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

Why should a serious educational initiative meddle with animations?

Who has created this animation?

Where have all these ideas come from?

Why make such an animation now?

What’s so wrong with modern education?

Why is adolescence so important?

Why does society see adolescence as a threat?

If we release adolescents from formal schooling, won’t they all end up drop-outs?

Is it really true that if we don’t hear a language by the age of eight, we’ll probably never learn to speak?

Is it really true that the Ice Age triggered teenage behaviour?

Are we really all descended from just a small group of people who left East Africa?

Surely people couldn’t survive a trip on a raft from East Africa to Asia?

What did our ancestors do once they’d found new land?

Why is play so important?

How important is home and community life compared with school?

Given the complexity of these issues, how is it that we get solutions devised by politicians, rather than educationalists?

Where can I find out more about these ideas?

Why is it so important that young people ‘care’ about what they’re learning?

If Scientists have known about this for 25 years… why are most kids still being taught in a way that is so boring for them?

Why call this a Faustian bargain?

Why should a serious educational initiative meddle with animations?

Profound truths – such as the misunderstanding about the nature of adolescence – can be so unsettling that people lose themselves in lengthy explanations that ultimately confuse, rather than clarify. That is why The Initiative is thrilled to be launching a series of short animations, narrated by the British actor Damian Lewis, which set out these ideas in an easy-to-understand and accessible way. They are The Initiative’s contribution towards helping society realise that it is now necessary to do for the next generation what earlier generations did without question for their own young (like our own parents and grandparents before us).

More information

We're Born to Learn, not to be Taught, an article we published on the Huffington Post

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Who has created this animation?

It is the result of over 20 years’ research by the 21st Century Learning Initiative into the relationship between formal schooling and informal learning at home and in the community. The Initiative seeks to makes sense of research on learning and learning processes that are fragmented in many different disciplines, and embedded in many different universities, research institutions and businesses around the world. You can read more about this in the book Overschooled but Undereducated: how the crisis in education is jeopardising our adolescence, by John Abbott, the Director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, and his Canadian deputy, Heather MacTaggart.


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Where have all these ideas come from?

The case for the transformation of schooling was made by the Initiative in 2010 in a Paper delivered to the Merchant Venturers of Bristol (UK) as the starting point for a possible reform of schooling in that city. It was however quickly rejected as being outside the bounds of possibility – while at the same time it was put forward alongside other ideas in the province of British Columbia, Canada, where it was accepted . How is it that an explanation developed largely in England, which seems eminently sensible to many, should be rejected in that country and accepted in Canada, especially given that Canada comes 6th in the OECD analysis of international performance, and Britain comes 25th?


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Why make such an animation now?

What politicians and commentators in many lands call “a crisis in schools” is, we believe, better understood as a crisis in society’s commitment to young people. All this is aggravated by a materialistic agenda that degrades the spiritual needs of individuals and nations to the single minded drive towards economic profitability. If western society is to survive (and it really is as serious as that), it is essential that all those involved with young people escape from that assumption made 100 years ago by early psychologists, that adolescence is an aberration. We have to understand adolescence for what it really is – an opportunity.

More information

See the illustrated talk, It’s Your World to Shape not Just to Take.

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What’s so wrong with modern education?

Put simply, it goes against what we call ‘the grain of the brain’. How we are schooled is utterly at odds with how we have evolved to learn. So for example, the human brain has evolved to function effectively in complex situations – we naturally think big, and act small. Modern education works against this by creating specialists who are well qualified in their own disciplines, but nothing like as good as seeing the wider impact of their actions.

Failing to see the ‘big picture’ can result in us facing grave consequences such as global poverty, climate change and overexploitation of resources.


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Why is adolescence so important?

It’s the natural struggle when children question the status quo and work things out for themselves. Just like language, it’s a predisposition we’re all born with – if adolescents don’t get the opportunity to take risks, the predisposition disappears. This could explain why so many people in their early 20s, having complied with all the instructions of school to concentrate on A-level, and then all the further instructions of universities to concentrate on what you are told, leave university not knowing how to think for themselves .

