Children should be allowed to move around the classroom and to work against a background of chatter as classmates exchange ideas, a leading US academic has recommended.
Angeline Lillard, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, said that too many schools were still clinging to a traditional "factory model" of the classroom in which children sitting silently in ranks were considered blank sheets on which teachers could imprint knowledge merely by talking to them.
Professor Lillard said that this approach ran counter to everything that psychologists had discovered in the past hundred years about how children learn.
"We were designed in nature to think about the world in relation to how we physically interact with it - it's called embodied cognition. So it's only natural that children learn better when they get to move," she said.
"If you ask children to pick out pairs of animals that might go together, they will remember the pairs that they are allowed to touch and move, rather than the ones they just look at," she said.
In maths or physics, handling or building geometrical models helps students to understand the laws behind them. In history, role-play enables children to get an understanding of the motivation of leading figures.
Professor Lillard is the author of a seminal study published last year. In it she suggested that the century-old Montessori education method, in which tests are banned and pupils of different ages are taught together and allowed to learn at their own pace, is more successful than traditional teaching methods.
She was particularly critical of early education in Britain, where children in preschool settings are encouraged to play and learn in groups before being moved to more formal settings when they start compulsory schooling.
"Children under 6 are far more interested in parallel play - often playing alongside each other without really interacting. Once they are in primary school that's when they start being really interested in their peers and taking notice of how they react. But that is precisely the time when we take them away from learning and playing in groups and sit them at desks in ones and twos.
She also questioned the wisdom of forcing children to be silent in class. "Children seem to be able to work against a hum of background noise. They can't learn from each other if they are told to be silent." She denied that her methods would result in a breakdown of classroom order or would hold back bright children.
Classroom discipline, she said, should be developed by allowing children to chose the parts of the curriculum that most interest them and to work at their own pace on it to keep them motivated.
Professor Lillard's ideas chime with reforms of the secondary curriculum advanced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which earlier this year recommended replacing rigid school timetables and subject lessons with a more flexible approach combining five-minute bursts with all-day sessions and learning arranged around themes, rather than traditional subjects.
Professor Lillard was speaking at the weekend at a conference in London held by the Maria Montessori Institute to celebrate the centenary of Montessori education.
Robert Whelan, deputy director of the think-tank Civitas and managing director of the New Model School Company, which promotes traditional education, said Professor Lillard's methods were only likely to be successful with some children.
"The danger of letting children wander around the classroom and talk to each other is that those from middle-class homes, which value education, might flourish. But those from homes with no books and whose parents are only vaguely aware of what it is they do at school, will suffer because they will not be motivated to work hard.
"To have the teacher imparting information to the whole class for at least the majority of the time has a lot of advantages," he said.