This paper was prepared in July and August of 2004, and slightly modified in September, after meetings with several groups who suggested that it had a value as a general discussion document for audiences broader than I had originally anticipated.
English state schools have been so starved of money for so many years, especially money for capital development, that when the Labour Party promises (if it is re- elected) to increase annual expenditure from £30 billion in 1997 to £64 billion in 2007/8—with capital spending going up even more rapidly from £680 million in 1997 to £5 billion in 2005—a sense of euphoria naturally fills the educational air. At last, people say, schools will really be able to do it all. It’s bonanza time. Get out your drawing boards and put in for all you’ve ever asked for or dreamt about.
The English government’s approach to education has, historically, been piecemeal. Accepting as a “given” (which it should not) that there is a justifiable split at the age of eleven into a primary and secondary sector, the emphasis in Labour’s first two terms of office has been largely on the younger age group. Now the attention is shifting to the far more difficult task of reforming secondary education, a difficulty that England shares with many other developed countries; quite simply adolescents don’t fit comfortably into class rooms, and if they’re forced too hard to do so they lose much of their sparkle and creativity and don’t emerge from the system with the promise which had been evident in earlier years. This worries many people—parents, teachers, politicians, religious and community leaders. As a student of how the brain works and how humans learn, this certainly troubles me greatly. Meanwhile, as a token of its good faith, government has promised secondary education a massive £15 billion over the next ten years to replace all the old secondary school buildings. This is a huge amount of money by any standard, and it seems the politicians want the money spent quickly. They want some good photographs of their beneficence, for in our world pictures convince an electorate more effectively than words (and that in itself is a sad indictment of the education of earlier generations).
The English, it seems, are increasingly in favour of institutional solutions to complex, social problems. Which is strange for a country in which, historically, individuals used to take great pride in their own, frequently perverse, often idiosyncratic, but sometimes brilliant creativity. That England should now be so enthusiastic about extending institutional schooling is even stranger, given many an Englishman’s antipathy towards schooling when they were children themselves. Stranger still when research is just starting to become available to show the critical importance of those “open learning” situations only to be found in the emotionally-supportive environment of the home, or the naturally complex, unpredictable nature of the informal community. Stranger again to an historian who knows that great inventors, politicians, and shapers of public opinion have often been “the oddballs”, the children who did not fit comfortably into any form of institutional provision. Einstein, for example, didn’t start talking until he was four, or write until he was six. By current educational prescription the greatest scientist of his time would have been deemed in need of Special Education. Charles Darwin failed to qualify for a degree at both Edinburgh and Cambridge universities; Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics, failed every exam to become a high school teacher in Austria; and Bill Gates was virtually withdrawn from formal classroom
work at the age of 13. What was common to each of these, and the tens of thousands of other significant innovators, was that they found the world beyond the school fascinating, and had the time and opportunity to explore it, as have millions of other “ordinary” men and women.
During the summer of this year, invitations to address conferences in a number of parts of the world have given me a special opportunity to observe how other countries are dealing with the enhanced expectations of education, and the apparent limitations of schooling. Oftentimes people have reminded me of the ancient words of Confucius: “Tell me and I forget; Show me and I remember; Let me do, and I understand.” Unless youngsters feel personally involved in the work they are doing the very best teaching in the world won’t get them past Confucius’ second stage, the “remembering” bit. That’s fine for passing exams, but it’s totally inadequate for an uncertain world where what youngsters really need is understanding. It’s only at the stage of understanding that youngsters feel equipped to deal with continuous and unpredictable change. That third stage takes time to consolidate and, critically, it involves being prepared to take risks, and then knowing how to correct your mistakes.
In Canada in later September a bright fifteen year old girl, participating in a two-day conference alongside two hundred people – mainly adults – commented; “classes are boring ‘cos we don’t have to think about what we’re doing. We’re just told to copy stuff down off the board, or from what the teacher tells us. It makes us lazy… in fact, sorry to say this, but it’s you teachers who make us lazy.” That this girl felt confident enough to make such a comment was in many ways a complement to what is well recognised to be a very good school board district… but to her young, impressionable mind, still not good enough.
Having lectured in recent months in Tokyo, Ottawa and Melbourne, Vancouver, Accra and California—as well as to a score or more of conferences in England, Wales and Ireland—I’ve heard the comments of literally thousands of teachers, administrators and community leaders. At an international school in Yokohama I heard teachers concerned that their curriculum (the International Baccalaureate which, by current English standards, is very broadly based) did not do enough to give pupils the insights, already available to teachers, that are coming from the bio-medical sciences about how human behaviour and psychology have been shaped by our evolutionary origins. What we need to develop, said those teachers, was a “Humankind Curriculum” for the students, something that would make it far easier for them to appreciate what does, and does not, make humans “tick”. In an equally impressive school in Melbourne, a school with very high academic standards, I was told that a major problem for them was that a number of their youngsters who, coming from very privileged homes, had so little “street experience” that the school had—quite literally—to teach pupils how to use the public transport system. Such pupils had deemed it beneath their dignity (and their parents’ assumed status) ever to use a bus or a train, and were frightened of doing so.