More information

Brain Science, Adolescence, and Secondary Schools: A Critical Disconnect, first published in Education Canada, August 2010 (also available in French)

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Why does society see adolescence as a threat?

About a century ago, psychologists concluded that adolescence was an aberration, so formal schooling was effectively designed to neutralise its impact. While scientific understanding of adolescence has since progressed, formal schooling has not. Recent generations of young people have missed out on the natural struggle of adolescence; they’ve been deprived of the strength that comes from knowing they’re not frightened of taking difficult decisions, and if necessary, picking up the pieces when things go wrong.

More information

Chapter 7 of Overschooled but undereducated, and the paper Adolescence: A Critical Evolutionary Adaptation, published January 2005 by the Initiative.

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If we release adolescents from formal schooling, won’t they all end up drop-outs?

It’s not about just ‘leaving them to it’. Adolescents need a careful mixture of guidance and the space to work things out for themselves – sometimes with their peers and sometimes alone. Through the struggle of adolescence they develop the strength for adult life. To waste adolescence is to deny future generations the strength that is essential to deal with the ever changing seasons of life.

More information

Blog post Don’t fence me in, 3rd September 2009

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Is it really true that if we don’t hear a language by the age of eight, we’ll probably never learn to speak?

Yes. We are born with a predisposition for language – but it has to be activated by the world around us. We now know that every baby has the neurological structure which enables it to make about 60 structured sounds (phonemes). Combined, these phonemes create all the sounds used in the world’s languages. A child growing up in a Western type environment is only likely to use half the available phonemes; those phonemes it doesn’t use gradually waste away. Fortunate is the child who grows up in a multi-language culture (as in central Africa) who can hear, and then copy, upwards of half a dozen languages at any one time… so retaining and practicing more phonemes than a child within a single language.

More information

See Cavalli-Sforza L. (2000) Genes, Peoples and Languages, Allen Lane and Pinker S. (1994) The Language Instinct: The new science of language and mind, Allen Lane

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Is it really true that the Ice Age triggered teenage behaviour?

Incredible as it may seem this actually makes sense. Before the last Ice Age, humanity enjoyed about a million years of stable climate. All children had to do to survive was copy what their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents going back over at least 100,000 generations, had done. The Ice Age about 50-100,000 years ago changed all that. Children were faced with the challenge that, for them to survive, they had to stop copying their parents and develop more skills. Of course the Ice Age was not a simple one-off event – it lasted about 50,000 years and its effects fluctuated widely from place to place. But as our ancestors began – ever so slowly – to learn how to adapt old skills to new situations, so their innovations prompted what archaeologists call ‘The Great Leap Forward’, the invention of tools, art, religion, language and laws – in effect the creation of Post-Stone Age society.

More information

Tattersall I. (1998) Becoming Human: Evolution and human uniqueness, Harcourt, Brace and Company. Wills C. (1994) The Runaway Brain: The evolution of Human Uniqueness, Harpers Collins. Diamond J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking. Wells S. (2002) The Journey of Man: A genetic Odyssey, Random House. Bogin, B. (2001) The Growth of Humanity, Wiley-LISS

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Are we really all descended from just a small group of people who left East Africa?

Yes. Evolutionary geneticists are able to actually trace our DNA back through the generations, and what they’ve found is that even though there were probably several millions of proto-humans scattered around the Asian heartlands before the Ice Age, we’re actually all descended from a tiny group of only a hundred or so breeding couples.

This group was apparently squeezed by a genetic bottleneck somewhere in East Africa. Stuck between the ice-bound mountains of Ethiopia and the tundra which extended over today’s savannah, they were faced with imminent starvation unless they could find a sense of escape. Just a few of them apparently turned to the sea. Here it seems was the ultimate challenge to our Stone Age ancestors: either hunker down in the freezing caves or take a risk and see if a raft could take you to a more congenial climate across the sea.

