Born to learn is a fun, thought-provoking series of animations that illustrate ground-breaking new discoveries about how humans learn.
Of all the vision statements for education I have read it was that made by John Milton in 1642 that has impressed me most. Beautifully written, concise and as spot on now as when it was written during the horrors of the English Civil War, Milton calls for “a complete and generous education that which equips a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, public and private, of peace and war”.
Inspiring sentiments! It is the word magnanimously that stands out – an unusual word meaning acting with a big heart, a generosity of spirit and a well-developed sense of empathy – the attributes of the best kind of friend. Milton equated behaving magnanimously as being as important as performing justly and skilfully.
The Initiative emerged from a meeting in the mid-1980s of twenty such people who were concerned that the changes which ought to happen in education went far beyond that which normal administrative arrangements could handle. They bound themselves into a small charity to provide whatever help might be needed for “Educational change with consent”.
Some were head-teachers, some management consultants, together with industrialists, a bishop and several housewives. Their actions were largely shaped by the social consciences of three of their number who were by profession venture capitalists – people accustomed to putting capital into unproven concepts in which intuitively they believed. In their charitable affairs they always did this anonymously, always seeking to be equal partners to those social entrepreneurs who had got hold of a big idea.
This got twisted in the late 1980s when the new Minister for Education, Kenneth Baker, looking to sidestep Parliament offered potential sponsors a deal they could hardly ignore – if they put down £2 million this attracted £40 million of government money, and the resulting Technology College could be named after the sponsor. Increasingly in recent years donors looked to put their money where it could attract maximum government grants, but not into programmes that sought to go beyond government’s own (restricted) thinking. Now, in 2011, too much ‘charity’ has become too tightly tied sponsorship of things most likely to attract government’s support for its own policies.
Nowadays, the average Englishman is considerably richer than several generations ago. ‘Yet they don’t make philanthropists like they used to’, stated the Sunday Times, quoting the car magnate Sir William Morris, once Britain’s richest self-made man, who gave away the equivalent of £700 million in today’s money to good causes, while carpeting his own bedroom with the off-cuts from his Cowley factory.
‘You don’t see that mixture of personal frugality and public generosity…these days – possibly because there are so many more opportunities for lavish spending which are constantly dangled before today’s rich people. Would Morris still have paid for 5,000 iron lungs for Polio sufferers in the 1940s and 1950s if he’d been subject to such temptations as this?’
This doesn’t just affect the rich for most of us struggle to fill our houses with consumer goods that we don’t really need. In the end we would probably all be happier if we followed Morris’s example and gave our money to demonstrate alternative ways of doing things to that which government prescribes. This could be just the medicine the nation most needs for as has been said many times, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’.
It was in early April that the 21st Century learning Initiative launched the Born-to-Learn website, and its first animated documentary. Since then the video has been downloaded some 40,000 times and the website averages 1,000 hits per day from some 150 countries. Our second video ‘Class Reunion’ with voiceover from Damian Lewis and Alex Kelly is close to completion and should be available before the end of June.
Both the videos and the material contained on the website all draw very heavily from John Abbott’s book ‘Overschooled but Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardising our adolescents’, a book of which one reviewer said, ‘this may well be the most important and significant book that young people and those involved in education will read’. The ideas are leading to a Policy Paper addressed to politicians.
We have started to compile an anthology of stories, comments and responses that seem to come in almost daily from around the world. These include:
‘I am an educational psychologist born and educated in Uruguay South America, a small country were we used to have a great educational system. Nowadays things are changing dramatically and teenagers are dropping out of high school because it doesn’t offer anything interesting for them anymore. A change is needed urgently and governments aren’t doing anything about it. For us that love education it is important to see places like this one to exchange opinions and information.’
