Janet M. Lawley, former headmistress and an advocate for children.

What a pity that Michael Shaw was unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive apprenticeship as a model of learning and assumed that it was the same as traditional apprenticeship. It is almost two decades since Collins, Brown and Hollum published their thesis, “Cognitive Apprenticeship – Making Thinking Visible”, proposing an apprenticeship model of learning as the closest to the grain of the brain. It is teaching through “guided experience”, an approach which can be applied in all subjects and is already an approach of choice for many students and their teachers. Countless teachers have discovered that it is the natural (not the only) way to learn and help the student to demonstrate conceptual understanding.

It is the application of the principles of modelling (showing), coaching (explaining), scaffolding (supporting) and fading (giving independence), to the classroom and schools. It includes articulation (learning to explain for yourself), reflection (there is no learning without thinking), and exploration of the boundaries (as the students push forward to explore for themselves, to set goals, revise their skills and grow). No one approach is right for every topic or every subject, everyday but teachers would tell you that this approach works. It captures the energy of the adolescent, encouraging each person to think beyond their self-imposed boundaries and to become more than clones of the adults around them. It is not leaving students to discover for themselves or preparing them to become potters or telesales people. It takes full account of recent research and understanding of expert practice. Tasks are placed in authentic contexts and their relevance is clear. Teachers themselves understand the process and goals and make thinking visible. There is easy transfer to other tasks and subjects within the classroom and outside. Students take responsibility for their own learning and learn for life.

Understand this and the scope and importance of John Abbott’s book “Over-schooled but Undereducated” is revealed. Gone are “obvious, vague and contradictory conclusions” and possibilities for the future are immense and compelling. The relevance of the nomads becomes clear in a learning community. The “tough challenge of improving education for teenagers” is a challenge for all of us which will require us to look at our values and ask “Education for What?” Nothing less is good enough for our adolescents or the future of our world. This remarkable book helps us to see how we could better prepare children to be good citizens, more than successful students. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who cares about adolescents. There is a full review on www.personalisededucationnow.org.uk

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by Martin Pritchard, Former Manchester Assistant Headteacher

Obvious, vague and contradictory are Michael Shaw’s chief criticisms against John Abbott’s latest publication. Are they valid?

Michael Shaw allows that the scope of John Abbott’s work is valuable for its outline of England’s educational history – something much needed by current politicians – and for its focus on our failure of adolescents, in particular in the latter half of the 20th Century (and now the first decade of the 21st). But John Abbott offers much more than just an appeal for coherent 5-15 schooling. His analysis of the crisis facing education is rooted in a synthesis of the wealth of scientific evidence that we have all ignored, misunderstood or been unaware of for too long.

Understanding that the ways in which we learn best are more clearly seen in the oldest societies is simply valuing the store of human knowledge: especially when findings from neurobiology suggest that it was the practice of ‘natural apprenticeships’ going back over thousands of generations that shaped the structure of today’s brains. Apprenticeships are and have always been ‘preferred’ ways of learning. Teasing out and applying these lessons to now and to the future, “going with the grain of the brain”, is simply common sense. If this is obvious, why isn’t it done – why does schooling in the 21st Century continue to alienate adolescents? Why is so much of our teaching didactic, relying on telling our students what they need to do to reach a level or grade? Why do we insist on more of the same for all, when the evidence is plain that it just doesn’t work?

John Abbott focuses on the continuing arrogance of our age: that as human knowledge has increased and with it our technological abilities (e.g. cloning and GM foods) we have come to feel we can package everything in self-contained sterile units; and it is this that has led to us believing we can micromanage the learning of our children to achieve pre-determined outcomes. We can’t. We need to refer back to our store of human knowledge including the intrinsic emotional driving forces for our social (and anti-social) behaviours, understand what works and why, learn from our mistakes and plan accordingly.

John Abbott recognises that adolescents are contradictory by definition: they expect our unconditional emotional, practical and economic support but demand the freedom and resources to do exactly as they like; they expect to be kept safe but yet take incredible risks. One of the greatest challenges for us in the education of all our children is resolving these contradictions in ways that are supportive to them in becoming the responsible adults we want and need them to be. John Abbott’s book explores the scientific basis for these contradictions; the challenge is for us to develop the specific support that works in each context.

Michael Shaw seems to applaud the emphasis in ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’ on learning by doing. However, that there isn’t a list of apprenticeships is hardly vague – it is the model of cognitive apprenticeship that needs to be universally applied. As a former articled clerk in an inner-city law practice, the best learning I ever did was with the firm’s legal secretary, researching, differentiating and deciding courses of action according to the circumstances. Both as a probationary teacher and as an experienced practitioner, all my best learning has been achieved through a continuing cycle of practice, reflection, discussion and evaluation. Any professional worth consulting would need to do the same. We must correct any misunderstanding of apprenticeships, harking back to a time when vocational education was seen as second best, for inferior ‘trades’, for those who couldn’t get to a grammar school. ‘Cognitive Apprenticeship’ as a model of learning is for all – and can be seen working in the ‘freer’ curriculum of new academies and in the thinking behind the new Diplomas supported by employers, universities and teachers.

Importantly there is a proper consideration and deep respect in John Abbott’s thinking for the spiritual and philosophical aspects of other civilisations as well as our own. This has a clear contemporary relevance in addressing the contradictions and tensions of our world. Michael Shaw will surely concede that looking backwards for John Abbott means doing so to learn the lessons of the past – both negative and positive – and to assimilate proven scientific research into future practice. There is no contradiction in that.

‘Treating’ the ills of adolescence isn’t just about improving education for teenagers; it’s about recognising the opportunity to come together as parents, as educators, as workers or employers, and as members of the wider community, to take responsibility and play our collective part in working with and supporting those adolescents. It’s vitally important that we don’t just agree with the analysis of our ills, bemoaning the alienation so many of them display, but together take the practical steps John Abbott points us towards.