A truly remarkable triumph. John Abbott has managed to set to words the seemingly inexplicable malaise which haunts the educational system today in Britain. ‘Overschooled and Undereducated’ provides an invaluable insight into a staggering range of interdisciplinary theory and research to explain precisely why schools aren’t working as they should be, and could be.
The question which underpins the entire work is dramatically simple. Do we wish for our children to be “battery hens or free range chickens”? The metaphor is too striking and uncanny to pass by. Today’s draconian dependence on grades, targets, and ‘performability’ is desiccating the very soul of education, and incapacitating students’ potential for genuine growth into responsible adulthood. John Abbott leads us on an extraordinary journey through anthropology, pedagogy, evolutionary psychology, as far as recent breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience to show just why adolescents need so much more than good grades if they are to be able to develop the full gamut of mental competencies which generations upon generations of ‘learning’ has bequeathed to them.
Drawing on Professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, he explains how children rely on a wide variety of predispositions to help develop their ability to deal with the world, and the unknown. It is variety, thus, which is key; and which, despite often (but not always) well intentioned policy, is missing from today’s schools. However, he is quick to explain that ‘variety’ is not to be achieved through the simple extension of the range of curricular classes on offer. More vital is a re-integration of community and family values into education, which unfortunately have been progressively dissociated with our conception of what a child’s learning should entail. This is not a blanket attack on all schools, as many are endeavouring, with exceptional zeal and integrity to embrace these views. What must change is the entirety of the schooling system itself, and with it the ingrained parameters which suffocate the hope of genuine change.
Most importantly perhaps, John Abbott does not simply leave us with our minds full and hands empty, but rather offers us the tools needed for such change to be made. A comparative view of the Finnish schooling system (which has established itself as the lodestar of educational policy and achievement), in combination with a detailed exposition of the ‘grain of the brain’ (how children actually learn) and a retrospective view of the succession of educational policy acts since 1870, show how Britain is more than capable of transformation. He calls for local ‘through-schools’, advocated originally by John Milton, eradicating the arbitrary rupture between primary and secondary education at the age of 11. Such schools would engage a vested interest from local families and communities, thus
re-establishing that sense of neighbourhood solidarity which is slipping ever more into obsolescence. John’s vision sees the young and the old revisiting that mutual exchange of knowledge and support which made Britain the very tour de force that propelled it to the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Creativity to replace conformity. Discourse to replace monologue. The teacher must come to abdicate the assigned role of ‘sage on the stage’ to become rather the ‘guide on the side’, able to help pupils find their own path out of the battery cages they have for so long been confined to. In this way, able to exercise their ‘legs and wings’ they will develop the strengths needed to stand on their own as responsible and effective participants in an ever more rapidly changing world; and more importantly, they will be able to draw on these strengths to realize their own conclusions as to how to help better it.
Adolescence must be seen not as an abhorrence, but as a veritable opportunity. John Abbot explains how the neural wiring of the adolescent’s brain naturally dictates the cynicism and defiance which contests established convention and wisdom. It is this need to stretch beyond the established which has allowed mankind throughout history to stretch beyond the possible, and which has been the motor behind the growth of civilisation. It was the adolescent mind which drove our ‘teenage’ ancestors to migrate into the unknown as they escaped the ravages of the Ice Age, and reach new pastures which their parents thought inaccessible. We owe our survival to that relentlessly bold spirit of defiance, which is still amongst us today in our children, and which can still help us achieve the unachievable. As Wordsworth once wrote, “The Child is the father of the Man”. Let us learn from John Abbott the lessons of science and history, which teach us that above all else, we must learn from our children.
John Abbott calls for ‘responsible subversives’ to recognize the problems so adeptly articulated in his book, and to help implement the changes needed to overcome them. I lend my voice, unreservedly, to his appeal.
Lorenzo McLellan, 2010 graduate of the University of Bristol, with a first class honours in French and Philosophy. Lorenzo will be joining the 2011 intake for Teach First, a government backed independent charity seeking to address educational disadvantage throughout England. He will be teaching English at secondary school level in the London region.