Consultant is a fitness instructor for the mind


Originally published by The Globe and Mail - December 28, 2005

VANCOUVER - 'Turn to the person beside you, shake their hand and say, 'You're a genius,' " Terry Small instructs an audience of parents, teachers and students at Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver. Feet shuffle, there are awkward grins between strangers, a few people laugh. But soon, everyone in the room hears that they're a genius.

The desire to be a genius, after all, is why people come to hear Mr. Small. He is a fitness instructor for the brain, best known in the Lower Mainland for his motivational speeches about brain science and learning techniques.

School boards, principals and parent advisory councils hire him to deliver a bubbly mix of science facts, pop psychology and enthusiasm to teachers doing professional development or students concerned about grades.

"For a lot of years we've been into physical fitness. Now it's time to look after our brains," he says.

A former public school teacher and counsellor at the University of British Columbia's study skills centre for reading, writing and study, he spends his days talking about how brain science is the key to learning.

Mr. Small, who has a master's education degree in reading strategies, collects information and then applies it to audiences with the peppy enthusiasm a physical fitness trainer might use to motivate overweight clients.

From a home-based business, he gives talks to large groups on how to get better grades for $45 per family, and runs speed-reading seminars for $59 per person. At each presentation, he also sells merchandise, from Baroque music (which he says helps the brain study) to books on brain science.

"He's really a performer," says William Narvey, whose family attended a Vancouver seminar on grades when his son entered high school four years ago. "He's really good at entertaining you."

Mr. Narvey researched learning-theory psychology and attended Mr. Small's talk "because I thought that was missing from the schools.""

Mr. Small spends most of his time in education but increasingly businesses are asking him to speak to groups of workers or conferences.

For employers, he notes, "one of the most important competitive advantages is [for workers] to learn well, and learn quickly. There's lots of stuff to read, lots of e-mails, the need to remember a lot of things. As people get busier, it's harder for the brain to do this efficiently.

"Learning is connecting what you already know to new material."

Mr. Small says 150 "learning principles" apply to anybody learning any subject area.

"The one I lead off with is that the brain has a powerful bias for questions," he says. "People pay more attention to a question than to a statement."

Teachers and speakers should challenge listeners with questions, he says, and readers can better remember material by writing a question beside each paragraph in a textbook or manual.

"Most students when they study just read over their notes, and at the bottom of a page ask, 'What did I just read?'"

Questions force the brain to pay attention. "The bottom line is, you can't remember what you don't pay attention to," said Mr. Small, interviewed between running a professional development day for teachers at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver and rushing to teach a public speed-reading seminar at a local night school.

Mr. Small's talks are sometimes booked two years in advance, and he promotes himself only by word of mouth. He thinks he's in such demand because of the intense competitive pressure on students.

Average grades of 85 per cent or higher are now required for admission to many large university programs. "When I graduated, it was 65 per cent," said Mr. Small, who is 52. "It's harder now, with more people going to university and more competition from international students."

"I tell students to do their best, and at the end of the day be proud of their accomplishments.

"You can't control results. What you can control is your input into the results, and the effort and strategies you use. Students who get the highest marks aren't always the most intelligent, but they have different strategies, habits and attitudes."

At the end of every talk, Mr. Small tells his audience he wishes he'd had knowledge of brain science when he was at school. "Success is a learned skill," he says.

He ends his conversations, and e-mails, with, "You're a genius!"

Learning Tips

  • Drink water to keep your brain hydrated
  • Pay attention to good nutrition and eat deeply coloured foods such as blackberries.
  • Review material within 72 hours and use the question/answer system to make notes on paper about your reading. Write questions and answers on either side of flash cards.
  • Stop studying when you are able to teach the material to somebody else.