Education

The slow rise of a rapid-learning system

Diane Francis February 25 1980
Education

The slow rise of a rapid-learning system

Diane Francis February 25 1980

The slow rise of a rapid-learning system

Education

Diane Francis

Looking not at all like Russian spies who reportedly use the method to absorb complex secret codes and learn languages in as little as 24 days, students at a University of Toronto French class sink into plush swivel chairs and in a light hypnotic trance breathe in time to recorded music while a voice chants information, oscillating dramatically from whisper to shout. Unapologetically called superlearning, the system has been around Canada and the United States for more than a decade, but during that time it has also been kicked around more than its pioneers would like. The reasons are usually the very ones that seem to make it work in a society weaned on the brainwashing techniques of advertising and bent on having its soup, sex and success all in the time it takes to toast a frozen waffle. However, like pop-up waffles, it is now showing signs of being here to stay.

This spring, after a year of brisk sales in hardcover, a paperback version of Superlearning will join the scores of how-to titles in bookstores. Two of its three co-authors, Canadian Sheila Ostrander and American Lynn Schroeder (the other is Ostrander’s sister, Nancy), first introduced the system to the West in 1970 in a book called Psychic Dis-

coveries Behind the Iron Curtain. Called suggestology in the Soviet Union and Western Europe, superlearning was developed 20 years ago by Bulgarian psychiatrist Dr. Georgi Lozanov. According to his theory, a relaxed student can soak up knowledge while in a trance, and a teacher can plant posthypnotic suggestions to enable him to retrieve material instantly on command.

Several dozen universities around the world are now experimenting with superlearning and reporting positive results. In Prof. Louis Mignault’s French class at the University of Toronto, students are taught yoga-like breathing techniques which are practised in time to largo, or slow, movements by Bach, Vivaldi and other baroque composers. The information to be learned is read three times: first by the teacher, then by a taped voice which chants in eight-second cycles (four seconds’ delivery and four seconds’ pause), alternating from soft to loud, and finally accompanied by the music. John Wilson, a North York school principal, took Mignault’s course and mastered as much French in six weeks as most university students learn in three years. In Montreal, Canadian Pacific plans to convert all employee French language programs to the method after finding that its superlearning students grasp

French two to four times faster.

However, after spending about $1 million setting up superlearning courses, Ottawa’s Public Service Commission maintains it is no more effective than any other process. To David Stern, director of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Modern Language Centre, superlearning is an unproven gimmick. But, he adds, it has some merit because relaxation eliminates emotional blocks which can impair language learning.

The government’s program has failed, says Jane Bancroft, one of the method’s pioneers and associate professor of French at the University of Toronto, because Bulgarian authorities refused to disclose the full details of how suggestology worked. When authors Ostrander and Schroeder wrote their Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, details about the method were sketchy because neither had been permitted to attend classes. In 1972, the first of several Canadian government delegations went to Lozanov’s Institute for Suggestology in Sofia, Bulgaria, eager to use his methods in their bilingualism programs for civil servants. Bulgarian demonstrators maintained that comfy chairs and baroque music

were all that were required. However, the government wasn’t the only one misled. According to the authors, one unnamed Canadian university rushed out and spent $10,000 on beanbag chairs, expecting instant miracles.

Bancroft maintains she discovered the complete method by accident, but that Ottawa ignored her advice. Authors Ostrander and Schroeder persuaded her to investigate Lozanov’s institute in 1971. All three distrusted the Bulgarians’ insistence that the method was so simple. After accidentally overhearing a conversation between two East German observers, Bancroft decided to sneak into their class the next day. Once inside, she realized there was a second version—one denied Western-

ers. These students were read material in eight-second cycles, were breathing deeply for relaxation, and the baroque pieces were from largo, or slow, sections paced at 60 beats per minute—about the rate of the normal heartbeat. Yet despite her advice and, ultimately, her protests, Ottawa offered its watereddown version in 1974, and this year will spend about two per cent of its $24-million language-training budget on superlearning-based courses.

Advertisers are already using similar techniques. Repetition, rhythm and recital are also the three Rs of commercial production, says Morgan Earl, whose company, Morgan Earl Sounds in Toronto, creates tracks for hundreds of Canadian commercials every year. And composer-musician Lawrence Shragge of Toronto, who now writes jingles for radio and television, says he usually played music as a learning aid while he studied at university.

“Effective ads always plant a subtle posthypnotic suggestion to get viewers to buy products,” says Don Schuster, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who became convinced superlearning works after conducting a number of experiments in which students using the method were shown to improve significantly. In one case a group of beginning Spanish students learned the language two to four times faster than students using conventional methods. While the program was dropped “because it required more financial support and preparation time for teachers,” Schuster admits that the similarities in advertising also frighten away educators. Says Jane Bancroft: “Sure it’s a form of brainwashing. But we allow it to influence a generation of kids into buying a lot of junk foods and crummy toys: and yet won’t use it to provide them with an education.” £>