‘I love the message that is being shared though this website, it supports exactly the kind of changes we need in education…’
‘Hope lives on in this. My belief that, despite the ever-murky waters our education system sails into, there is a glint of redemption on the nearby shore is only strengthened by you people and your wonderful agenda. I wish – I long – for the future generations not to have their talents ignored, their voices silenced, their aspirations crushed like mine have been. It’s too late for me. next year I will begin my GCSE’s, the dreaded turning point. A fork in the road looms at which I must become a mindless, grade-seeking drone or I must accept that my entire life will be lived amidst disappointment and shame. I don’t know what to do, but I know that I am obliged to do everything I can to support the questioning of these horrible paradigms in our schools. Thank you for not accepting the injustice you see before us.’
‘Because of how schools are I made many bad mistakes and now have to live with it… no one was there to tell me right from wrong – they just yelled at me, so while I was still young I got locked up and now can’t work because of medical problems and my background… I don’t know what to do. Schools ruin people and force children into making bad choices because they never had a good role model, and schools don’t really care and wish the kids would just shut up and do as they are told. I could move this world towards the better if I only had a chance – something that I have never had in the past. I could do more than people think.’
You can read an anthology of responses here.
Humans have evolved over millions of years to become the planet’s preeminent learning species. It is our brains that give us our superiority, not our muscles. We do best those things which we have worked out for ourselves. We are suspicious of those who tell us what to do for fear that this might suit their interest more than our own.
Much of the country’s present social and economic distress results from an overdose of prescription. Too much telling us how to think, as if we can’t think for ourselves, destroys our humanity and eventually weakens our confidence.
There is a subtle difference between managing organic and inorganic processes. The efficiency of an inorganic process, such as a production line in a factory, is similar to measuring an athlete’s effectiveness in putting the shot. The athlete bends down, picks up the shot, weighs it and carefully calculates the angle and velocity needed to land it in the previously defined spot. The more skilful the shot-putter the greater the accuracy.
Managing an organic process like a school, hospital or even parliament itself, is like picking up a pigeon rather than a lead shot. The skilful shot-putter does all the right calculations but, half way into its trajectory, the pigeon decides to flap its wings and go somewhere else. The shot-putter is given one more chance. Fearing relegation if he misses a second time, he decides to tie the pigeon’s wings and legs together. His pitch is as good as the first time, and the pigeon lands exactly where he was told to put it. He gets full marks for accuracy. But the pigeon was killed on impact as it had no way of de-accelerating.
Just doing what someone else tells you to do – “because it will get you good marks” – may well destroy your ability to do the sensible thing.
We humans have infinitely bigger and more complex brains than pigeons. Constrained to follow an over-prescriptive curriculum kills a pupil’s creativity while telling a newly qualified teacher that there is only one way to teach causes the most creative of young teachers to flee the profession… and it’s all because we are thinking beings.
“When I told my 16-year-old son the title of your book, Overschooled but Undereducated” said a teacher in Manchester ten days ago, “he responded with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, ‘that book must have been written just for me. That’s why I’m so frustrated. Endless hours of schooling seem to be giving me little preparation for the world I think I live in.’”
Not every teenager feels like that, or is justified in dismissing what ten years of schooling have done for them. But some are, and very many more would be correct in claiming that an overdose of classroom instruction seems to have emasculated them from the sense of being in control of, and responsible for, their own futures.
Landing in Vancouver after a nine and a half hour flight two months from London, the last flashes of evening sunlight picked up the outline of that massive sheet of water known as Puget Sound, around which the whole economy (Microsoft, Boeings and Starbucks) of the Pacific Northwest throbs. I was reminded of the role in history of that young naval lieutenant, Peter Puget, who gave his name to these seas. He had joined the navy in 1770 as a ship’s boy, the lowest and most demeaning rank responsible for cleaning the toilets on the Georgian battleships of the late 18th century. Puget was unusually gifted and determined that, by the age of 22, he was made a lieutenant. Twelve months later (1791) he was appointed by Captain Vancouver to command HMS Discovery, ordered to sail from London, around Tierra del Fuego and up the Pacific coast of the Americas to claim for England that land now known as British Columbia, so displacing the Spaniards.
