Ten Point Memorandum
Submitted to the Downing Street Policy Unit
January 2001


Dear Richard O’Neil,

It was good to have the opportunity of speaking with you on Friday. I thought it might be helpful to summarise the points that Terry and I were making. They are as follows:

  1. What we mean by learning and the significance of life-long learning. A successful education involves both content and process; these are separate but inevitably connected. As content is more easily assessed it has received more attention in the process. Effective learning means making connections between ideas and facts, not simply acquiring pre-digested theories and information. Life-long learning requires the acquisition of recognisable skills of learning; the practicing of these; and knowing which techniques to apply in specific tasks. Those who make their living using computers understand this concept well. Sometimes these learners go to workshops or training courses, but more often than not they use the internet or the bookshop to acquire the information they need and they work their problems out by themselves. They see learning as an open and continuous process.
  2. The implications of research in early years learning, adolescence and the weaning principle. Over the past 15 to 20 years, extensive research in the brain and biological sciences is showing how evolution has shaped the human brain to learn in specific ways. During the first seven or eight years of life children growing up in a stimulating, interactive, and relatively secure environment have a natural predisposition to learn complex skills. The hormonal changes of adolescence, in contrast, compel the maturing learner “to take control and do it for themselves.” The child whose earliest experiences have been limited and unsatisfactory is ill-equipped to deal with adolescence and the challenges of life-long learning. Humans have a biological predisposition to see living, working and learning as a seamless web (cognitive apprenticeship).
  3. Constructivism sees learning as a process of knowledge construction, not simply knowledge recording or absorption. It is knowledge dependent, with learners using current knowledge to construct new knowledge. Yet. Context matters greatly. The constructivist brain is a self-organising system that is progressively shaped by its interaction with objects and events in the world. We actually build the structures of our brains as we use them. Thus, perception is coloured by experience: we neither see nor hear something in a totally objective form, but rather our receptive processes are coloured by all those environmental stimuli that have captured our interest in the past.
  4. The economy and the brain as open systems. According to the OECD, “in today’s economy citizens are invited to take more individual responsibility for shaping their own destiny … They have the opportunity to become more involved in their own decision making that impinges on their own economic and social environment. Success increasingly means becoming an active entrepreneur and innovator. That means breaking down the barriers in the mind, as well as barriers to trade, competition and innovation. In the ‘New Economy’, an ‘open’ society, in every sense of the word, is the key to a favourable environment for growth.” Parallel to this economic shift is a growing appreciation that the constructivist brain is an open and dynamic learning system. We now, in effect, have it in our power to design models of learning that are more in line with not just the needs of the economy, but also the natural functioning of the brain.
  5. Community, intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility. The 1997 Kellogg Corporation report compared the relative influence that family, community and other factors have on student performance. Amazingly it concluded that factors outside the school are four times more important in determining a student’s success on standardised tests than are factors within the school. Such research findings do not come as a surprise to anyone who appreciates the fact that the roots of intrinsic motivation (the desire to take personal responsibility) most often reside in people’s private non-institutional, lives. Children’s brains are always absorbing information and trying to make sense of it. The problem is that in today’s information-saturated world so much of what they learn is either worthless or even downright dangerous. There are two ways of handling this: 1.) pay to keep children in schools and day-care centres where it is easier to control what they learn for longer hours, or 2.) reconnect children’s learning to the natural activities of the larger community by making “streets” safe and stimulating enough for children’s constant exploration.
  6. Technology. The technologies of information communication (ICTs) have the power to deliver massive amounts of information. Yet, information on its own is not enough to produce actionable knowledge. Looking beyond information provides a rich picture of learning. Learning is usually treated as a supply-side matter, thought to follow teaching, training or information delivery. But learning is much more demand-driven. Children learn in response to desire (see constructivism). Technologies that are used to help children explore their interests and make valid connections extend learning opportunities. The evidence suggests that successful use of ICTs requires less direct instruction, and more guidance in connecting new information to existing knowledge.
  7. Put all this together and it supports the contention that we currently have an “upside-down and inside out” model of education. The origins of the English education system lie in the 19th and early 20th century theories of learning. These were heavily dependent on instruction, and a fixed concept of intelligence. In light of recent research the Initiative argues that much of this system is largely upside down and inside out. Upside down because more attention and resources are allocated to adolescents. This reflected the assumed importance of control and direct instruction. This led to the largest class sizes in the earliest years of primary education and the smallest in latter years. This contrasts with the current biological understandings of learning. It is “inside out” because it over-emphasises extrinsic motivation and the impact of direct instruction. It minimised the significance of the child’s own personal experience in his life beyond school (refer to number 5).
  8. Future strategy. These ideas suggest that it would be in the national interest to set-up and carefully monitor progress in several communities that would, over a period of 10 to 15 years, capitalise on this evidence through a systematic reallocation of existing resources across the 0 to 21 age group. We would call this developing a learning system that “goes with the grain of the brain.” This would involve classes of no more than 10 to 12 children at the age of five; the development of a pedagogy that was as much about teaching children how to learn as it was about what they actually learned (which would involve new forms of teacher training); making a higher investment in all forms of ICTs, and an increasing use of members of the community as mentors. The organising principle would be that preparation for lifelong learning starts at birth and that intensive adult support in the earliest years should be followed by the progressive weaning of the learners’ dependence on instruction and institutions during adolescence. There is an initial cost of change element. Resources cannot be taken away from the later years until the new techniques have worked through from the earlier years. Once this has occurred the new arrangements should certainly be able to operate within the original cost parameters. For a government committed to such innovation sponsorship from foundations and businesses should be easily attracted to such non-recurring costs.
  9. Creativity and community regeneration. It would appear from the research that the way people ultimately behave as adults much depends on how they were inducted into taking responsibility for their own actions when they were young. Learning needs to be understood in relation to the development of human identity. In learning to realise one’s potential, and in becoming a member of a community, an individual is developing a social identity. Consequently, how young people learn to learn has a significance for the future vitality of society even greater than its importance to the restructuring of schools.
  10. The myth of history. The argument that the Initiative advances is not the same as the progressive movement of the 1960s, although it does share a belief in the importance of experiential learning as a component of constructivism. It has been our experience, particularly in England, that great care has to be taken in expressing points 1 to 7 to ensure that listeners do not interpret this through a ‘we have tried all this before and it failed’ lens, for in reality there can be very few teachers still in service who were trained in the 1960s.

Please let me know if there is any further information you require.

Best wishes,

John Abbott
The 21st Century Learning Initiative


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