That Australian school’s response was fascinating. Over recent years the school has developed four small country campuses where pupils could experience life away from home and away from the city whilst still studying. I visited one of these in the old gold- mining town of Clunes, some 70 miles outside Melbourne. In its time it had been a boom town of some 30,000 gold diggers, but now only 800 people live around Main Street with its broad, but decaying, boardwalks and rickety wooden verandas. Every term (they operate on a four-term year) 110 pupils go to Clunes for ten weeks. They live in “houses”, each of which accommodates eight pupils. For a whole term, each
house has to organise its own cooking and housekeeping, and the students have to organise their own learning, centring around just two subjects which they have to select for themselves—projects often linked with the environment, or subjects which require the extensive use of electronic technology to connect to worldwide databases. Their “teachers” are local people, specially trained for the job. Their “school” teachers are left behind in Melbourne. In a term, these pupils become an integral part of the Clunes community—they play in its football team, help with odd jobs, organise a crèche, go to the local church and join in community barn dances and the like. Months later some of the pupils persuaded their parents to take them back for a holiday in the town, which they felt was theirs; somewhere they could reverse the normal parent/child role and become the guides to their own parents.
“Clunes has become so much part of what this school is about,” said Helen Drennen, the Principal (head teacher), “that parents and teachers alike regard Clunes as a key rite of passage, a very special response which we are making to the needs of adolescents. Quite simply we can see them grow up in that short, ten week period. They go in as children and come out as young people. Clunes is helping us rethink the whole of our middle school curriculum. We teachers have to escape from thinking that school is the only aspect of education we should be concerned with. It most certainly is not. These young people need many more opportunities to grow as individuals, and most importantly to have the opportunity to be on their own, with time to think, away from both parents and teachers. In addition to Clunes, we have a rural studies base called Chum Creek in the Snowy Mountains, a sailing centre on the coast, and an urban studies centre in the heart of the city. One day we could see youngsters at the critical ages of twelve, 13 and 14 spending four terms (the equivalent of a year) in such fascinating, diverse, personally challenging, and enormously enriching communities.”
Community is a concept that has followed me through the summer. It started when the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) asked me to provide the keynote introduction to their first-ever worldwide electronic conference, a conference that eventually was accessed by teachers in some 76 countries. The conference was entitled “Enriching Community: Concepts of Community in the Future”. I started by acknowledging that community is a nebulous, slippery concept which, while it lacks precision, is nevertheless intuitively plausible. Communities are places in which we can feel secure, because the likelihood is that people will understand and support us; communities tend to be relatively self-contained, with well-defined boundaries. Within communities we can feel comfortable enough simply to be ourselves. William Allman’s study of how our Stone Age ancestors’ behaviour still shapes our current neurological processes, writes that: “The key to understanding [human] evolutionary success, as well as our unique combination of everyday behaviours that sets us apart from any other living creature to date, is our unique talent as human beings to learn.”* Survival is almost totally dependant on our skill at making relationships with other people, and such social relationships are dependent on our ability to empathise with others, and to understand our ever-changing surroundings. Learning and community are so intertwined as to be inseparable.
Networks, of which we all belong to several, are groups of people joined together around a professional task. A community is different to a network. The distinction is very important. Communities are “collections of friends and families [that extend] the family association to a band of honorary brothers and sisters held together by a complex set of relationships forged through commonality and obligation”.
Communities as with families have layers upon layers of relationships and shared experiences that give a context to the individual’s sense of meaning. Communities are composed of the kinds of people whose door you would feel at liberty to knock on in a
crisis in the middle of the night. Networks of common professional interest are very different—tightly defined areas of interest with their own accepted hierarchies. Nothing more, nothing less.
In my lecture to the IBO, as at other times, I quoted the Australian philosopher John MacMurray: “Since individualism misrepresents our nature, it follows that communal life is the normal state for human beings. But human life is not organic; a shared* existence is a matter of intention, not of fact. Community has to be created and sustained by conscious purpose, and the more successfully this is done, the more we fulfil our personal natures.” That’s a statement that requires a second, even a third reading.
