Born to learn is a fun, thought-provoking series of animations that illustrate ground-breaking new discoveries about how humans learn.
“When I told my 16-year-old son the title of your book,” said a teacher in Manchester last year “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.’” Many teenagers would recognize similar sentiments. Just last week the world saw Laura Dekker, a 16 year old Dutch Sailor circumnavigate the globe, having left the classroom and learned through experience how to overcome the challenges she faced.
Not every teenager feels the need to take such measures; Dekker fought for the right to sail after facing opposition from the Dutch Government who had placed her under guardianship when she was 14, and few are completely 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 on a trip 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. Puget, the sixth of seventh sons of a Huguenot banker was only ten when his father went bankrupt and, being penniless, he was forced to join the navy (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. Ten years younger than Horatio Nelson, whose father was able to buy his son a position as midshipman, Peter Puget was unusually gifted and determined so to work himself up the ranks of naval officers that, by the age of 22, he was made a lieutenant. Twelve months later (1791) he was appointed by Captain Vancouver as First Lieutenant to command HMS Discovery, ordered to sail from London down to the south Atlantic and 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. (Take time out and watch the relationship of serving officers to 18th century midshipman in the magnificent film Master and Commander with Russell Crowe made in 2002). 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.
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.
Earlier this month we thought it would be fitting to have a think about what we would like to see for UK education in 2012. What we ended up with is two five-minute clips of president of the 21st Century Learning Initiative John Abbott sharing his wish list.
In this first part, John reflects on the fact that the UK has slipped in international league tables for educational attainment at a time when we are spending more than we have ever done before on education.
So what are the factors that have the biggest impact on improving education? There are three:
The reality, however, is that the UK government is rewriting the way education should be structured. The 1944 Education Act set out the partnership between central and local government that would provide the structure for the education system to flourish.
Central government defined the general structure and local government sorted out what John calls ‘the bits on the ground’. This meant schools working together to provide a really good solution to how education was delivered.
What we have now, says John, is schools being supported directly by the state so they can compete directly with other schools. But the problem is that the quality of the schools is related to where they are located. More well off areas have better schools and less well off areas have worse.
The 1944 Education Act tried to balance out resources between these different schools. But in 2012, the focus is on more competition. The result, says John, is that nobody is planning the relationship between local and central government.
Working together to build a better system is the way forward so that all children have the opportunity to flourish, says John.
The strength of any country is people pulling together, not people pulling apart.
The ideas of the Initiative are capturing ever-increasing interest around the world, especially in the Canadian Province of British Columbia. Careful observers of educational reform in many countries note the difference between those places that steadily and systematically invest in building up a system, and those which most obviously set out to ‘beat-up’ an old system prior to imposing a new structure on the ruins of the old. Read this Paper in that light.
It’s not simply on bad days that we feel we are running too fast; even when things are going well we just don’t have enough time to think.
Does this matter? We shouldn’t simply dismiss this by suggesting that we are just not being efficient or dedicated enough, for if we really haven’t got time to think things through we are damaging ourselves. Even more importantly, ultimately parents screw up their kids.
Let me explain. Years ago I remember hearing that anthropologists had calculated that our Stone Age ancestors spent less than 20% of their time hunting, collecting food and cleaning out their caves. For more than three-quarters of their waking time they just sat around, talked, and enjoyed themselves. I saw that when I spent time observing one of the very last remnants of such people, the Hadza out on the Savannah in Tanzania who, poverty stricken as they were in terms of western expectations, appeared to have all the time in the world to tell stories, and teach their children how to repeat them.
Cognitive scientists tell us that the brains of tiny children are a wondrous bundle of neurological possibilities, bequeathed to them genetically by their countless ancestors as preferred ways of making sense of the world. But, like a new computer operating system, they have to be activated by the challenge of being involved in the world around them. Unchallenged, they simply lie inert, whole swathes of wasted neurological opportunities. Human nature has to be activated by human culture.
Those Hadza parents, true itinerants who owned nothing (not even herds, crops, clothes or buildings) are in many ways quite excellent parents. With no written language, and no one to write things down, everything that they value is recorded in stories, and every child internalises such a wealth of culture that, years later, they retell their stories, often fables, to their own children.
English toddlers are born with the same neurological software but, as noted in a recent study by Oxford University, many children today come to school never having been told a story at home. And it is getting worse with two-thirds of teachers saying that it is worse now than ten years ago. Children whose imaginations have not been tweaked by a ‘sitting-on-a-parent’s-lap’ culture of storytelling simply fail, almost at the first hurdle, to be creative themselves.
In 2010 a study from Sheffield showed that one in five of today’s teenagers are so illiterate and innumerate that they are incapable of dealing with the challenges of everyday life. In Stone Age times they simply wouldn’t have survived for they would have been pushed out of the cave as being an unnecessary burden on the rest of the tribe.
Later it was noted that many middle-class parents were too busy to take time out to be with their own children, simply enrolled them in so many out of school activities that they denied their children the opportunity to ‘go out and mooch around in the garden.’ Mooching is where creative thoughts is born – as it was with Newton when hit on the head by an apple falling from the tree, and so subsequently formulated the theory of gravity.
Having completed an analysis of the bones from a medieval burial ground, archaeologists have concluded that, in the 1400s, men only needed to work for 159 days in the year to provide for their families. Now, it seems, both parents have to work full-time to do the same thing. While that is undoubtedly true for the least well-off in our society, is that really true for the rest of us?
Running too fast may well damage your health. If so, ultimately it has to be our own fault. But it is not fair on our children if we so get our priorities wrong that we deny them the time and space to grow up in ways which naturally suited the Hadza, more than they do the unfortunate child of today with its iPhone sitting on the beach while its parents socialise in the bar.
After years of researching and writing about the subject of how we learn John Abbott – the man behind the 21st Century Learning Initiative and Born to Learn – was inspired by the Story of Stuff and how a 500-page book was so successfully condensed into a 20-minute animation.
So, the challenge was how to best explain the concepts he has been talking about for the last 20 to 30 years. A common reaction to his lectures – and he has given plenty all around the world – is that the issues are fascinating but hard to pass on. It is a difficult story to tell.
This was the cue to turn some of what are complex issues into stories that can be shared.
So far, the animations have been very well received – downloaded tens of thousands of times across 197 countries with requests to translate it into a variety of different languages.
John says the success has been to share a simple message and use key phrases to get the concepts across.
Born to Learn plans to make 15 animations in total covering the main themes of John’s book Overschooled but Undereducated.
Although the topics are serious, John says the guiding principle behind the animations is that they have to be both fun and fascinating.
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