Experts are quick to grasp the overall situation, rather than just focusing on one part. “Big issues” fascinate them. The American Professor of Education Howard Gardner defines experts as those who think about a concept by drawing on insights from several forms of intelligence.
Unlike the specialist’s supreme confidence within a specialism (not much use when the walls of that specialism are falling apart!), the expert is essentially open to different disciplines and questioning, more aware of what he doesn’t yet know rather than what is already known. Experts understand the rules but they also know how to reformulate them and expand them to fit new circumstances. These people are not afraid to link the sciences and the humanities.
Such people are rare and, unless Messrs. Woodhead and Hegarty appreciate the difference between expertise and specialisation, we may actually end up having even fewer experts in the future. Remember Professor Robinson’s comment from April 9th that “outside education the real revolutions are happening in multimedia and the applications of new technologies. These are breaking down the barriers between disciplines. The scientists and technologists are developing the new technology, but artists and designers are pushing forward the applications and creating new opportunities.” Unless we can create many experts, England will indeed struggle to compete in a global economy that prizes innovation and adaptability.
There is a solution to the Committee’s dilemma. Creativity is essentially an aspect of expertise. Creativity can’t be taught. You gain creativity through the experience of problem-solving within a specific domain, and then stepping outside and looking at this with a fresh eye; only then do you see things to which the specialist with his tightly defined rules and procedures is blind. That’s when the young specialist starts to mature and begins to formulate the vision of the expert; expertise is a frame of mind that starts forming in the nursery.
While specialisation has become a feature of modern society, it is not, however, particularly natural to the human brain. The brain has evolved over the millennia to be a multi-faceted, multi-tasked organism predisposed to thinking about new data and ideas from various perspectives. This is where the findings of cognitive science join with, and expand, the research into the biological nature of learning and the functioning of the human brain. The brain works in terms of wholes and parts simultaneously. The glory of human learning is that it is essentially a complex, messy, non-linear process. The brain can, literally, do almost anything.
As Professor Robert Sylwester of Oregon writes, “Get rid of the damn machine model of the brain. It’s wrong. The brain is a biological system, not a machine. Currently we’re putting children with biologically shaped brains into machine-oriented schools. The two just don’t mix. We bog the school down in a curriculum that is not biologically feasible.”
Patterns and relationships, emotions, the need to make sense, intrinsic motivation, formal and informal learning – all of these are processed and developed in the most amazing interconnected and multi-layered ways which neurologists can now actually “see” in action through the technologies of functional MRI and CAT scans. These new findings are what makes the study of learning such an exciting thing, but they also warn us that a highly directive, prescriptive curriculum which “goes against the grain of the brain” will inevitably inhibit creativity and enterprise.
Please, Mr. Woodhead, take notice. For without deep, rigorous, cross-disciplinary thinking about the nature of human learning so many of your present reforms will give us specialists, not experts. In a knowledge society, where everyone has to be able to function at ever higher levels of thinking, it is not an early bifurcation between specialists and generalists that is needed, rather it is to take specialists beyond their comfort zones into being the “polymaths” that modern society requires, and in which the brain naturally delights. After all that is how our ancestors survived; only through peripheral vision did the single-minded specialist avoid being gobbled up by the predators of the past.
Watching so many current well-intentioned school-based innovations, I worry that England will again try advocating putting new linen patches onto old wineskins. Our classical education should tell us what a disaster that would be! Too much has already changed for us not to recognise that we have to deal systemically with the very institutions of learning themselves. Other countries are preparing to leapfrog the very arrangements that you are trying desperately to sustain. From an “offshore” perspective I’m aware of those countries who are preparing “to think smarter, not just harder”. They are starting to grab at these ideas and develop strategies highly compatible with the natural functioning of the brain. They are preparing to leapfrog us…and they could do so relatively quickly. Their objective? Creativity and Expertise.