We yearn for community, it seems, from the depths of our subconscious, but paradoxically, community only comes from our consciously working at creating it. This ties up exactly with the findings of Matt Ridley in his popular book of last year on evolutionary psychology, Nature Via Nurture*. Very simply, we have it within our natures to be social, but unless our culture (nurture, as Ridley would explain it) values community, then we never develop those deep-seated skills that we have all inherited. We grew up as isolates. Our ancestors knew something which, in our modern, hyped- up world, we like to forget: if we tried to exist just on our own, life becomes a tough struggle. Develop our social skills, however, and in a collaborative situation, two heads are better than one. But, MacMurray says, this simply doesn’t happen accidentally. We have to learn collaboration through being collaborative.
The IBO presentation stimulated many responses. “Schools are more like networks of people with specific professional interests, rather than ‘family associations … bound together by a complex set of relationships based on commonality and obligation’”, many people said. “At least that is the case, as far as children are concerned, for, when the chips are down, pupils can be expelled, or given a failure grade. Families can’t do that, or if they do, they’re no longer functional”, said another. A response from Turkey was perceptive: “Schools are not good copies of the world. There is a great deal that adults outside the school can teach more successfully than teachers in school can. And for schools to provide an environment for sustaining the learning of their students they need to be in constant interaction with the rest of the community.” I liked that response. It reminded me of what I had said nearly ten years previously: “Good schools alone can never be good enough to provide a youngster with everything they need.” My Turkish respondent went further: “Where schools are dependent on regulation by the state and are obliged to transmit a national ideology, the capacity for meaningful and productive dialogue on many important issues is understandably limited, even where schools have the best of intentions.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the tradition of a grammar school teacher of the late ’60s and early ’70s. We saw our job as giving students the skills needed to work things out for themselves. We expected them to be “responsible individualists”, and we taught them to question social assumptions before making them their own. Yet, looking now at education in England and other advanced industrial cultures, isn’t there a dangerous, and often unchallenged, assumption that the curriculum has to prepare youngsters – both as contributing to and participating within – a consumerist and materialistic society? Aren’t we in danger of creating conformists?
Twice this year I’ve had the pleasure of lecturing on the subject of adolescence to international conferences on the Pacific Coast of North America. The first was in Victoria, on Vancouver Island (see the paper on the website, www.21learn.org, “Lieutenant Peter Puget, the Grain of the Brain, and Modern Society’s Failure to
Understand Adolescence”), and in July to the North American section of the IBO at its annual conference in Monterey. In Vancouver I had urged that the doctrine of Subsidiarity—“it is wrong for a superior body to hold on to the right of making a decision that an inferior is already able to make for itself”—should be the guiding principle for the evolving relationship between teacher and student, as it has also to be between parent and child. I argued that our present form of schooling has become so dominated by the processes of simulated learning within structured schooling that we are in grave danger of producing an over-schooled but under-educated generation of youngsters. We are in danger, as I see it, of producing vast numbers of young people who can carry out quite brilliant analysis of a wide range of issues but who lack that very special quality of “flow”—inspired, spontaneous creativity—the potential for which biology has endowed each one of us. This potential will only be realised, however, if— and it is a very big “if”—we have been allowed to “have our own head” in our teenage years, and have learned to put into practice (including learning from the mistakes we will inevitably make) what previously were only someone else’s ideas put into our heads through instruction.
The second conference came some two months after Time had published the important article “What Makes Teens Tick”, which explained how a flood of hormones and a host of structural changes in the brain made adolescents so exciting and so exasperating. I was much impressed by how many of the 600 or so teachers had read this. I therefore extended my presentation by calling on an article published in an Australian newspaper at the end of April.
More food of a higher quality, together with the eradication of many of the diseases which used to slow down the physical development of children in previous generations, has radically altered the balance between physical and emotional growth in the adolescent years. In simple terms, over only two or three generations the body of the adolescent has started to mature far more rapidly than the brain, which continues to develop at the slower pace set by our evolutionary origins. “Adolescence is now an extended period of vulnerability, starting much earlier and finishing later than ever before. The average age at which puberty hits is now twelve or 13, compared with 16 just a few decades ago”, wrote Michael Carr-Gregg in the article.
“As puberty occurs earlier, it’s no longer in synchronisation with brain development, so adolescent psychologists are often confronted with a young woman, fully physically developed, complete with hipster jeans, flaunting her rebellion on a pierced naval, but with the cognitive capacity of a 13-year-old. A souped-up car with all the extras—but the driver has no license.” If that sounds a sexist comment, balance that with the thought of the six foot high, slightly gangly but muscular, boy already sprouting a beard at sixteen but still unable to discipline himself to any form of delayed gratification.
