in Science Teacher, the journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association, Grady Venville and Vaille Dawson compared science curriculums for Years K to 10 in every state and territory. Professor Venville and Dr Dawson say the benefits of having tailor-made curriculums for each state and territory "were not immediately apparent". They were surprised by the complexity of the curriculum documents. "Although we are both experienced science teachers and academics in science education, some of the documents were extremely long (over 200 pages), the language dense, jargon-laden and exclusive," they said. "The documents were complex and difficult to interpret without assistance."

Dr Dawson said yesterday the language used to describe the science to be taught was understandable; the problem was the jargon associated with education that was difficult to understand. "There's a need for a single national curriculum, but not in the sense that we want all schools to teach the same thing because that's unrealistic," she said. "But a national curriculum would be easier to work with." The comparison says that all curriculums are structured around discipline-based learning areas, including science, except Tasmania, which lists essential learnings as desired outcomes of education in a "distinct move away from disciplines".

The Tasmanian Government is in the process of revising its essential learnings curriculum, and Education Minister David Bartlett has said disciplines with syllabuses for specific subjects, including science, will form the basis of the new curriculum framework.

The NSW curriculum was also substantially different from the other states and territories, particularly in the K-6 syllabus, which includes technology in the science curriculum.

The researchers remarked that while the curriculum documents gave guidance to teachers, "the nature of the document cannot guarantee good teaching".

Professor of education at the University of Canberra, Denis Goodrum, who is heading a report for the federal Government to identify the key issues facing science education, said 90 per cent of science curriculums across the states and territories were the same. Professor Goodrum said the main differences were within states rather than between states. "The differences between a school in Killara on Sydney's north shore and City Beach in Perth is less than the difference between a school in Killara and one in Wilcannia in western NSW," he said.


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