More information

Newsweek (March 19th 2007) – The Evolution Revolution, The National Geographic (March 2006) – The greatest journey ever told and Spencer Wells (2003) – The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey Wells, S (2010) Pandora’s Seed: The unforeseen cost of civilisation

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Surely people couldn’t survive a trip on a raft from East Africa to Asia?

Back then, sea-levels were significantly lower than they are now and island-hopping around the Indian Ocean would not have been too difficult, and nothing like as taxing as the crossing of the Pacific on the Kon Tiki raft.

More information

Nicholas Wade (2006) Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors, The Penguin Press

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What did our ancestors do once they’d found new land?

Apparently as older members put down roots, new generations would move on further into unknown territory. Genetic analysis shows that about 50,000 years ago, our intrepid adolescent ancestors moved across the Red Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula, across the Persian Gulf, along the coast of Pakistan and India and then, via the Andaman Islands, to Australia. They eventually reached the Asian side of the Bering Straits about 20,000 years ago but didn’t get across into the Americas until 15,000 years ago.

It was a slow process – perhaps no more than two or three miles in a generation. But here’s the clue. At their most physically energetic, young people needed to challenge the status quo and find alternative ways of doing things. That, it now seems, is where the genetic structure for adolescence crept into the human genome.

More information

See BBC DVD, Walking with Cavemen 2002

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Why is play so important?

Anthropologists suggest that the more complex the cognitive process of the species, the greater the importance of playfulness. Without play, children don’t go beyond the normal and predictable. Play is about experimenting in a moderately safe environment and imagining alternative possibilities – as Einstein once put it: “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Play is about learning how to correct mistakes so that when in future years you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, you are quicker than others to imagine an alternative route.

More information

Overschooled but Undereducated chapters 3, 4 and 8, and Kay Redfield Jamison (2004) Exuberance: The passion for life, Alfred A. Knopf

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How important is home and community life compared with school?

Research suggests they’re more important – which is why government overemphasis on school is so disturbing. Research on the effect of family, community and school on performance levels of 18 year olds concluded that factors outside the school were four times more important in determining future performance.

Some researchers have concluded that 50% of a person’s ability to learn is developed in the first four years of life before they even start school – not half their eventual knowledge, of course, but shaping half of all the brain cell connections that he or she will use in their life. Because the neural structures that manage emotions only start to develop in the second year of life, how we are treated as babies and toddlers determines the way in which what we are born with becomes what we turn into.


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Given the complexity of these issues, how is it that we get solutions devised by politicians, rather than educationalists?

The scale of the emerging research challenges policy-makers’ ability to synthesise – to draw together ideas from disparate sciences. This is not easy because the essential Western tradition of education is based on reductionism – reducing complex issues to easily studied separate bits. At a time when the teaching profession has been facing an exceptional number of challenges, not least the collapse in the support that earlier came from home and community, it has been the lack of real understanding about the complex processes involved in education (not simply the school part alone) amongst teachers that has allowed successive governments to bully the profession. Teachers undoubtedly need to understand the theory of learning. Deprived of a real understanding of both pedagogy and policy they have simply reverted to parroting the latest curriculum directives.


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Where can I find out more about these ideas?

This recent talk by John Abbott is a good place to start. Following that, Overschooled but Undereducated is a comprehensive, startling and rigorous exploration of the urgent need to revolutionise how we are raising children.


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Why is it so important that young people ‘care’ about what they’re learning?

Because we’re hardwired to learn that way. As Confucius said:

Tell me, and I forget;
Show me, and I remember;
Let me do, and I understand.

Cognitive scientists have discovered that our survival depends on our brain being able to sort out what matters from what doesn’t. So, simply telling a youngster something you think they ought to know – but they don’t want to have anything to do with – activates an amazing array of crap detectors in the young brain. All too often, what we tell them just doesn’t register. It’s your answer, not theirs. It’s not what they’re looking for, so it’s ignored.

But if you take time out and show youngsters why something is as it is, you’ll probably engage their whole attention, to the point that they push you to one side and demand to ‘let me do it for myself’.

