Paper delivered to The Campaign for Learning in 2005

Corresponding slides will open as PDFs.

“Can the Learning Species fit into Schools?” (Slide 1)

So, What do you think? Can the Learning Species fit into schools?

The obvious answer to such a question – the answer given by educational policy makers from London to New Zealand, from Mongolia to Patagonia – is, of course, a resounding “yes”. If we humans are the planet’s pre-eminent learning species surely none but the most obdurate of young people should readily accept the benign conditions of the classroom? They should welcome the way in which the curriculum designers have delivered to them, on a plate, all they need to get good grades.

On the assumption that “schools can do it all”, billions of pounds have been invested in England by the government on school effectiveness programmes; officials have virtually rewritten all the manuals of teacher training, and statisticians have devised the world’s most thorough evaluation and assessment systems. Capital spending on schools will have increased from six hundred and seventy million pounds in 1997, to five billion pounds this year. A sense of euphoria fills the educational air – it’s bonanza time, say the politicians, for education is apparently the number one item on their agenda.

Obvious answers are not, however, necessarily the right answers.

Maybe schools in England need more than additional money or institutional solutions to persuade a sceptical nation that “real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we become able to do something we were never able to do before. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.” (Slide 2) That sounds really exciting, but to the sceptic, as to the realist, that is not what large number of pupils believe that they experience in schools.

Peter Senge, who wrote the above in his book on the learning organisation in 1990, commented, “There is in each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Senge was simply reiterating what St. Augustine had said more than a thousand years before: “I learnt most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me.” Teachers are not the only people youngsters learn from. And Confucius, another thousand years before that, had spoken as if he were a cognitive scientist, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, let me do and I understand.” (Slide 3)

Almost daily our newspapers report on research findings from around the world, each of which adds a fascinating further missing piece to the extraordinary processes that make up the human brain; a gene is discovered for baldness, the month in which a girl is conceived will significantly affect the age she goes into the menopause fifty or more years later, and culture we discover is the ultimate determinant of whether a genetic disease will or will not be activated.

Let us always remember this; the human brain is our ultimate survival mechanism. (Slide 4) Out of the myriad pieces of information that it receives every moment the brain is constantly evaluating new ideas in terms of what good, or what harm, such ideas could do to us. Over countless generations our brains have evolved to be wary of ideas planted in our minds by others, as opposed to concepts we have worked out for ourselves. To understand the brain is to understand what humans are all about.

But, school is only one part of a young person’s learning experience. As Lord Chesterfield in his famous book of letters to his son two hundred years ago said, “The knowledge of the world is only to be gained in the world, not in a closet. Books alone will never teach it to you; but they will help suggest many things to your observation which might otherwise escape you.” (Slide 5)

In our over-institutionalised world, a world driven by an economic imperative not to waste a single moment in unnecessary speculation or personal enquiry, there is a growing temptation to assume that “wrap-around schooling” can efficiently provide youngsters with all the experiences they need. In such a world teachers are encouraged to take themselves too seriously, and politicians think they can legislate in areas which earlier generations assumed were the personal affairs of the home. Learning is increasingly coming to be seen as a logical, sequential, planned activity. But it isn’t, is it? Learning often takes us unawares – an insight triggered by some chance happenstance enables us to make sense of what earlier had seemed incomprehensible. (Slide 6)

As we think of the tensions felt daily in so many classrooms by teachers and pupils alike it’s not too hard for us to appreciate the statement from evolutionary psychology made eight years ago, “You can take man out of the Stone Age, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of man.” (Slide 7)