Professor Roland Meighan is a writer, publisher, broadcaster, and consultant/researcher on learning systems, past present and future. He is Director of Educational Heretics Press, Director of Education Now Publishing Co-operative Ltd. Director/Trustee of the Centre for Personalised Education Trust Ltd.


In the UK, in 1999 something is about to happen that seemed impossible 25 years ago. We are about to enter the next century with the same basic learning system with which we entered this century. A previous Chief Inspector of Schools, Edmond Holmes, wrote off this kind of system, based on imposed uniformity, as ‘The Tragedy of Education’ in 1911. It was both anti-educational and unchristian, he explained. Bertrand Russell in 1935 gave his verdict: “We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.” But since 1977 UK has gone back to just such a system. In this situation there is an urgent need to try to establish some principles of reconstruction if we are to cope with the challenges of the next century.

Principle one: Uniform approaches to all, are intellectual death to some

Given the fact that we are able to locate over thirty differences in individual learning styles, any uniform approach to the curriculum or to learning is intellectual death to some, and often most, of the learners, and is therefore suspect. These learning differences fall into three broad categories, cognitive, affective and physiological.

Thus, some learners have a style which is typically deductive in contrast to those whose style is usually inductive. Others learn best from material which is predominantly visual as against others who respond best to auditory experiences. There are contrasts between impulsive learners and reflective learners. Some learn better with some background noise, others learn better in conditions of quiet. Some are early day learners, for their peak learning time is in the morning, whereas others are afternoon learners, and others late-day learners. As Aviram observes in “Non-lococentric Education” Educational Review, 1992, volume 44, no. 1:

“In sum, we have sound empirical evidence that both individuals’ motivation for learning and the effectiveness of their learning processes vary with the ability of the environment to cater to their specific learning styles.”

In The Age of Unreason, (1989, London: Arrow), Charles Handy notes that another way in which individuals differ is in types of intelligence. At least seven types of intelligence, (analytical, pattern, musical, physical, practical, intra-personal, and inter-personal) are identifiable. Only the first is given serious attention in UK schools. Handy declares:

“All the seven intelligences, and there may be more, will be needed even more in the portfolio world towards which we are inching our way. It is crazy, therefore, to use only the first of the intelligences as the criterion for further investment in any individual by society.”

Principle two: What we want to see is the learner in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the learner.

Principle two is a quotation from the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. It identifies the basic flaw in official thinking in Britain about education as something to be ‘done to’ learners rather than something the learners are encouraged and coached to do better for themselves. This is not a pious hope. This is exactly how parents assist their children in learning to talk and walk, and to begin to make sense of the world around them. Thus, arguably, the most successful piece of learning we can find operates on this principle. How stupid of us to forget it, ignore it or lose confidence in it.

Principle three: The modern world requires behaviour flexibility and competence in all the three forms of discipline: authoritarian, autonomous and democratic

Schools in the UK work almost exclusively to an authoritarian model of behaviour. Being comfortable with the logistics of authoritarian behaviour is useful and necessary because there are situations in which this is the appropriate pattern. Therefore, the authoritarian form of discipline has a modest part to play in the scheme of things, but only a modest part. Other types of discipline are necessary at other times. Autonomous behaviour and discipline are more appropriate much of the time. Indeed, we live in a world that increasingly expects people to manage their own lives in an autonomous way. In other situations, co-operative or democratic patterns of behaviour and discipline are appropriate.

The absence of democratic experience is a serious weakness of present-day schools. Far more than at present, schools, homes, and the community could be enabling pupils/students to learn the democratic arts of co-operatively planning, doing and reviewing all aspects of their education. This implies that they would learn to speak their minds responsibly and with civility, but nonetheless fearlessly, and listen attentively to others. These skills are not merely optional or desirable, but absolutely essential to the education of people who are to be citizens of a democratic country, and creative members of a participant workforce, in the next century. The obsessively authoritarian and competitive schools favoured by the present government cannot meet these needs of future citizens. Until schools become more flexible in providing the variety of behaviour patterns necessary, they are doing their pupils a disservice – ‘mis-educating’ them.

This participation cannot happen successfully unless the next generation, from their earliest years, becomes accustomed to it, and acquires by experience the inner strength which can empower it to negotiate responsibly, and ultimately on equal terms with parents, teachers and fellow pupils/students, with the assurance that their voice will be heard. Learners need real, honest respect. It is not enough to talk in abstract terms about how we value the individuality of our young people, if we only show our esteem in token ways, such as letting them have a school council, but only letting it discuss non-controversial subjects. This breeds cynicism and alienation in many young people. Participation must be real, and involve the actual experience of sharing power and responsibility for decision-making, otherwise it will be rejected as mere adult manipulation. Tacking a study called citizenship on to the imposed curriculum will not do it.

Principle four: With information doubling in quantity about every ten years we need a different kind of learning

As regards knowledge, we need to avoid approaches that imply that everyone needs to know the same bank of information or that learners of the same age need to know identical things. Subjects, the staple diet of schools, are only a minor part of the tool-kit of knowledge and declining in importance. In any case, learning the tool-kit does not constitute an education. We do, however, need another kind of knowledge to be effective in the modern world – the ‘know-how’ of the researcher. This requires that we know how to find out, to learn, relearn and unlearn, and how to manage our own learning on the principles of ‘plan, do and review’.

Principle five: An iron law of education is that ‘rigid systems produce rigid people and flexible systems produce flexible people’.