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Equipping future generations to shape a better world Who are we?

Matters for very serious consideration

Amidst the flurry of new research, and a rapidly changing social environment, are the English so stuck in the past – and so prone to anti-intellectual forces – that they are just blind to what is going on around them, and to the alternatives which they too readily reject?

The case made for the transformation of schooling was originally set out in a Proposal presented to the Department of Education in London in 1993 1 (for the Paper concerning Bristol see attachment 2, and for British Columbia, see attachment 3). It is a paper that merits careful attention. At the meeting of a dozen senior officials held on the 21st July that year, one senior official diffidently said “I can’t get my mind around the scale of what you are talking about”. Another, destined years later for almost ultimate responsibility for primary education, said “I have been salivating about all the exciting things that could happen if this proposal were introduced”. Another commented, “it’s a new voyage that we are on… we are trying to go to a different place. You can’t modify a battleship to get to the moon; you need to build a different vehicle. This proposal is about powerful discontinuous change, it is not about progressive continuous change… (which is inadequate) for this kind of thinking”. Which unfortunately was true, for after three months of desultory conversation the matter was dropped because none of the officials present, on their own admission, were able to form an overview of the purposes of the Education Department, over and above their immediate sub-departmental responsibilities. That was nearly 20 years ago. If the Pilot Project that was called for then, linked to the ability to network the research, had been implemented, English schooling would now look extraordinarily different.

Three years later in January 1996 the Initiative received a personal letter from John Major, then Prime Minister, asking for an explanation as to what these ideas could mean for Britain. In the most tightly written explanation the Initiative has ever given, Upside Down and inside out: Why good schools alone can never be good enough…,2 the Initiative set out the case for why England was “failing to create appropriate opportunities that would extend young people’s abilities to ‘go beyond what comes naturally,’ that should otherwise enable them to reach those higher levels of thinking so badly needed in a complex society”. This paper also merits careful study.

“Much to my surprise I can’t really fault your theory…but the system you are arguing for would require very good teachers…we are going for a teacher-proof system…that way we can get a uniform standard.”

In response to this, at a three hour meeting held in Downing Street six weeks later, the Director of the Policy Unit concluded “much to my surprise I can’t really fault your theory. You are probably educationally right; certainly your argument is ethically correct. But the system you are arguing for would require very good teachers. We are not convinced that there will ever be enough good teachers so, instead, we are going for a teacher-proof system of re-organising schools – that way we can get a uniform standard.” And with that the discussion ended our second attempt to get government to look at this issue from a broader perspective.

In December 1996 the old Education 2000 was reincorporated as “The 21st Century Learning Initiative”, and was based in Washington DC for four years. At the end of that first year it published The Synthesis3, being the best of research and development into the nature of human learning that could then be deduced from a range of recent research in the neurobiological, cognitive and social sciences. As this was an ever broadening subject, The Synthesis specifically described itself as being “a work in progress”. Just before that the Initiative made what turned out to be a highly-influential lecture at the Manhattan Institute in New York.4

In May 1997 Labour won the General Election and shortly after the Initiative was again asked to express an explanation for its ideas. It did this most carefully and, following a meeting at Downing Street in 2001, submitted a Ten Point Memorandum5. This concluded by saying:

“These ideas suggest that it would be in the national interest to set up and carefully monitor programmes in several communities that would, over a period of 10-15 years, capitalise on this evidence through a systematic reallocation of existing resources across the 0-21 age group… The organising principle would be that preparation for lifelong learning starts at birth and that intensive adult support in the earliest years should be followed by the progressive weaning of the learners’ dependence on instruction and institutions during adolescence”.

The Memorandum concluded with the warning about “myths of history”, when it said;

“The argument that the Initiative advances is not the same as the progressive movement of the 1960s, although it does share a belief in the importance of experiential learning as a component of constructivism. It is important that listeners do not interpret this through a ‘we have tried all this before and it failed’ lens, for in reality there can be very few teachers still in service who were trained in the 1960s”.

Again the third and fourth attempts to interest government failed.

As the new Government became ever more established, so an eminent educationalist commented, “first it was the old Tories who told us what to teach, and now New Labour is telling us how to teach”. The tragedy for England was that just as all these new ideas about human learning were becoming available, members of neither party seemed able or willing to question the suitability of an old-fashioned pedagogy within a rapidly changing world.

Just prior to returning to England in late 1999, the Initiative issued The Policy Paper6 which was widely discussed in both the United States and England. It led to copious correspondence with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Education, but the Initiative was forced to conclude that, for reasons similar to earlier years, nothing could happen as Ministers and their advisers seemed unable or unwilling to look at the whole system against the ever-burgeoning research on human learning.

