Born to learn is a fun, thought-provoking series of animations that illustrate ground-breaking new discoveries about how humans learn.
John Abbott was invited to spend three weeks in February in BC by the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Education — an invitation extended by Dean Ted Riecken almost immediately after seeing John in action in October 2011. It was in October that John created an opportunity for the Faculty of Education, Ministry of Education staff, and Education students to come together to talk about the future of education in BC and what that might mean for newly trained teachers.
When someone asked me what role I thought John Abbott would play during his three week visit to British Columbia, I said that I thought he would be a catalyst. I have heard others agree with that characterization, but it was never a perfect fit with how we actually saw John. Close, but not quite right. Now that he has been here for nearly two of those weeks three weeks, and after seeing one of his presentations at the BC School Superintendents’ Association Conference in Vancouver, I am beginning to understand his role better. John was quoting one of his favourite world-changers, Vaclav Havel. The quote was, “Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between disparate phenomena.” All of a sudden I realized that that is what John does: he helps people see the connections between ideas and fields of study that are not normally seen as fitting together – the harmony that exists among otherwise isolated musical notes. He is a harmonizer, and that is what empowers him to be a catalyst.
Over the past two weeks, I have seen John draw on evolutionary biology, brain research, military history, educational history, anthropology, sociology, and economics to illustrate important points about our education system. Despite the complexity associated with such unity of knowledge, people get it. John has a magical way of twisting these ideas together in a gentle narrative that makes it all so accessible, without removing any of the rigour that is the foundation of his message. He has spoken now with parents, university professors, high school and university students, Montessori educators, principals, teachers, education assistants, and school trustees. He has been on our evening news, and he has shared the stage with the BC Minister of Education, George Abbott (his long lost cousin?), before 450 people. His messages, synthesizing and memorable, have been tweeted and retweeted. After every presentation he makes, he is surrounded by mobs of people who have more questions for him, or who just want to share their ideas and recount their own experiences.
While he has been in BC, John has seen his schedule change considerably as his message gains momentum. This is partially due to incredible timing: BC is right now contemplating its own future in terms of educational policy. We are exploring in earnest how our system could be transformed to better meet the needs of our children and adolescents, and how we could help our children and adolescents better meet the needs of our world today. We may very well have the perfect storm of grassroots support, political will, and bold leadership to take us to a whole new place.
I know we are all looking forward to seeing what the next week brings. Things continue to gain momentum, and John finds himself being swept along in a current that is largely of his own creation. I feel privileged to be a part of what is happening in BC right now, and I owe much of that feeling to John. I believe that we will look back on this three-week visit as an important time in the history of BC Education, and, therefore, in the history of BC as a world-leading jurisdiction. Our thanks go to John the synthesizer, the storyteller, the catalyst, the connector, the harmonizer.
Jeff Hopkins is Superintendent of the Gulf Islands School District, British Columbia.
Pete Mountstephens is a headteacher at St Stephen’s School in Bath in the UK. He has been a headteacher for more than 20 years and in that time has led three very different schools ranging from the most challenging of inner city schools to real high expectation schools in leafy lane settings.
We caught up with Pete to get his thinking on the current state of UK primary education, which along with all areas of UK education is currently undergoing a lot of change.
The role of education in society has become more important than ever in helping provide children with a sense of worth as some of society’s traditional bedrocks, such as the family, royal family, church and politicians are weakened, he says.
But in order to do this the curriculum needs to provide teachers and schools with widest widest range of learning based on children’s needs. And pitching school against school is also unhelpful, he says.
“Policy makers and legislators need to understand that education is about relationships about love, it is a deep and complex organic thing and to nail it down to a few facts and to quality assure it on whether or not children can regurgitate those facts is to damn the whole beast by a rather simplistic measuring model.”
Pete is also a trustee of the 21st Century Learning Initiative and is interested in educational research and also the wider implications of multi-disciplinary research on the way we educate young children.
It wasn’t Michelangelo who said that – although it might have been for he was always at pains to select the particular block of stone which would best enable him to draw out of its structure that which he had in his mind’s eye to sculpt – it was the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 51) who drove home his point by saying “(and think) of the quarry from which you were dug.” Just as Michelangelo couldn’t have created his David out of any old piece of granite, so the people of Israel knew as well as today’s industrial chemist that the clay extracted from one quarry might be excellent for the production of fine china, exclusive paper or toothpaste, but would be useless for forming firebricks, floor tiles or as an additive to paint.
While every one of the six billion people on the face of the earth comes from a single species, the culture into which we are born creates a kaleidoscope of tribes and nations that think, and act, in significantly different ways. Since E.O. Wilson’s seminal treatise On Human Nature was published in 1978 scientists have come to accept that our species is as it is partly as a result of deep-seated instinctive behaviours built up over the millennia, transmitted through genes, and then refined in each generation by its immediate nurture. In Isaiah’s terms it all depends from which part of the quarry you were hewn; just as both York and Bath stone were laid down millions of years ago in the Jurassic Sea, micro-processes in that same sequence produced stone tough enough to provide pavements, while stone in another quarry is soft enough to build houses and carve fabulous gargoyles.
David Cameron appeared to impress the party faithful when he said that Gove’s ideas were drawn from Sweden, American and Canada. As someone involved with education all my working life I have travelled widely and found the study of other systems of education fascinating… not in what they had enabled me to bring back in my rucksack as nuggets of perfection but how they have acted as mirrors to help me question, ever more sharply, what we do in England. In 1969 I had the opportunity to sit in the back of a secondary classroom in New Hampshire. I was most impressed by the pupils’ enthusiasm, but was confused, from my grammar school background, by the total informality of the discipline. “You must understand”, the Professor of Education who was showing me around said, “there is a subtle difference between what we Americans think is our job in education, and what I picked up when studying at Oxford about what you English think education is about. It seems to me that you have a preconceived idea of the perfect youngster and do all in your power to shape kids appropriately. We Americans are uncertain about the future. We are still a frontier people – we think it is our job to help every youngster to so ‘sharpen his axe’ that he or she will be able to cut their way through whatever concrete jungle they may face. Our job is to build up rugged individuals, while you seem determined to cut children down to size.”
As a young teacher that impressed me greatly. But it seems as if Gove and Gibb have been searching for another kind of answer. They start with questions of governance, not with questions about how children learn. So, in 2009, instead of acknowledging that the reason Finland and the other Scandinavian countries are at the top of the OECD achievement tables is a result of their pedagogic insights, David Cameron attributes it to free-market principles that have led the Swedes (with their very materialistic view of life) to open up schools to be run for profit. Cameron then sited Canada, by that he must mean the Province of Alberta as Canada has no uniform system of education that is so rich from its oil revenues that it has abolished income tax as an example of free enterprise. Shopping around for other examples of changed governance, he turned to the United States. This is very strange for America rejoices in its local federal responsibilities (the kinds of local autonomy which both Labour and Conservative have done their best to destroy in England) and which shamefully partners England at the bottom of the UNICEF Well-being of Children Report of two and a half years ago, and urges the English to adopt the Charter School Movement.
No, the English don’t have to go overseas to find magic bullets. They have to take the time to understand their own system better, and be humble enough to realise that international studies in neurology, evolution and cognitive science can help even the English to unpack the relationship of what we are born with, and how our historic culture has shaped the grain of our brains.
Is that really too much for politicians to think about?
John Abbott’s January presentation in Prague is available to download as a PDF or Powerpoint or view here . . .
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