This keynote was  delivered by John Abbott to the Business Council of British Columbia Human Capital Conference on 22 November 2012 at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, Vancouver.

Reuniting Thinking with Doing: Igniting the Innate Passion of Adolescence for Personal Engagement from Responsible Subversives


It is a pleasure to be with you.   Although I speak with a very obvious English accent I have got to know your Province well since my first visit here in 1969 and have developed a great affection for Canadians ; you are not quite  English, nor are you quite like the Americans (amongst whom I lived for a number of years)…which makes you a delightful people to be with!

For a number of years I was a teacher and then Headmaster of what you would call a High School.  As my school had been founded in 1558, and my study was the original classroom built out of oaks cut from the great forest, I have a particular interest in the origins of things!  Which, indirectly, led me to represent secondary education on the British Engineering Council, and later to address the Confederation of British Industry on Human Capital Development.

Under the title “Into the Future; knowledge transfer and cultural norms” I want to specifically concentrate on igniting the innate passion of Adolescence for personal engagement.

Questions about Human Capital Development go far back into the mists of history.  Take Aristotle … “At present there are differences of opinion…for all peoples do not agree as to the things that the young ought to learn, either with a view to virtue or with a view to the best life, nor is it clear whether their studies should be regulated with regard to intellect or with regard to character.”

That was written in Greece nearly 2500 years ago.    Should education be concerned with moral values, or with skill development?  ….the development of the good citizen, or the skilled worker?   If both, how should that happen?    Big questions…

Then think of Confucius; “Tell me, and I forget; Show me, and I remember, but let me DO and I understand.”   An extraordinarily perceptive statement. Interestingly  several years ago I heard one of the world’s most eminent scientists,  quoting Confucius’s statement as most neatly summarising,  in layman’s language, what neurobiologists have only just discovered from functional MRI scans in the past 15 years.

Finally take the statement of St Augustine in the fourth century that, “I learnt most not from those who TAUGHT me, but from those who TALKED with me.”

So, just what kind of education do we need, and for what kind of World?

Two stories…Long ago in 1927 Mercedes Benz produced 1400 magnificent cars.

With amazing long term vision the directors called for a Report on the Company’s growth potential over the next 50 years.  Back came the Consultants’ Report…so quick would be the growth in technological knowledge that within fifty years the Company could be producing 40,000 cars a year.  The directors were appalled at the consultant’s naivety…for self-obviously it would be totally impossible for the schools ever to train 40,000 chauffeurs a year!

We may laugh at these assumptions…but are we sure that we are really doing any better!

My second, true, story…

Some 33 years ago, intrigued at how information  technology might transform the way children learn, I put into my school what became Britain’s first ever fully computerised classroom, with a terminal for every pupil  (at a time when the country was averaging just one computer to every 250 pupils).    All was going apparently smoothly until, late on the first Friday afternoon after it’s installation,(always the most tricky time for the well-running of a school), one of my best, if strictly formal, English teachers burst into my study.

“Headmaster,” she almost exploded with barely suppressed annoyance, “I have  been insulted by a fourteen year old who, going into this new Computer Centre (I could almost feel her antagonism to such a mechanistic invention), has typed up what he says is his first draft of an answer to the question I set the class to be done over the weekend .  He  had the audacity to ask me to mark this so that he could incorporate my corrections into a redrafted  piece which he would eventually hand-in, alongside  the others in the class, for final grading.”

She paused, and then blurted out her critical question;- “Which one, Headmaster, do I grade…the original draft, or the one he ‘cheated on’ by incorporating my suggestions?”

An apparently simple question that drives to the very heart of the practices of institutional schooling.  Is/should learning be a collaborative, or a competitive activity?   Or is it both…and how should that work?

I phoned The Chairman of the Cambridge University Examinations Board for his advice.  “It’s an interesting question because as a University we have made a good living over the past five centuries by, in effect, examining students’  first drafts.  Now you are suggesting that this new technology, by replacing pen and ink with a device that seems to some of us to ‘artificially’ enhance a student’s performance in ways which often seems like cheating.   This poses very serious questions for the entire examinations ‘industry’”,   He paused before eventually saying,.  “I think we will have to wait for the Government to instruct us”.  Ugh !

In the third of a century that has followed , Anglo-American systems of education have exhausted themselves trying to unravel the Conundrum  that  while the skill of the future will undoubtedly be the ability to learn, and go on learning throughout a life-time, no one can learn how to learn without having something to learn.Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 11.45.08

And here is the crunch…it is far easier to measure what has been learnt than it is to assess how effective are the learners skills when they have to be applied outside the domain in which they were originally developed, in other words proof that you have learnt something under certain circumstances is no true indicator that you will be able to perform as well somewhere else on a different kind of problem.