‘Doing it for yourself’ is a deeply ingrained human instinct, something built up in the human genome over millions of years that increases our ability to survive. It’s about resilience, the determination that the more you can do for yourself, the more in control of your future you believe yourself to be.
Learning this way allows you to shape your future, for it gets to the heart of what it means to be human.

But if we just leave children to ‘do it for themselves’ won’t they be limited in what they can learn?

This isn’t about leaving students to discover everything for themselves, without any formal instruction. Novices invariably reach a plateau where to climb to new heights they need help – someone who has been there before them and can demonstrate new ways of thinking about how to solve more complex problems.

Children learn spontaneously. But they need help from experts on how to learn better – how to upgrade their own self-designed but restrictive capacity for acquiring information and creating experience.

The role of the teacher here, is as a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a conventional ‘sage on the stage’. Such guides empower children to be their own teachers. The more children can do this, the stronger they become; it is a bad teacher whose pupils remain dependent on him.

That is why when children ask good questions, it is better not to give your explanation but, by prompting further questions back to them, let them experience the thrill of working it out for themselves. That is when their brains really do start to work well.

What do you mean by “being in the flow”?

Inquisitiveness drives human learning. It is through forming questions that we construct knowledge, and we do this best when we are able to meander – when we set off with a general goal and plenty of opportunity to stop and explore alternative routes. We learn when we are excited and involved, when we feel we are getting somewhere that matters to us.  That is called ‘being in the flow’.

This much we now know; the brain works best when it is building on what it already knows. When it is working in complex, situated circumstances. When it accepts the significance of what it is doing. When it is exercised in a highly challenging but no-threat environment.

Why do we teach kids in a way that so goes against how they’re hard-wired to learn?

Because our education system is based on an outdated understanding of how we learn, called ‘Behaviourism’. This school of thought grew up around the 1920s, based around the ideas of psychologist John B Watson. Watson denied that evolution had any part to play in understanding the function of the human brain. He felt that what mattered was the precise quantification of inputs (that which was taught) and outputs (that which could be measured). Children’s minds were putty to be shaped by well-trained teachers.

The shadow of this thinking still remains and has deadened the imagination of millions of children in many countries. It led to education’s fixation with teaching rather than learning; with the classroom rather than the home or community; and with forms of education that have effectively made generations of pupils dependent on their teachers, rather than working things out for themselves.

Such dependency has become a self-perpetuating problem; most teachers, until only a few short years ago, were still being taught by lecturers who themselves had grown up under the influence of Behaviourism. Not only that, many parents and adults today share the assumption that education is what happens as a result of what schools do to you. Politicians well understand this so that when they seek re-election they appeal to the deep-seated assumption of their constituents that, whatever faults might be with the children, these can all be rectified within the school.

Not until society realises the significance of the thinking of the last 25 years will these earlier input/output models of learning that have done so much damage to modern society be discarded. To clear our minds of outdated ideas is part of our challenge of creating these animations.


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If Scientists have known about this for 25 years… why are most kids still being taught in a way that is so boring for them?

In very many national systems of education, especially in England, there has been a most serious failure of knowledge transfer, between theoretical research and recommended actions. A Synthesis of research, already available in the late 1980s, showed that humans survive because their superior brains have evolved to assimilate every new fact or experience into a dynamic web of understanding that has been shaped by that individual’s earlier experience, so making the brain a “complex adaptive system.”

Consequently no two brains ever understand a given situation in the same way – which makes comparing the effects of a teacher to a line-manager at a factory totally ludicrous. A key report explained, “The method people naturally employ to acquire knowledge is largely unsupported by traditional classroom practice. The human mind is better equipped to gather information about the world by operating within it, than by reading about it, hearing lectures on it, or studying abstract models of it. Nearly everyone would agree that experience is the best teacher, but what many fail to realise is that experience may well be the only teacher.”