“So why should early puberty make life tougher for this generation and expose them to higher rates of depression and anxiety?”, asked Carr-Gregg. “Between childhood and adolescence, there is a stage of development that Sigmund Freud called the ‘latency period’. This is a period of reduced sexuality that occurred between about age seven and adolescence—when boys and girls turn their backs on each other and formed special attachments with same-sex peers. It was a time when youngsters gathered physical and psychological strength to explore the world, becoming confident learners and confident socially. They were marshalling their forces to be able to go in to puberty”, he explained.
“What we’re now seeing is a short circuiting of the latency period, when young people used to develop a sense of who they were, and where they fitted into the world. Today, some young people merely dip their toes into the latency period before a combination of peer pressure, an unrelenting marketing machine, and their own
physiology, lures them into the kaleidoscope of adolescence. Many are psychologically underdone. The result is young people who look and behave much older and who are led to believe they are more suave and sophisticated than they really are. They haven’t completed the vital work of latency and their problem-solving and decision-making skills tend to be less well developed.”
What was being done at Clunes, and what very many teachers knew who used to have the time to take young people on extended expeditions and camping trips in England, was that to feed this period of latency between childhood and adolescence was vitally important. In simple, uncomplicated ways, totally outside the legislative realm of any government, children learnt real skills while delivering newspapers, working on market stalls, helping on the farm or in the shop, or running errands for old people. Steady growth in the latency period is critical for a balanced life, and it is here that to plant the understanding of community interaction is so very important. All too often, however, this simply doesn’t happen. The Australian newspaper concluded: “Combine this with time-poor parents, lack of ritual and tradition, spiritual anorexia, mixed media messages (be sexy—but be good), and higher expectations in terms of material acquisition, academic performance and career choices, and the adolescents of 2004 are arguably the most vulnerable generation Australia has ever seen.”
That explanation was greeted with great interest in Monterey. “That exactly explains what is happening in the States”, an articulate and exasperated teacher exclaimed, “and it is totally beyond the school to respond. Yet again it proves to me that unless the school and the community work together—that means asking the administrator of the school system to stop being so arrogant and pretending that the school can do it all, and turning to parents and community leaders and challenging them to wake up to their side of the bargain, in essence, for adults to give children of their time, not of their money—we will inevitably fail.”
As those American and Canadian teachers talked, my mind went back to a meeting I had addressed three months earlier in the English county of Northumberland, that vast expanse of open rolling countryside to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and to the south of the River Tweed at Berwick. It is an area rich in history and the romance of Sir Walter Scott, with a rugged coastline that includes the ancient holy island of Lindesfarne, and rises to the spectacular high country of Kielder and the valleys of the Scottish Lowlands. It is a county of many villages, scattered market towns, and only a few major urban centres. Accepting the very scattered nature of its population, Northumberland was one of the counties which, in the 1950s, opted for a three-tier system of schooling. Small local primary schools for children up to the age of nine; slightly larger middle schools for the 9-13 year-olds, and even larger secondary schools for the 13-18 year-olds. It is the kind of schooling that directly relates to travelling time: the under 9s largely attended school in their own village—and walked there. Many 9-13 year-olds had a relatively short bus journey to one of the county’s 45 middle schools, while nearly all the 13-18 year-olds had a significantly longer bus ride, often amounting to 45 minutes or more each way. In practice, many children remained relatively close to their home community until the age of 13—in this they are fortunate because, over much of England, children who live in the country transfer to secondary schools, and endure long bus rides, at the earlier age of eleven. The great majority of the 150 English LEAs regard eleven as the age of transfer and, in recent years, central government has come to assume that the age of 11 is a “natural” watershed, and has geared the four Key Stages of the National Curriculum to accommodate this. Many parents of children in Northumberland schools however appreciate what I would see as their good fortune in having a system that seems to be more effectively matched to the developmental needs of their children in school, and still leaves time for them to gain experience from their neighbourhoods.