In early 2002 the Initiative decided that it had to produce a popular and reasoned argument for why it was critical to rebuild education on an improved form of pedagogy. It took eventually three years to write Master and Apprentice: Reuniting thinking with doing7, during which time John Abbott was invited to give nearly 100 lectures a year spread across England, North America, Europe, Africa, South-East Asia and Australia. By 2006, as policy in England seemed to shift away from how learning could be organised to how schools could be managed in a more businesslike and competitive fashion so interest in these topics in England decreased at the very point when interest in Canada, and in particular British Columbia, built up, especially when the paper Adolescence as an Evolutionary Adaptation was published in 2005.

After nearly 20 years of endless political initiatives both the teaching profession, and the public at large, were losing their confidence in still further (but serious) thinking about education. Consequently with the completion of Master and Apprentice, the publisher lost confidence in producing a book that was more aimed at helping people to understand why we are in the present predicament than it was to providing instant clues as to what to do in the next lesson. Interest then turned to writing a second book.

The second book was called The 99 Theses: Towards finding a new order in education.8 By the time that was completed, the publisher again concluded that this was too complex for a modern audience. So John Abbott and Heather MacTaggart’s book Overschooled but Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents9 was published in 2010. It is on all this work that Born-to-Learn has been based, and will continue to be based. See the extraordinary contrast in the reviews which surely have to reflect the enormous gap which is developing between those who understand that there is a design fault in the system, and those who think that by an ever-more rigorous assessment and control process standards can be raised.

Readers seeking to understand all this are advised to go further into the website10 to see the multiplicity of papers and books produced over time.

The Initiative’s most all-embracing attempt at lifting the nature of the debate in Britain about these issues occurred in August 2009 with the publication of A Briefing Paper for Parliamentarians on the Design Faults at the Heart of English Education.11 This having been written in conjunction with some intensive advice on what politicians both needed to hear and might listen to, personal copies were sent to every Member of Parliament, every Director of Children’s Services, and every Professor of Education at British Universities. But it stirred little interest and despite its recommendations, yet again, was for the most part ignored. But the words must not be lost…

The basic function of education in all societies and at all times is to prepare the younger generation for the kind of adult life which that society values, and wishes to perpetuate. Those values change over time so that the present structure of English education is the result of numerous decisions taken in times past by educationalists and politicians as they reacted to social and economic environments very different to today…

Contemporary research in the biomedical, social and cognitive sciences into the relationship between innate human nature, and socially-constructed nurture, shows how misinformed and inadequate were many of those earlier decisions. Unfortunately, so deeply entrenched have these assumptions become that, given parliamentarians’ pressure to find solutions to urgent and current problems, few policy-makers have the time (or the depth of knowledge) to question the validity of such ‘foundational assumptions’. They fail to question whether such assumptions are rock-solid eternal truths, or shifting sands which compensate for their lack of substance by their sheer bulk.

Which raises the key question – does contemporary education policy simply react to symptoms, whilst failing to address underlying design faults? If the answer is “yes”, how can future policy avoid such faults and build its programmes on firmer foundations?

The truism is stark – those who fail to understand their history simply live to make the same mistakes again. Unravelling the relationship of nature to nurture, and then coming to terms with those misunderstandings from the past which colour contemporary judgements is not easy. Yet to fail to do this is to undermine new policies and perpetuate under performance.

Under the heading “What’s now to be done?” the Paper noted:

“to achieve this the country must elect representatives with the courage and personal integrity to tell things as they really are as unambiguously as did the Crowther Report in 1952 when it stated, ‘until education is conceived as a whole process in which mind, body and soul are jointly guided towards maturity, a child’s personality will not necessarily be developed.’ Such representatives, putting loyalty to the people above party politics must, above all else, awaken in the English a vision that could draw together the disparate aspirations of our currently fragmenting society so that, like Rip Van Winkle we would awaken from two centuries of muddled dreams to rediscover what Milton meant by equipping young people to be fit to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously.”

So it was that in 2010, having again failed to gain the attention of a new government the Initiative again reiterated, in its approach to the Merchant Venturers of Bristol, the argument and ideas it had originally recommended to the Department of Education in 1993. At the same time as sending it to the Merchant Venturers it was also sent to one of the largest charities in Britain who dismissed our approach by simply stating that this did not conform to their terms of reference12. We did use it, however, to write the paper for British Columbia, entitled Schools’ in the Future: What has to change and why?13 which concluded by saying:

“Once the entire system is redesigned on the basis of constructivist and enquiry-based practice then student dependence on teachers at school will begin to decrease with age. This will allow a growth in student choice and responsibility so escaping from the present dilemma of squeezing out-dated systems to perform in ways which truly release human potential at hitherto unprecedented levels.”

A number of lectures given since September 2010 have coalesced into a lecture now given to senior school pupils and adult audiences entitled “It’s your world to shape not just to take”.14 In a highly pictorial fashion this links together very many of the ideas at the core of the Initiative’s thinking. It is likely that these will be further refined and clarified when the Initiative receives some administrative help in May and June.

These are the ideas and recommendations now being taken up within British Columbia as quickly as they are apparently being ignored in England. Readers are urged to look at a subsequent paper on this website and then to access the thinking of School District 64 (the Gulf Islands) in British Columbia15

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