Further research into the brain’s ‘adaptive’ capability shows that because young children have to learn very quickly, they have evolved as “clone-like” learners up to the age of eleven or twelve, at which point the brain, we now know, has a built in mechanism that begins to fracture that clone-like process, forcing the adolescent to learn how to value its own conclusions over what it is told … a powerful process that disturbs parents and frustrates secondary schools but is an essential process if each new generation is not to mirror its parents.

In recent years politicians seeking to define the purpose of education specifically in subject terms have forgotten that “all considerations of the curriculum should consider how best to use subjects for the purpose of education, rather than regarding education as the by-product of the efficient teaching of subjects.” Consequently quality education has simply fallen between the cracks left between ill-fitting planks of a grossly over-specific curriculum.

Warning the English Government of what would be lost if they failed to recognise those changes in brain structure which shift the clone-like learning of the pre-pubescent child into the self-selective learning of the adolescent, then lose the opportunity to reallocate resources so as to ‘front-load’ the system. Senior policy officials in 1996 said of this, “The system you are arguing for would require very good teachers. We are not convinced there will ever be enough good teachers. So instead we are going for a teacher-proof system of organising schools – that way we can get a uniform standard.”

“A teacher-proof system” implies the very worst of Frederic Winslow Taylor’s thinking on Scientific Management. Instead of staffing schools with “broadly educated” teachers each with sufficient knowledge and professional competence to be able to plan their own work, teachers have instead been given ever thicker rule books, and required to follow more tightly prescribed instructions. The net effect has been to limit a teacher’s perception of the total role of education (rather like an over-dependence on a GPS system in a car limits the driver’s inquisitiveness as to what is going on around him).

Teaching has been reduced to a job, rather than a craft or a vocation. As such, teaching quickly loses its interest, and many an active and intelligent teacher has got so frustrated by such political micro-management that some 40% of newly qualified teachers resign in the first three years.  Consequently, by so misunderstanding the nature of human learning England has forgotten that for children to grow up properly there has to be much more to education than simply sitting in the classroom.

 

More information

You should read: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Enquiry into the Value of Work – Matthew B. Crawford, published by The Penguin Press, New York, 2009. Published in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. The Craftsman – Richard Sennett, published by Allen Lane, 2008. A Briefing Paper for Parliamentarians on the Design Faults at the Heart of English Education – John Abbott, The 21st Century learning initiative, August 2009.

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Why call this a Faustian bargain?

Dr Faust, in the medieval legend, made famous by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, traded his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. To “strike a Faustian bargain” is to be willing to sacrifice anything to satisfy a limitless desire for knowledge or power, with potentially disastrous, long-term consequences.

The answer is drawn from Chapter 8 of the book Master and Apprentice.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was born to a wealthy Baltimore family in 1856. His early education was conventionally academic and very similar to that of a privileged English boy of the same age, but he surprised everyone when he became an apprentice pattern maker in an iron foundry, learning the practical skills that had made his father successful.

For twelve hours a day the young Taylor laboured in the foundry, sharing his meals with his fellow workers. Despite the social differences these were men for whom the impressionable Taylor came to have the greatest respect: “I remember very distinctly the perfectly astonishing awakening I had at the end of my six month apprenticeship when I discovered that the three other men I had been working with in the Pattern Shop were all much smarter than I was.” 

Taylor discovered something else. These men, consummate craftsmen as they were, worked because they got great satisfaction out of doing a job well. Yes, they needed the money to provide for their families, but money wasn’t everything; they took enormous pride in their work and it was their skill that gave them their status. The employees’ sense of self-worth, however, was unimportant to Taylor’s father. He was the boss, the workers drew a wage from him, and in exchange he bought their time – all of it. That the workers enjoyed what they were doing was not part of the equation. Furthermore, Taylor senior, like other industrialists across America, was becoming frustrated. While the spectacular inventions of the 1870s and ‘80s had given business new and sophisticated forms of machinery, production wasn’t growing anything like fast enough in response.

So, having finished his apprenticeship, Taylor entered his father’s company, determined to solve the problem that was causing his father such difficulty. It soon became obvious to this quick-thinking young man that the potential effectiveness of the new machinery was severely constrained by the inefficient working practices of the very craftsmen he admired so much who preferred a job well done to a job done quickly. Taylor sought to apply objective scientific data to models of human labour, melding his experience as an apprentice with his early university training in maths and science.