There is no strong developmental reason to see the age of eleven as significant. That it has become so is largely the result of a historic compromise. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the absence of any state secondary schools, very many successful elementary schools had started to extend their curriculum to cater for children up to the age of 13, and in a few cases even further. So successful were these “all through schools” (very similar to the schools in present day Finland, the country at the top of the OECD attainment list) that they unnerved the traditional grammar schools with their strict classical curriculum. Pupils simply found the idea of the “all through school” far more appropriate to their needs, and the grammar schools, much favoured by the middle classes, started to lose out. Culminating in the 1902 Education Act, the grammar schools and the newly established public schools, effectively killed off the “all through school” (called, at the time, a Higher Elementary School). On the understanding that eventually government would provide free education for everybody up to the age of 14, the independent Public Schools urged government that pupils in the state schools should transfer at the age of eleven, fearing that if their transfer age were the same as the independent schools, social boundaries (which late Victorian society was determined to preserve) would be broken down, and that some state-educated elementary school pupils would seek entry to the elite Public Schools. 1902 is a long time ago, but in 1944, the year in which so much of what we still regard as the English educational landscape was shaped, Winston Churchill was determined to do nothing that would undermine the precarious position of the public schools, and insisted that R. A. Butler, his Minster of Education at the time, maintain the age of eleven as the age of transfer. So, for more than a hundred years, most children in England have moved from the security of a small primary school to the much larger secondary school just at the moment that they find themselves in the middle of Freud’s ‘latency period’, the period which contemporary studies in neurobiology show to be very unstable. Fortunate indeed to my way of thinking were the pupils in Northumberland, and some 24 other authorities, which still had a middle school structure.
With my mind full of all these issues about the significance of early adolescence, I arrived in Gosforth in March to address some 200 governors of Northumberland schools. I quickly detected a deep tension in the room, with an apparent invisible wall separating the officers of the authority from the school governors. Quickly I was briefed that the authority had recently received an unsatisfactory Ofsted report; a number of long standing officers had left or been dismissed, and a new team of officers appointed to streamline the functioning of the educating services. This, it had been assumed by many of the governors, could well mean the closing of the middle schools and the strengthening of the secondary schools. I had to remind myself of recent educational history; English education traditionally has been managed through a series of ‘checks and balances.’ For the better part of eighty years Parliament legislated in general terms for an appropriate ‘structure’ for education, and left its actual administration to local government. Schools, though being funded by government, were nominally under the responsibility of locally appointed governors. As the balance of power between central and local government has shifted in the past twenty years in favour of central control, so lay people involved with education (such as governors) find themselves struggling to defend local interests against what they see as ‘their officers’ who they believe have become more the agents of national government funding, rather than representative of local interests. Senior officers find themselves in a ‘no win’ situation as they struggle to meet the criteria set nationally for the measurement of the ‘efficiency’ of their authority, and the fierce local attachment of governors to the centrality of each school (however small it may be) to the vitality of the local community.
It is a struggle that has played out in many rural areas of England over the past couple of decades; in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, vast areas of Yorkshire, and in the far Southwest, in Devon and Cornwall. Over the years I have seen go up the banners of determined local people to ‘Save Our Schools’, only to fade, and blow away, as a protracted period of local consultation culminates in the sale of the local school, and often its transformation into a desirable bijou second home for a city banker. Just as numerous “Old Rectories” in many an English village record the decline of the influence of the Church twenty or thirty years ago so too is the fast emergence of “The Old School House” a measure of the recent removal of education from the local community.
The governors of Northumberland were not prepared to concede defeat easily, many of them have come to see the authority officers as people to fight, rather than work with; a situation helpful to neither side, and disastrous to the children. Of the possible restructuring of the three-tier system of schooling an articulate older governor said, “A cost-saving scheme to the authority and their masters in London,” an articulate older governor said, “by making it necessary for even more of our pupils to spend even longer hours on buses everyday and lose even more of their tenuous connections with the local community”.
Herein lies the problem, for our schools, our homes and our communities, I told the group. It is the way in which the meaning of efficiency has been perverted to become an end in itself—not a means to a more significant set of ends. Efficiency is a concept dating back to the ancient Greeks. However, the Greek philosophers used the term in a significantly different way to the meaning ascribed to it by the late twentieth-century advocates of open markets. To the Greeks, efficiency was a means towards achieving Virtue, both for the individual and for the state. It was not an end in its own right, as the modern world has reconstituted it, and its benefits were assumed to be for everybody, not just the successful. It aimed at a far more inclusive and democratic outcome. Edward Luttwak, the highly-influential author of Turbo Capitalism and Fellow of the Strategic Resources Institute in the United States, wrote of efficiency in 2001: “I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs, because everything we value in human life is within the realms of inefficiency—love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits and comfortable old shoes.” Which is what those governors who understood the significance for children of their local communities understood.
It’s hardly surprisingly, therefore, that my lecture on the developmental needs of adolescents to be met partly by a community response and partly with an institutional response, gave little comfort to those officers who saw complying with London as a way of releasing much-needed funds, but was greeted with enthusiasm by those governors who understood that learning was more than schooling.
I was confused and saddened as I drove home that evening. Ringing in my ears was the parting comment of one of the officers: “It’s not us you need to blame. There is a conviction amongst policy makers in London that schools can do it all. They even think that we should believe that as well. In a sense it’s understandable. The ‘school effectiveness movement’ has been remarkably successful over the last ten or twelve years in improving those results which are easily measured. In terms that politicians like to quote, schools really do make a difference. But you’re right, as so many of the governors know but could not put properly into words: there really is more to education than schooling”.
