Accelerated Learning: A Sputtering Saga With Potential

Accelerated Learning: A Sputtering Saga With Potential

During the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Bloc, much that happened behind the “iron curtain” was not reported. In that period, from shortly after WWII until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, however, non-technical and social information was permitted to “leak” to the West. The competition for superiority between the USSR and the US was not limited to the Olympic games, but extended to progress in space exploration. Another area, less-sensitive but non-the-less important, was education.

One such report, of difficult-to-accept revolutionary learning techniques, perhaps reported in the West because it was not directly security-relevant, was the work of Bulgarian scientist Georgi Lozanov. His system, which he called “suggestology,” was described by Lozanov as “the new application of “…mental yoga, music, sleep-learning, physiology, hypnosis, autogenics, parapsychology, drama….”…basically altered states of consciousness for learning, healing, and intuitive development. The same mechanisms of mind that lead to super memory (and thus to accelerated learning), can also lead to ESP and voluntary control.” (P.18 in SuperLearning by Ostrander, S. and L. Schroeder. Dell Publishing, NY: 1979.)

Super learning was not received unquestioned by “mainstream” education, but the 70’s and 80’s was when “alternatives” to many things was almost a mantra for progressive educators. A mini-movement called “accelerated learning” started then still persists at a lower level of awareness by some groups. A more recent book by D. Meier, The Accelerated Learning Handbook, ( McGraw-Hill, NY: 2000) provides a brief history (p. vi-ff).

Meier provides an update of the concept of the present state of “accelerated learning” that skips the “sputtering saga” aspects, for the most part. On p. 4, Meier does address it in a few paragraphs. He lists a number of the groups that participated in its promotion, growth, and present status. More important is the multi-page listing of resources, sources of information and current organizations, websites and other references (as of 2000, but still helpful).

One of the more important aspects of the International Alliance for Learning (AIL) is that it exists, having been re-formed in the last few years. The IAL had an interesting focus; half it its activities (and much of its funding) was derived from its support by industry and business, whose need for brief and effective training for employees (until 2008’s downturn) was consistently addressed at IAL conferences. When businesses could not longer support it, the school-based education half could not “go it alone.” The Internet can provide an update on its current status.

Ostrander’s book, Superlearning, describes a number of attempts to replicate what Lozanov’s people had done in Bulgaria with less than spectacular results. Apparently there were valid reasons for not being able to recreate the results Lozanov achieved. My own view is that these disappointments, and the obvious loss of credibility are not unusual for work of this kind. The unique aspects of these kinds of programs make it difficult to repeat them. In Bulgaria, for example, the motivation, access, time, materials, requirements and alternative programs could NOT possibly be replicated; ergo, the results could not, either.

Trying to replicate the program in the US seems to me to have been impossible. No school board could approve hypnosis as a basic part of the curriculum. Suggestion and intense concentration programs would be “suspicious” and almost certainly called “brainwashing” by at least a few parents in all but a few f the thousands of school districts in the US, and if it were attempted, the state boards would almost certainly subject the district and the schools to unwelcome scrutiny. Today’s (2015) furor over the “core curriculum,” which is only a recommended list of universally accepted concepts needed to understand American culture and society, should put to rest any effort to try to initiate the “core curriculum” of the Lozanov methods. These include the use of suggestion, music, learning to a “hypnotic” beat or rhythm, and exercises in meditation.

Parents, understandably, are not likely to permit their children to be “mentally manipulated” (as “suggestopedia” or accelerated learning can easily be construed to involve). Why, then, bring this to your attention?
First, this blog is named “thinking otherwise,” and accelerated learning as practiced in Bulgaria had some aspects that could be considered brainwashing, for a benign and useful purpose. My opinion on why it succeeded there but not so well elsewhere is, basically, that it was conducted in a nation where coercion was accepted at every level of society. “Alternatives” were (ironically, is seems to me) usually not permitted. But, in Bulgaria an “accepted and approved alternative” provided deeply powerful motivation to both teachers and students to achieve and excel. In addition, the results, though clearly beyond the expected, were NOT subjected to the kind of evaluation done for these kinds of programs elsewhere.

Secondly, and more important, is that these kinds of “alternative” efforts CAN be attempted by parents, private organizations, and groups. The evidence is clear from the resources listed by Meier and on the Internet. If parents WANT to try this sort of thing, it IS available. For it to succeed for each individual student and those who help them motivation and programs that meet their individual needs is essential. That level is NOT generally available. However, even in the US, occasionally schools that achieve far beyond the average expected are reported on, and evaluated. Some are public schools, while others are private or charter schools. The closest large-scale effort in the US was the TM, (Transcendental Meditation) movement in the 1970s. I is no longer used very much, but some higher-than-expected results were achieved. (But that is another story.)

The most significant successful effort that uses alternative techniques (though not consistently the same and not well-evaluated. “outside of the public schools” is “home-schooling.” What evaluation data there is reveals that students can be and are being taught more effectively and in less time at home, by parents and tutors. The reasons are obvious, and clear; parents are, in effect “tutors” who also evaluate progress and have much more influence and control on the student than an in-school teacher can hope to have.

How was “superlearning” done? Lozanov, a psychiatrist by training, applied “alternative” teaching and learning in his programs and he succeeded. He apparently risked his reputation and his livelihood on a dream, and it worked. He was motivated in ways that US parents are not; but he obviously CARED. In that his thinking, though otherwise for his society, was not, and should not be considered, much different than those of American parents. They, too, are looking for a more effective alternative process of education, than just waiting for the local schools to improve.. When what you are doing doesn’t work, thinking otherwise rather than doing the same thing again is a better idea.
Superlearning could not be replicated elsewhere, but many of its elements, the use of music, rhythm, self-suggestion, careful preparation, high expectations, and an understanding of how learning best occurs are a few of them. It is a sad commentary on the American system of education that it is incapable of, in a consistent and effective way, incorporate clearly superior techniques into how and what is taught.


John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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