By using his stopwatch to measure exactly how long a task took Taylor effectively invented Time and Motion studies. He studied the treatment of manual work and showed that increased output was simply the result of people working ‘smarter’.

Working ‘smarter’ required not craftsmen but a small team of technical experts, people like Taylor himself, using their scientifically based insights to tell the factory workers exactly what to do, how to do it, and when. Thus, for most people, scientific management came to mean following orders rather than asking questions or coming up with solutions. Since Taylor’s methods were introduced productivity has increased some fifty-fold in all advanced countries. But this increase in production came at a terrible cost to the average person’s initiative, self-esteem and innate desire for self-improvement. Thinking people, Taylor argued, risked disrupting the ‘system’. “In the past man had been first. In the future the system has to be first,” he wrote.

His ideas were hugely influential. The motto adopted for the 1933 Chicago World Fair was pure Taylorism: ‘Science Finds/Industry Applies/Man Conforms’ Yet craftsmen had never seen themselves as conformists; they thought of themselves as thoughtful, creative people whose motivations came from being fully responsible for their own product. In a much-reported confrontation between Taylor and a skilled machinist we can hear the lament of the craft mentality: “We don’t want to work as fast as we are able to. We want to work as fast as we think it’s comfortable for us to work,” said the machinist. “We haven’t come into existence for the purpose of seeing how great a task we can perform through a lifetime. We are trying to regulate our work so as to make it auxiliary to our lives.

The simple truth is that Taylor probably single-handedly did more than anyone else to destroy the craftsman’s attitude towards work. This is ironic given how important his own apprenticeship had been to him. In future young people would no longer have the social and moral support of more responsible, knowledgeable men to help them develop a work ethic that could also help define them as social beings.

In many ways Taylor’s concept of scientific management was a product of its time. Economic factors – namely the ever-increasing numbers of unskilled immigrants arriving in America from Europe – gave American employers a continuous flow of men and women willing to be treated like machines in exchange for a step up the ladder in what was seen as the land of opportunity. “You do it my way, by my standards, at the speed I mandate, and in so doing achieve a level of output I ordain, and I’ll pay you handsomely for it, beyond anything you might have imagined. All you have to do is take orders and give up your way of doing the job for mine,” he said.

Thus Taylor began the cult of the specialist, as opposed to the expert. A specialist is the ultimate analyst who knows a subject inside out; he knows all the rules, all the tests and all the possible combinations and formulae inside their box, thereby tending to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves.  Specialisms break the world down into parts, and this reductionist approach gets us, individually and collectively, into trouble. Experts, on the other hand, indulge in progressive problem solving and are quick to grasp the overall situation. They synthesize rather than simply focusing on a single issue. That makes them open to different disciplines and questioning.

Taylor’s success at merging scientific management with the process of industrialisation had a profound effect on the relationship of learning to education, and how education systems were to be organised. For, as Taylor’s followers posited, is not education a ‘system’? Henry Pritchard, president of the highly influential Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proclaimed just that in 1907 when he said, “It is more and more necessary that every human being should become an effective, economic unit. What is needed is an educational system that is carefully adapted to the needs of the economy; a system that sorts people efficiently into various positions that need to be filled in the stratified occupational structure.” It’s all very straightforward, the advocates of scientific management seemed to be saying, once you define what you want. You have to take the mystery out of education, stop messing around with the intangibles, and then we can help you design a perfect system. It sounded very persuasive not only to the Americans but to those officials at the English Board of Education, urgently seeking a cheap, effective model of education that would suit the ordinary man.

In his book English Popular Education written in 1976 the English educational historian David Wardle wrote: “It was the factory put into the educational setting. Every characteristic was there, minute division of labour, a complicated set of incentives to do good work, an impressive system of inspection, and finally an attention to cost efficiency and the economic use of plant.”