That night, I noted in my day book: “If Huckleberry Finn was right, and education is what remains when you’ve forgotten everything that you ever learned in school, vast numbers of today’s youngsters are going to look back at their youth and see an
educational wilderness. If more and more children in Northumberland and other parts of the country are to spend ever longer in a bus and a classroom, what an extraordinary waste of those natural learning opportunities that exist in a part of the world that has meant so much to British history since the time of the Romans.”
Back home at my desk the following morning I was making some final editorial corrections to my new book, Master and Apprentice: Reuniting Thinking with Doing. As chance would have it I was working on the thinking that went into the construction of that Education Act of 1944 whose implications are still so very much with us today. R. A. Butler, a man of genuine liberal and humanitarian values, struggled to incorporate these into a department that remained largely cavalier in its attitude towards the needs of ‘ordinary’ children. Writing in support of Butler was a remarkable man, Richard Livingstone, a classical scholar of great note, at the time Master of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and soon to become Vice Chancellor of that university. In the dark days of 1940 this man wrote what is, for me, one of the most wonderful books about education I know, a slim volume simply entitled The Future in Education.
Every teacher and administrator I know ought to pack this book in their backpack as summer holiday reading. It’s as appropriate to 2004 as it was 60 years ago when it was widely read. Sample some of this: “If the school sends out children with the desire for knowledge and some ideas of how to acquire and use it, it will have done its work. Too many children leave school with the appetite killed and the mind loaded with undigested lumps of information. The good schoolmaster is known by the number of valuable subjects that he declines to teach.” Or another: “It sometimes seems to be forgotten that people can read after they have left school, and that if a school is unable to teach children to wish to read for themselves, it will be unable to teach them anything else of value.” Or a third: “What an amazing, and chaotic thing [is secondary education]! One subject after another is pressed into this bursting portmanteau which ought to be confined to the necessary clothes for a journey through life, but becomes a wardrobe of bits of costume for any emergency!” This was a classical scholar writing, an apparent pillar of the establishment but in practice an ardent believer in the right of the common man to access the highest levels of knowledge; a man who passionately believed in the transformational value of education.
Good education, said Livingstone as Confucius had long before him, is governed by “a law of delayed action by which seed sown and long forgotten only grows in later years … The most precious fruit of a good teacher’s work are those he is never likely to see.” Which certainly does upset modern statistical assessment processes! Nevertheless the main problem, argued Livingstone, (and called the classical writers of Greece and Rome as evidence) is that “if our education is to be really fruitful, we must recognise a principle which has been almost wholly ignored in education—the cross-fertilisation of theory with experience. There should”, he argued most compellingly, “be a continuous interaction between the two.” Livingstone quoted from a letter of long ago from Lord Chesterfield to his son: “The knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet. Books alone will never teach it to you; but they will suggest many things to your observation which might otherwise have escaped you.” A beautifully balanced sentiment.
So what did this soon-to-be Vice Chancellor of Oxford University suggest? Full-time education for everybody up to the age of 14 in small, locally based schools, followed by two or three years of part paid employment and part education (education not in vocational skills but in matters of the mind—philosophy, literature and history) and again for everybody. After this “when the mind has been informed by experience”, a return to full-time education of either an academic or vocational nature for at least two or three more years. Higher education would then follow as appropriate.
“Without theory practice is unintelligible, without practice, theory is not understood”
was the core of Livingstone’s argument. If anyone was left in any doubt as to the severity of his criticism of formal structures as he experienced them in the 1930s, he quoted a graphic illustration from the philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (who, with his former pupil Bertrand Russell, wrote his Principia Mathematica, a work said to have been the greatest contribution to logic since Aristotle). In an “Essay on Education” Whitehead wrote of the danger of what he called “inert ideas, that is to say ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised or tested or thrown into fresh combinations … education with inert ideas is not only useless; it is above all things harmful … Except at rare intervals of intellectual ferment, education in the past has been radically infected by inert ideas. That is why uneducated, clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in later life so much the most cultured part of the community. They have been saved from this horrible burden of inert ideas.”
That was written more than 60 years ago but, far from being out of date current research in the biomedical sciences, in psychology and evolutionary psychology, in complexity and systems theory, not to mention a whole library of pedagogic literature, reinforces time and again Livingstone’s argument about the danger of splitting theory from practice. Nine years ago I set out the implications of this research (ASCD, 1995) in a paper frequently reprinted: “A new model of learning that would work on the basis of the biological concept of weaning—giving very young children plentiful help and direction, and then reducing this instruction progressively as children master more and more skills for themselves. In such a model, as adolescence ends, young people would have already taken full responsibility for directing their own learning. The age of 18 should mark not the beginning of independent learning but the age by which young people have perfected that art and know how to exercise it responsibly. Formal schooling must start a dynamic process through which pupils are progressively weaned from teachers and institutions and given the confidence to manage their own learning.”