Mark Twain understood that perfectly when he remarked, “Education is what remains when you have forgotten everything you ever learnt in school.”

It may seem irrelevant to tell you that nearly 13 years ago, my family returned from living in Virginia, to the city of Bath in the SW of England.   Delightful as is Bath to live in, property is very expensive and the only property we could afford  was a 1791 Georgian town house on six floors, with 7,500 sq. Feet of space, but in need of much restoration . Being an historic gem I stated to enquire into the history of the area which coincided with seeing the film of Patrick O’Brien’s “Master and Commander”.   That somewhat swash- buckling film was about life in the Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, at the very time our house, and the rest of the Crescent, was being built.

And here, coincidentally, I came into a set of insights that has forever deepened the significance of my research into the nature of adolescence. Our house is No. 3 Grosvenor Place.    Retiring into No 18 Grosvenor Place in 1827, after a most distinguished career in the British Navy, was Rear Admiral Sir Peter Puget.   And of course you will have already guessed – this was the Puget after whom the Sound out there is named.  That is his house just there in the photograph, the original door and door handle are still in daily use.  The story starts to get close up, and possibly personal.

Puget’s life could be highly instructional as you think about Human Capital Development. Peter was the sixth of seven sons born in 1768 to an impoverished Huguenot refugee. Puget’s father had fled persecution in France and lost all his money in the process.  Declared bankrupt when his son  Peter was only ten years old this youngster – a squeaker, in the language of the time-  who in his early years had received a good education was forced to join the Navy  at the most menial of levels, namely  that of ‘ship’s boy. Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 11.45.23

Bright and determined he rose   quickly, was appointed lieutenant in 1790 at the age of22 (the age of many a student teacher today), and was selected by Captain Vancouver as his first Lieutenant.  As such the young Puget was responsible for sailing  HMS Discovery  with a crew of over 200, from London, down the Atlantic, around Tierra Del Fuego, and up to the Pacific North West.  He did this, at an age when many of today’s young Canadians are sitting in class pondering how to outwit the examiners, but having none of the intellectual and emotional intelligence of those hard-bitten old sea-dogs.

The relevance of all this to you, and Human Capital Development?

Here I must take you quickly back into the evolution of scientific thought.  Despite Darwin’s assertion in 1859 that the human brain, both in its structures and processes for learning, was as likely to have been shaped by evolution as the rest of the body, psychology as the ‘official’  science of human behaviour, took a hundred tears longer than medical science to appreciate that the brain was infinitely more complex, and exciting, than simply being a “Blank Slate”, the description given it nearly a hundred years ago by the Behaviourists.

Behaviourist Psychology ignored all explanations of human behaviour which could not be observed, tested and confirmed within a controlled laboratory environment.  Learning was all about being taught, Behaviourists declared; with appropriate teaching it was possible to condition young people in any way specified. Despite the insights of perceptive educationalists from the Nineteenth century onwards – like Froebel, Montessori and Rudolf Steiner – Behaviourists claimed that inadequate learning in children could be explained by ineffective teaching methods, refusing to countenance the possibility that the very methods employed by some school teachers might run so far against ‘the grain of the brain” that children’ innate natures ( that which the young Peter Puget exemplified so well) led them actually to reject most of what such teachers struggled to force them into accepting.

For much of the past 20 years I, and my organisation have been attempting to build a synthesis of much recent research that should then inform policy makers as to the political, strategic. And resource implications of what ought to become a new model of learning, the very foundations of Human Capital.

Here is the basic biology.  Firstly, in comparison to other mammals, human babies are born with premature brains which are only 40% structurally complete.  All other mammals give birth to their young with almost fully-formed brains. The reason for this, it is now generally accepted, is that for several million years of human evolution the more our ancestors used their brains, the larger they became forcing the human skull to get ever larger.

So large has the skull become (so as to contain the large brain) that it can no longer pass down the woman’s birth canal, and so an evolutionary compromise has emerged. It is this. Human babies are born with brains that contain, within their incomplete structure, a mass of evolutionarily constructed predispositions that enable the baby to virtually mastermind its own subsequent brain growth through responding to its immediate environmental challenges in the first 30 months of life.Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 11.45.44

It is this phenomenal natural talent for learning that is the core of Human Capital development.   It is this natural talent for learning that accounts for why a helpless tiny baby may grow to become a genius, a veritable Albert Einstein….provided the external stimuli are appropriate. “It is nothing short of a miracle,” Einstein once wrote, “that the modern methods of instruction have not killed the  holy spirit of enquiry; for this delicate little plant stands mainly in need of freedom…”

Our brains, yours and mine, Confucius’ and Peter Puget’s, and of tens of thousands of young Canadians grow far more from direct experience than they do from formal instruction.

