In a remarkably readable, and relatively short book, John Abbott and his Canadian co-author Heather MacTaggart, has produced one of the most insightful books on education I have come across. What makes this book such a real achievement is that it is written in a way that appeals as much to parents and the general reader, as it does to teachers and all those involved with young people. For such a wide and diverse readership the book provides a most powerful synthesis across the emerging bio-medical sciences – sciences that are discovering ever more about the neurological structure of the brain and the functioning of genes – with equally important findings from the cognitive sciences.
Abbott and MacTaggart use their findings to show how society’s increasing concern about the well-being of adolescence is not to be rectified simply by more schools, ever more prescription about subject content, or more quantification dependent only on more examinations. Rather the authors compellingly call for something much more subtle – a pedagogic shift from the earliest years through to university level, that progressively builds up a child’s confidence in his or her ability to learn, and work things out for themselves. Even before the age of eighteen, children should be weaned of their dependence on teachers for instruction and quite simply learn to delight in the pleasure of so “doing it for themselves” that they readily and enthusiastically set out on a lifetime of self-improvement.
Such a shift in the relationship of teaching to learning, a shift indeed in the role of the teacher from instructor to learning mentor would, the authors suggest, reinvigorate the bringing up of children in home, community and in school. The authors quote with obvious approval the statement made by John Milton the and at the time of writing being Chief Secretary to Oliver Cromwell in 1644: “A complete and generous education that fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, public and private, of peace and war”.
It is the sensitive renewal of such a grand vision of human learning that is the role of this book. Canadians have heard almost as much about this as the English for Abbott has made more than thirty visits to Canada and, working with the Canadian Council on Learning, has lectured in almost every province, and in several of these many times. Audiences have been fascinated; a trustee of a Toronto school once exclaimed after hearing the principle of Subsidiarity unpacked, “Ah, at last I get it; if this were to happen it would be the pupils that would be tired at the end of term, not the teachers! And surely that’s how it should be? Teachers should not be making it so simple for the pupils that it is the teachers who do the work, not the children.”
At another conference of four hundred Superintendents, attended at Abbott’s suggestion by forty high school students, one 15-year-old girl faced that grand and intimidating audience and said: “You teachers bore us. You treat education rather like a pre-packaged TV dinner. You tell us to go to the deepfreeze, pull out the appropriate package, read the instruction, take off the wrapper, perforate the cellophane, set the oven to the right temperature and then press the start button. If we do that properly you’ll give us ten out of ten. That is what is so boring. What we would far prefer is to invent the recipe for ourselves, go out and find the ingredients, work out how to mix them and then how to cook them. If the result was only just edible and you only gave us five out of ten we would feel proud that it was we that had actually made it, and then we would want to know how to improve it”.
At another conference on an island off Vancouver a 17-year-old boy confused, amused and deeply impressed a large multi-aged audience one evening by saying “Surely the reason parents have children is to help the parents grow up?” The book gives a brilliantly articulated case for the involvement of children and adults working and learning together at all ages.
Such a book, and such a vision is what is needed in Canada (as no doubt elsewhere) to create the thoughtful, responsible wise people of the future. The book is a rare gem, yet two groups of people may not agree. Abbott and MacTaggart have set their task to draw together and synthesize key findings from a large range of research. Some specialists may feel disappointed that more has not been said about their own disciplines. From an epistemological perspective, Abbott avoids the reductionism that would make it hard to see where we are going. That is why we find it so hard to see where we are going; there is perhaps an analogy to the financial crisis in the Fall of 2008 that had easily been foreseen by intelligent generalists, but was invisible to professional economic theorists.
The second group of people who may find this difficult are much like me, school principals, school administrators, administrators, policy makers and politicians. We sit within, and on top of mighty organisations – schools, colleges, universities, think tanks and Ministries – each of which has become expert in evaluating itself against the criteria each sets for themselves. We have come to see our jobs as keeping these organisations ticking over in the way each understands.
But suppose, just suppose for a moment, that Abbott and MacTaggart are right, and it is the very design brief for schools, rooted as it is in nineteenth century reductionist theories, and now littered with endless sticking plasters, revisions and accretions of the last hundred years, that has become problematic. In that case everything else that is built upon it resembles a house built upon shifting sands
Those of us, and there are many, who have given our entire lives to trying to make a creaking system work, hate to have such a mirror held up to our own most sacred assumptions. Yet progress is only possible if, once or twice in a generation, someone confronts us with an image in the mirror that makes us feel that we have grown old and stale prematurely. We have to transform ourselves quickly, or surely we will perish.
This, therefore, is a book for those who can dare to be wisely subversive and remind themselves that “knowing what we now know we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing what we were once doing”.
All I can do, as a Canadian and a person involved on the international scene, is to urge all my colleagues to read this most carefully. Personally we have each to look very carefully into that mirror and ask ourselves whether, through not keeping our eyes wide enough open to what is going on around us, we have actually allowed ourselves to become part of the problem. Once we recognise that we can then become part of the solution. That will be exciting; uncomfortable, confusing and problematic but, remember this, “In times of change learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists” (Eric Heffer).