To achieve such a model of learning we must reappraise the entire school system and its current use of resources, and effectively turn it upside down and inside out. Early childhood learning matters enormously. We must progressively show the youngest children that a lesson, say about history, can also be a lesson about how to learn and how to remember. As children grow older they would start to become their own teachers. The older the child becomes, the more he or she would become a productive resource of value to the greater community. This would involve creating smaller classes in the early years of education (using developmentally appropriate styles of teaching) and progressively providing children with an ever-richer array of learning resources and situations. Learning should no longer be confined to an institution—opportunities for it to happen should become a responsibility of the whole community. It is not merely teachers who can teach, nor simply pupils who need to learn, and it is certainly not just the classroom that can be the major access point of knowledge, information and skills.
Our new understanding is paralleled by radical developments in technology. The technological revolution holds the power to alter our education system, our work, and our culture. Indeed, this revolution puts learning and our traditional education systems on a collision course. The essence of the coming integrated, universal, multi-media digital network is discovery—the empowerment of the human mind to learn spontaneously, independently, and collaboratively, without coercion.
Such a learning environment would then be highly compatible with the natural functioning of the brain, with what we know about human aspirations and, in particular, with the adolescent’s need to feel involved and valued. The current crisis in learning has originated not so much in the failure of our classrooms as in the failure of our communities to capture the imagination, involvement and active participation of young people. Such communities would make for a better, more exciting world in which living, working and learning came together and would recreate vibrant and genuinely self-sustaining communities.
Interspersed with doing editorial work on the book—the appropriateness of whose title must by now be readily obvious to all readers of this paper—I was much involved in presentations and training programmes for head teachers in Birmingham, Peterborough and Manchester. Foremost in the minds of the Senior Officers of those Authorities was how to respond to the government’s urgent request for detailed proposals showing how their Authority would spend the money it was offering to rebuild all its old secondary schools. Several Authorities had been offered the chance of being the first to receive such funds and to help them, as I discovered in Manchester when addressing a special conference on “Building Schools for the Future”, the Department in London was providing a selection of their own architects’ fully developed proposals. This is a kind of “turn-key” operation as it’s known in the trade: you say you want something and somebody else will work it all out for you right up to the point at which they give you the key to your newly finished school. All you have to do is walk inside.
Throwing money at a problem that is not properly defined is almost invariably a disaster. Secondary education for the future has most certainly not yet been defined, and it will never be defined simply on the basis of designing buildings. Providing too much food, too quickly, to people who have been on subsistence food levels for many years simply leads to obesity, as was first noted in the United States more than 30 years ago. Whilst England is busy discussing physical obesity in young people, and seems keener on blaming the food industry than in considering why so many of us live unhealthy lifestyles, there is undoubtedly a comparison to be made with education. Both could be killed by obesity.
The reaction of people at that conference was one of confusion. They were afraid to ignore the offer of money, but they desperately wanted to shape their proposals to their actual needs. “The last thing we should be focusing on at the moment”, said one senior officer, “is responding to an urgent government directive about which of half a dozen designs we would prefer. We know that we have to be far more creative than that. We have to collect our arguments about creating whole communities that are rich in learning opportunities, rather than concentrating all our thinking on glass, concrete, and steel replacements of shopping mall kinds of schools that reflect a tired out model of a secondary school invented in the 1950s and 60s, and which didn’t even work well then.”
I talked to that conference about everything in this paper. I discussed the principal of Subsidiarity and of weaning children of their dependence on teachers for instruction; I talked about many aspects of the neurological basis for human learning; of the vital role of the community, and the need for youngsters to have time to work things out for themselves; I warned them of the dangers of believing that big schools were necessarily better than small schools; and I talked of my experience in addressing the staff at Winchester College, perhaps one of the most elite academic schools in the world, and which has never had more than 750 pupils, and a pupil/teacher ratio of less than one to ten.
