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Cottenham man comes up with brick system to help students to process ideas


By Gemma Gardner


Paul Main comes up with educational tool after brain injury Picture: Keith Heppell
Paul Main comes up with educational tool after brain injury Picture: Keith Heppell

After Paul Main suffered a brain injury he struggled to organise his thoughts. But the 39-year-old from Cottenham devised a way of using bricks to help him cope, and it's a technique he hopes will aid students who struggle with similar problems at school.

Based on structural learning – a cognitive teaching strategy – his technique uses building bricks to help students process information.

Paul was left with cognitive problems after he suffered a brain haemorrhage three years ago.

“I got out of the shower with a thumping headache and was just vomiting for two days and that’s when we realised there was something wrong. I went to Addenbrooke’s and they found a bleed on the brain. I wouldn’t call myself a typical person at risk, that’s why it was such a shock,” he told the Cambridge Independent.

The married father-of-two, who was working with the National Foundation for Educational Research, spent a few weeks in Addenbrooke’s before returning home.

“I wasn’t in any danger, but I had difficulty adjusting back into normal life,” said Paul, who also lost his job during this period because he struggled with the work due to his injury.

Charity Headway got in touch with Paul and explained that the changes were typical of his injury.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “It was largely a cognitive problem, so difficult remembering stuff and understanding stuff.

“But what it looked like was me getting anxious and a bit depressed with the whole thing. And you take it out on the people that are closest to you.

“I remember Headway said to me that they call it an ‘invisible injury’ because people see you in the shop or doing the school run and they think you’re OK, but you’re grappling with it privately.”

He added: “I was given the ultimate in empathy with those learners who struggle every day. I thought this is what it’s like, you wake up in the morning and you can’t do it.”

After several months, Paul’s injury gave him the impetus to come up with a way to focus on the important elements of a task, and clarify what he needed to do.

“What really helped me was getting my thoughts out onto bits of paper and that’s where I came up with the idea of using bricks. So, first and foremost, it was a tool to help me get through the day and I still use them now, three years on,” Paul continued.

In schools, the strategy helps students remember and understand curriculum content and puts learners in a position to think critically and creatively.

The bricks have been used to develop learners’ language and thinking skills across multiple subjects and year groups. In English they are used to plan essays and analyse texts. In the humanities they help students map out processes and examine cause-and-effect relationships.

Paul explained: “Basically I’ve created this tool that is similar to mind-mapping. They’re brightly-coloured bricks with miniature whiteboards. What we’ve been doing with them is getting students to put their ideas on the boards and map out their ideas.

“It’s helping children and young people to sequence their ideas and see relationships within the information. It’s trying to get around our poor working memories and allow students to put all that information in a shared space.”

The system is being used at King’s School in Ely and at Kimbolton School – and it is hoped that more will get involved. Academics at Bedford University are currently researching the effects of the strategy, as will Hope University in Liverpool.

Visit Structural Learning for more information.



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