We now know that those structures in the brain which enables the young to learn easily as toddlers, have to be balanced later by internal mechanisms that prevent children from becoming near-clones of their parents.  So here is the clue…….quite simply it is Adolescent angst ( which many of you may be experiencing in your own homes this very day!) that actually drives human development – it is Adolescence which forces individuals in every generation to think beyond their own self-imposed limitations , and to exceed their parents aspirations.

Adolescents have evolved to be apprentice-like learners, not pupils sitting at desks awaiting instruction.   Many people across the sixty School Districts of this Province understand these changing realities, so too do others in your Ministry, the scale of the paradigm shift which is upon us is too complex to manage in any top down fashion.  That terrifies both the professionals, and the general public.  “Don’t experiment with my kids” warn defensive parents (and we all share some of these fears), but in truth in many ways the present systems of schooling actually represent the tired remnants of many earlier, and failed, experiments.

That surely is a sweeping judgement, many will say, and that leaves us pretty uncomfortable.   “You had better justify yourself, or your whole argument falls to pieces”.

I can justify myself, and again let me call upon historical experience.  The very word ‘education’ is the root of the problem.  It comes from the Latin word ‘educare’ meaning ‘to lead out’, in the sense of a Roman general leading his very  well drilled troops out of the security of their camp out onto the field of battle where every soldier was so well disciplined that they would do exactly what they were ordered to do. That was the secret of Roman military success; perfect discipline was more important than thinking for themselves.  Roman schooling was military discipline applied in the classroom……and it was harsh, backed up with the copious use of the cane.  Teachers were often called “bashers”…..children had to conform to what the teacher said.

In many ways the Reformation of the sixteenth century was actually a pedagogic, as well as a religious, challenge to the status quo. In the first book ever written in English  about education, “The Scholemaster” in 1570 by Roger Ascham, reputed to be the greatest scholar of his day, and private tutor to Queen Elizabeth the First, urged the cultivation of what he called ‘ Hard Wits ‘ rather than the superficial ‘ Quick Wits ‘ of those youngsters whose memories were good, but who couldn’t work things out for themselves.

“Because (as an old man) I know that those which be commonly the wisest, the best learned, and the best men also when they be old, we’re never commonly the quickest of wits when they were young”.   So go easy on bullying youngsters with fear of the birch (quaintly he called it “the butchery of Latine”) for children who only learn because they are frightened gain nothing in the long run.

Now of course I know that you Canadians outlawed the use of the birch long ago…..but many of your students, and indirectly your teachers, do what they don’t necessarily want to do, through fear of anything other than getting top grades in the tests.   Under pressure creativity goes out the window, and playing it safe becomes a young person’s belief system.  I rest my case.

By rushing around from the findings of recent research in cognitive science and neurobiology, to the Greeks and Roman generals, and to Lieutenant Peter Puget, I sincerely hope I have enlightened you more than I have confused you. (this speech will be available to down load from for you to chew over at your leisure). As men and women from the world of business you excel because (if I understand you correctly) you always keep your eyes attuned to watching for that truly innovative idea that almost comes out of the most unexpected corner, and which you recognise is the model of the future that leave all the others(for all the devotion of their supporters) stuck on the beach as the tide goes out.

Without in any way wishing to embarrass him, please take most careful note of Jeff Hopkins, for the past six years the Superintendent of the Gulf Islands School Board (SD 64).  Working in a most receptive district, and blessed with many supportive and highly engaged parents, teachers and students, together they have already achieved fascinating results.  Jeff is totally dedicated to working to improve the whole of the public education system, and recognises as do many others, that the regulations that have come down over the years, effectively constrain the level of innovation needed to transform secondary education.

Not unduly worried at the professional and personal risks he will be incurring he has just resigned as Superintendent to enable him to work on creating a model of what public secondary provision (note I am intentionally NOT using the word school) could be in the future.  Here is his rationale,

This will be immensely exciting, as well as sheer hard work for many people as they go where few have gone before. Initially this will be small so as to be fast moving; for a while as it builds itself up I hope for its sake that it can keep “below the radar”.  For your own sakes, and the future of your young people(the ones who will have to look after you in your old age), give it all the support you can.

While I am not a Canadian, nor do I live in this beautiful place, I do urge you – at this time of fascinating paradigm change, to rise and accept your own personal ability to become Responsible Subversives.


John Abbott