I reminded them, too, that we were in grave danger of underestimating what children could do, and I told them of a recent conference of 140 Year 9 students on a Gifted and Talented programme that I’d been asked to give about the brain and learning. Sizing up my audience that afternoon as being bright and enthusiastic I kept to the same themes that I would have spoken about to an adult audience, simply modifying the technical language a bit. The youngsters seemed fascinated and were highly attentive. Afterwards two of the teachers came to me, obviously worried. “Don’t you think that was a bit over their heads?”, asked one of them. I thought not, but left the conference slightly troubled that I might be losing my touch. To my delight I received a phone call a week later from the organisers. “I must tell you”, she said excitedly, “that on the evaluations that the children filled out afterwards, your session was way in front of any of the other events. That is fascinating. They obviously loved it even though I must admit that several of us teachers thought it was too hard for them.”
So, in Manchester, Birmingham, Peterborough, Toronto and other places I urged them to find ways of using the money to build off-site campuses to research the nature of teaching and to so invest in developing teachers of real quality that it really would be possible to reverse the present pattern of expenditure so that, eventually, we would not even think of secondary schools as sets of buildings—as they were when we went to school. Many teachers, I learned afterwards, had downloaded details about the Clunes project from the school’s website.
I also challenged them to think more about who were the teachers, and who were the learners. I told the story of how a colleague of mine had been appointed headmistress of Bury Girl’s Grammar School late in an autumn term, leaving her current class of Sixth Form geographers with no teacher for the last two terms before taking their A- levels. In the weeks remaining before leaving the twenty-one students unsupported, she divided the remaining curriculum between them, and taught them how to teach each other. Months later, when the results came out, they were the best results that that school had ever seen: every child got a grade A. When asked to explain how this had happened one student said, “it wasn’t until I knew I had to teach it that I really worked hard enough to understand what it was all about.” Another said, “teaching is such hard work, as I now know to my cost, that when my friends were trying to teach me I was far more attentive than I had ever been to a normal teacher.” That was how they all got grade As.
That is only the first point of this story. Earlier in the summer of this year, Janet arrived slightly early to address the afternoon session of a day conference of head teachers. She sat in on the last 20 minutes of the previous speaker, a young woman who had just been appointed as an advisor to that Authority. The young advisor concluded her presentation by turning to the audience and asking: “I wonder what was your most powerful ever learning experience?” After a few moments of silence she offered her own: “Mine occurred about 14 years ago when my geography teacher left my school at Christmas, leaving me, and the other 20 pupils, to teach each other for the rest of the A-level course. That was when I really started to understand learning.”
I think that is one of the most amazing and exciting stories I have ever heard.
So let me extract just two final thoughts from a summer rich in fascinating memories but one which—so far—has not lessened my fears that England has still not woken up to the reality that however good are the very best schools, they alone will never be good enough to adequately equip youngsters for a changeable, problematic future.
Professor John West-Burnham, who I meet from time to time at various conferences, gave a fascinating presentation to this year’s conference of the Secondary Heads’ Association. “It could be argued”, he said, “that the school system is approaching an optimum state. It is difficult to envisage what else might be done to improve its efficiency and effectiveness … Performance is plateauing.” We need, he said, “to question the fundamental premise of the nature of the school … In many ways schooling is a living fossil.” This had undermined the concept of education, he concluded: “Education has come to be seen as the outcome of schooling rather than a key process of which schooling is a manifestation.”
“Schools”, he went on to say, “reduce key areas of the human experience into time- constrained and disjointed activities. Education by contrast is integrative … it enables unified understanding, and realises that life is not compartmentalised; citizenship is not a subject, a moral and spiritual understanding cannot be taught for they have to be learnt.”
That was a splendid statement. If enough people take notice of that and understand its seriousness then the tide could be beginning to turn. Really good teachers don’t need elaborate buildings to ensure their pupils’ attention. What is for sure is that a merely moderately competent teacher won’t succeed with his pupils in either a palace or a crumbling Victorian edifice. All this begs the biggest question: are English adults up to being quizzed by young people? A dozen years ago I was part of a small project that asked 15 and 16 year-olds what they really needed to improve their learning. Their answer was curious. “What we need most”, they said, “is contact with adults other than parents and teachers. We know what our parents think because they tell us all the time; we are slightly suspicious of teachers as they tell us what it has been decided they think we should be told. We want to know what real people think … because we don’t hear very much from them.”
There is the crunch. If ordinary citizens are not in themselves interesting people then just who is left for the pupils to model themselves on? So I close by taking this paper back to where it started. Schooling is not the problem in itself; it is simply a manifestation of a much deeper problem of malfunctioning communities and collapsed families. In a curious sense this is reassuring. Malfunctioning communities and collapsed families are both things which, in our own small ways, we can each do something about. Indeed if community after community, a thousand people after a thousand people started to do this, no government could stand in their way. In fact, even with a government incentive as big as £15 billion, little will change unless we each, as individual members of families, neighbourhoods, interest groups and faith communities, do our own bit.
21st Century Learning Initiative August, 2004