The following is a version of the lecture John Abbott gave to the North of England Education Conference in Sunderland on January 7, 1999. This speech is very similar to those he has given recently elsewhere. The boxes represent the slides used during the presentation.

Once, when on a family walk, my then eight year old son suddenly asked, “Daddy, how do little children learn to talk?”

I paused just a moment too long in composing my reply.

“Dad,” he said impatiently, “I think that’s an easy question. I bet you’ll give me a long and complicated answer!”

“Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.”

— Schopenhauer

Education, so politicians in many lands are quick to claim, is at the top of the political agenda – the number one item. That’s easy to say, but what does being number one actually mean?

There is a paradox here because for most people education seems a strangely boring topic. Search a bookshop and you are likely to find the education section in some out of the way corner. Most of the books on the shelves will be of little general interest. Few are promoted as best sellers. This is strange for there is more material now about the nature of human learning than at any previous time. It’s found in books all over the shop – in cognitive science, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, information sciences, management studies, economics as well as philosophy, pedagogy and religion. In fact there is so much about learning that it seems impossible to keep up with the research.

What is happening? Is it that education, as previously understood to mean schools, is simply being sidelined? Has education ceased to be about learning? Is school “dead?”

Let me tell you a story about how another new set of ideas once changed well-loved and established ways of doing things.

During the Second World War the American government was much impressed by the performance of the two Cunarders, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. Each transported thousands of troops so fast that no German U-boat could catch them. The war over, the Americans resolved to build an even better liner, the S.S. United States, which in time of military need could carry even more troops, faster, than its British counterparts.

The United States first sailed in 1952. She seized the Blue Ribbon with a speed of 40 knots and so cut the travel time between Southampton and New York to just under 84 hours.

In the 1960s, the United States was taken out of service; her engines removed, she was hauled off to a port in southern Turkey and lay, rusting, for a quarter century.

Why her sad demise? It was simply that the de Haviland brothers had built a commercial jet aircraft, the Comet, and BOAC started to operate this across the Atlantic. The jet aircraft – a totally new technology – cut travel time to New York to a mere eight hours. The days of the glamorous Atlantic liner were over forever.

The United States was the most brilliantly conceived ship of all time. She was made redundant by a totally new form of transport, made possible by a convergence of new technologies. The dynamics of travel were changed irrevocably. Heathrow replaced Grand Ocean Terminal at Southampton. More people now fly the Atlantic in a day than a Cunarder could transport in a year. That’s a paradigm shift.

We must focus on these new understandings about learning if we’re to see in education reform massive opportunities, rather than still further problems. Within the last 10 to 15 years, medical technology – Positive Emission Tomography, CAT scans and functional MRI – has enabled us to “see” brains working. Instead of studying dead brains splayed out like cold porridge on a dissecting table, we can actually see the incredible way in which, for instance, memory is distributed to many different regions of the brain, and how it is reconstructed on demand. Be you a creationist, an evolutionist, or a bit of both the scale of this is awesome.

Then there are the technologies of Information and Communication which we have lived with for 20 years, but whose real significance for education is still to become apparent.

Just as a jet engine could not propel an Atlantic liner at 600 miles per hour, neither can these new discoveries fit comfortably into school systems designed when learning was seen as dependent on instruction. Or when a curriculum worked at the speed of paper and pencil. At the risk of being over-dramatic, they simply blast it apart.

Three thoughts about learning.

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to rack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the engagement of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

— Albert Einstein

The first by a German Jew who fled his country in the early 1930s. As a child he had not spoken until he was four, nor did he read until he was seven. When asked years later why this was, he observed dryly that he was still trying to work out the correct question to ask!

Yes, it was Albert Einstein. By present day standards the young Albert would have qualified for special educational attention!