Bordogna and Albano of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physical Chemistry in La Plata compare the teacher to an applied magnetic field and suggest that the achievement of each student in a class is analogous to the alignment of the individual spins. Achievement depends largely on the ability of the teacher, but social effects are also significant. Classroom discussion is usually a 'positive' effect - it tends to increase knowledge, or 'align' spins - but idle chatter hinders learning, and 'misaligns' the spins.

In order to predict learning trends, Bordogna and Albano assigned scores to different kinds of social interactions. They found that their predictions closely matched data gathered in the classroom by educational psychologists. According to the Ising model, a single misaligned spin in a magnet will quickly reposition itself to match its neighbours. Similarly, it accurately predicts that struggling students will catch up quickly if they join a class of high-achievers.

The 'persuasiveness' of a student - which is similar to the 'aligning' force exerted between neighbouring atoms - is also a strong factor, and the theory correctly predicts that team-work strongly aids learning, no matter how persuasive the teacher.

Bordogna and Albano are optimistic that their study could be extended to describe how people use the Internet to learn. Although there are important differences - many more people are involved, the nature of the interactions is different and there is no teacher - they believe that the principles are the same.

Some sociologists are uncomfortable with the use of mathematics to describe education, and argue that social situations are too complex to be reduced to equations. But David Byrne, a sociologist at the University of Durham in the UK, points out that people would have been sceptical about modelling economics and biology 25 years ago.