Most recently in England a series of Education Acts has attempted to standardize what has to be taught in the national curriculum. This makes it possible for teachers to be narrowly trained for working in specific areas of the curriculum leading government to make the dangerous assumption that it is no longer necessary to train all-round teachers who teach well because they have a love for, and knowledge of, their subject. This extends the difference between specialists and experts in industry to the classroom and explains how a senior adviser in Downing Street in 1997 could say of the argument addressed in this animation: “I can’t really fault your argument; you are probably right. But the system you argue for requires very good teachers. We don’t think there will ever be enough good teachers, and so we’re going for a teacher-proof way of running schools. That way we will get uniform standards.”

Key to being able to function in a scientifically managed factory was the ability to read basic instruction manuals, fill out order forms and worksheets, and do basic mathematical calculations. To become an ‘effective economic unit’ in the modern industrial workplace, all workers needed to be equipped with the three Rs. Schools also became central in sorting out individuals to meet the various demands of the increasingly specialized labour market.

While Taylor was primarily concerned with the efficient organisation of labour, another American, John Dewey, was determined to establish methods of learning that were congruent with human nature – learning that went with the grain of the brain. Dewey grew up in the small market town of Burlington some three hundred miles to the north of industrial Boston, surrounded by mountains and lakes of great beauty. A somewhat delicate and sensitive child, he had the freedom to grow up slowly and, for the first twelve years of his life, lived a Huckleberry Finn-type existence – “I never let schooling get in the way of my education” – wandering widely through the countryside and keeping the company of traders, craftsmen, and native Americans who still adhered to some of their traditional ways and customs. Burlington retained the air of a pioneer town, a place where Town Hall policy really did depend on public debate and argument.

John Dewey’s great affinity with nature and his deep empathy for the skills and attitudes of working people were exceptional. To his sensitive and gentle disposition he added a rare ability to think in a wide-ranging and coherent way. He became for Americans ‘the Philosopher appropriate to his Time’, the kind of thinker that late nineteenth century and early twentieth century England had sorely lacked. His philosophy spoke of the experience of everyone, with an intellectual sharpness that the advanced processes of the English craftsman had never found a voice capable of describing.

Dewey’s writing and lecturing life was to span nearly three quarters of a century. He frequently clashed with Taylor, for scientific management demeaned what Dewey saw as the very essence of our humanity, namely our ability to think things out for ourselves. Man lives his life in its entirety, Dewey argued, not in separate compartments called work and leisure. Dewey believed that democracy depends on a continuous stream of thoughtful people who are developing their intelligence through everything they do. In this he was a devout follower of Thomas Jefferson who had written when President of the United States of America: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” If employers treat people as if they were automatons, explained Dewey, then they will cease to be inquisitive and personally responsible in their private lives. Community, under such a regime, becomes a nebulous concept, he reasoned, and democracy itself will inevitably be weakened.

It was while Dewey was at Michigan, at the age of forty, that he wrote his three most significant papers in which he set out his key beliefs, ‘The School and Society’,  ‘The Child and the Curriculum’, and later ‘Democracy and Education”. The educational process must begin with, and build upon, the interests of the child; it must provide opportunities for the interplay of thinking and doing within the classroom; the school should be organised as a ‘miniature community’, and the teachers be guides rather than task setters organising fixed lessons and recitations. Above all else, the goal of education had to be the growth of the child in all its totality. Here was the authentic voice of a man able to reflect on his own youth, and distil his thoughts into a set of guiding concepts. This form of more inclusive learning set Dewey apart from most educators of his time who were deeply rooted in the logic and formalities of the classroom.