Puget acknowledged that he owed his promotion initially to the quality of his early years book learning from his father combined with his own determination to learn everything that he could from the older officers. Not content with giving his name to what is now one of the world’s busiest seaways, Puget (former cleaner of toilets) went on to become a Rear Admiral in command of the Far East Squadron based in Madras, India.
Teenagers with age, energy and a delight in risk-taking, together with a sense of purpose in their hearts, are – and always have been – the driving force in a society’s future.
His story is not unique: late 18th century gentry were quick to recognise the learning potential of such on-the-job-training in the navy, and often sought influential naval captains to take on their sons for a ‘gap year’ on the high seas. Many of these young men eventually thrived. But then, with the Battle of Waterloo ending the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the British began mothballing their warships, and officers and midshipmen alike were laid off or put on half-pay. Youngsters who had dreamed of achieving fame on the quarter deck of a battleship were, instead, bundled off by their parents (who had no wish for their elegant country houses to be cluttered up with rebellious teenagers) and sent off to boarding school. So bored did these young men become, and so avid were they for adventure, that they literally rebelled – they pulled down the buildings and locked their teachers in cupboards. So bad did this become that in 1818 it took two battalions of infantrymen to quell the riots at Winchester College.
A familiar story? Teenagers with age, energy and a delight in risk-taking, together with a sense of purpose in their hearts, are – and always have been – the driving force in a society’s future. But teenagers with nothing to do, and nothing to care for, become threats to themselves and everyone else. To see education as a pre-eminently school-based activity is, and ever was, to miss the point of adolescence.
For a very interesting take on adolescence go to a review of ‘The Primal Teen’.
Last week the IEA (International Energy Authority) Report on the impact of global warming seems set to reawaken public interest in the potential catastrophic consequences on world climate of increased Carbon emissions. This morning a senior Oxfam official, commenting on how such changes are effecting the production and distribution of basic food stuffs in the poorest countries, suggested that the world is ‘sleepwalking towards ecological disaster’.
Talking about similar issues with a colleague a few days ago, I remarked that, having much recent experience of dealing with I.B. students at international schools, and with youngsters of similar ages in Canada, the one major ray of hope is the way in which young people in the middle and late teens seem to be joining all the bits of this complicated puzzle together. They realise that it will be their generation that will bear the brunt of these problems and are resolved now – as they prepare to go to university – to start adjusting their life expectations, their whole careers to face up to what older generations see are intractable problems.
‘I don’t agree’, my colleague responded thinking specifically about his own daughter and friends as they prepare to sit their A-Levels here in England, ‘they are simply and sharply focused on their exams – there is no time to think about anything else.’
The pressures on an over-examined generation are enormous, and have become literally life threatening, both to individuals, and to society as a whole. ‘Unprecedented numbers of A-Level students are seeking medical and psychological help to cope with exam stress this year’.
The poet W. M. Davis was so right when he asked, ‘what is life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’
“What is life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”
Time to sit around, chat and stare is a necessity not a luxury. It is what the human brain is all about – we dream, and in dreaming shape possible futures. As our ancestors gazed at the stars so their imaginations were stimulated to wonder why some stars moved one way, and others another, and why they moved at different speeds and followed different orbits. It was such constant questioning and speculating that expanded human consciousness. It drove the Babylonians to recognise the superiority of the number 60 over the number 10 in terms of its multiples, and so invented the concept of degrees, minutes and seconds. It was while he was scribbling in the sand that Pythagoras set out his famous theory about the square of the hypotenuse, and it was while Barnes-Wallace, of Dambuster fame, lay on a beach on a warm summer’s afternoon in 1939 watching his children skim stones over the water that he formulated the mathematical equation that gave birth to the bouncing bomb.
Give youngsters too much information and they fail to see the ultimate objective. Just because something is urgent doesn’t mean it is important, and young people have to be helped to appreciate that. They get used to being forever bogged down with trivia. It’s like an impressionist’s painting – you have to stand back far enough before you can see all the dots coming together, and what the picture really means.
So, too busy to think? Whose fault is that? ‘In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world which no longer exists’.
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