Rather than leaving children to their own devices as the French philosopher Rousseau had recommended, or imposing subject matter on pupils as traditionalists advised, Dewey proposed constructing an environment in which the child, while engaged in familiar activity, would be confronted with a problem solvable only with the aid of the knowledge and skills learnt earlier within traditional subjects. Dewey argued that such a task would require teachers of extraordinary skill and personal learning, for this was not so much a child-centred as a teacher-centred pedagogy. Teachers had to be very good indeed if children were to develop their full potential. Dewey feared the impact of Taylorism while Taylor’s followers were quick to dismiss Dewey’s ideas as unrealistic and of no utilitarian value. Dewey wanted to celebrate the creativity and uniqueness of the individual. Taylor believed that the skills of the few, imposed on the unquestioning masses, would eventually benefit everybody. Dewey articulated an early twentieth century vision for a people that would have been endorsed by the Founding Fathers in America while Taylor, in arguing that economic efficiency should shape all actions, was speaking to a new kind of America. Would he also speak to a new kind of England?

How Behaviourism led to a Faustian Bargain

In the 1920s the new, strident voice of Behaviourism started to emerge in America. It strengthened greatly Taylor’s case for applying the techniques of scientific management to schools. Even Lenin was an advocate of Taylor’s thinking: “We must introduce into Russia the study and teaching of the new Taylor System and its systemic trial and adaptations.” Advanced by J.B. Watson, Professor of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, it was a direct challenge to the classical and liberal philosophical thought expressed by Dewey. “Behaviourism claims that ‘consciousness’ is neither a definable nor a useful concept; it is merely another word for the ‘soul’ of more ancient times,” stated Watson. Behaviourism, he went on to argue, attempted to make a clean start. Introspection and speculation, the very qualities that Dewey cherished, should be abandoned. Psychology, he argued, had to become a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science. Anything that couldn’t be measured, Watson stated regularly and emphatically, either did not exist or was not significant.

It seems extraordinary to us now, in the 21st century, that such a theory was regarded as an explanation of man’s actions but we must remember that the studies of the brain with which we’re now reasonably familiar, are largely the result of technologies only developed in the last twenty or thirty years. To the late Victorians the brain was virtually a complete mystery. Psychologists were operating at the limits of the methodology then available to them.

With the continuing assumption in the 1920s that evolution had no part to play in understanding the function of the brain, Watson would tell his audiences in 1925 that only when every aspect of the learning process could be quantified would educators be taken seriously. He made an extraordinary claim. “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant chief and, yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocation, and race of his ancestors.” That was all there was to it: control the environment, discard all aspects of inheritance, provide the theoretically correct training and you could define the end product. Schools that do their job properly, his followers claimed, would be bound to achieve the desired outcome. Children should fit the system, rather than the system being adjusted to suit the individual, anything else would be inefficient, and inefficiency was to be avoided at all costs.

Dewey’s thinking on education, on the other hand, resonated strongly with those Americans who had themselves grown up in stable communities with well-established values. Many of them, however, were looking at the wave of immigrants coming from every corner of a collapsing Europe, and starting to panic. Dewey was right in the long run, they thought but, in the short term, something more manageable and practical was needed. School might be the only common experience such immigrants would have of America, so school had to assume that little, if anything, of life outside the classroom would have any beneficial impact on the children.

School had to ‘do it all’, and do it quickly, efficiently and cheaply. The inevitable started to happen: once people saw that schools could be required to do something that had earlier been done informally by others, then why should those ‘others’ bother to do it in future? Taylor’s system of management was good at delivering specific results, but it was indifferent to what it failed to produce, namely thinking people who could do things for themselves.

The scientific management of the workplace brought about increased efficiency and economic growth, but reduced the personal responsibility of workers so that they dealt with parts rather than the whole. While those destined to be leaders received a broad education, state schools concentrated on teaching the basics needed by the workforce: literacy and numeracy. The legacy of this factory model of schooling remains with us today and its transformation is central to helping all children become responsible lifelong learners.

Scientific management was, in reality, a terrifying Faustian bargain both for education and for society at large. It was as if Taylor and others had said: I’ll give you all that you could possibly wish for in the short term but this will come at the cost of losing what makes you a human being and not a machine. The Behaviourists’ model of learning was moderately successful in equipping most young Americans with sufficient basic skills to survive in a world of systems but the impact of old, industrial-age repetitive skills has created generations of ‘learned helplessness’.


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