“Knowing what we now know we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing what we have always done.” (Wingspread 1997)

After nearly four years of Wingspread discussions, which by then had involved some 60 people from 14 countries, the Initiative published The Policy Paper (*****) in December 1998.

Education, so politicians in many lands are quick to claim, is at the top of the political agenda – the “number one” item. Business people concur. So do community leaders. So do parents. However, it is easy to say we are looking for higher standards. But what standards? What kind of society are we anticipating, or do we desire? How are “standards” to be achieved? If this means spending significantly more money, then given other political priorities surely this would be a non- starter. What does being “number one” on the agenda actually mean?

This is strange for there is more material now about the nature of human learning and its importance to individuals, to society at large and to the economy than at any previous time.

It’s found in books all over the shop – in many different sections. In fact there is so much about the nature and importance of learning that it is virtually impossible to keep up with all the ideas. It is learning which will drive our future economies, and determine what kind of people we become. Yet the education section in the bookshop remains dusty and remote and to search here for a clue as to why education is now the “number one agenda item” is to become even more confused.

What is happening? Is it that education, as previously understood to mean schools, is simply being side-lined, and for some reason is unable to keep up with these new discoveries? Has education ceased to be about learning? Why is it that teachers world-wide seem depressed, fed up, disillusioned and unsure of themselves? Is school “dead”?

Though this Paper is now fourteen years old, it is still eminently worth reading, especially for the graphs which show the contrast between the assumptions made by contemporary, formal schooling and that synthesis of research explaining the changes in the brain as it transforms itself from pre-pubescence to adolescence. Dee Hock, the Founder and CEO of Visa stressed the urgency of acting on such knowledge when he warned the fourth of the Wingspread conferences, “today it doesn’t take much intelligence to realise we are in the midst of a global epidemic of institutional failure. This next decade, and maybe the one after that, will be the two or three decades that people will look back to over a thousand years and say ‘that was the melting pot’”. Stephanie Pace-Marshall, of the Illinois Maths and Science Academy, spoke for the whole group when she summed up the Policy Paper by saying, “Knowing what we now know, we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing what we have always done”.

In January 1999 I was invited to address what was once regarded as the most important of the educational conferences in England – the annual North of England Education Conference. In my speech I unpacked the recommendations of the Policy Paper and explained how conventional learning theory and contemporary schools remained firmly based on earlier assumptions about the brain and human learning that recent research was showing to be of restricted value. I noted Professor Robert Sylvester’s conclusion that “the workings of the brain more closely resemble the living ecology of a jungle than they do the activities of a computer,” recommending, “get rid of that damned machine model of the brain. It’s wrong! The brain is a biological system, not a machine.”

Currently, we are putting children with biologically-shaped brains into machine-oriented schools. The two just don’t mix. We bog the school down in a curriculum that is not biologically feasible”. Surely, the conference concluded, this called for nothing less than a paradigm shift (a fundamental shift I thinking in which ALL the components of the previous equation have to change) in the practices of schooling.

The lecture was very well received, and lead directly to the enormous number of requests to work in many parts of England, and other countries which followed over the next 7 years.

The Conference had been unnerved by the un-diplomatically late arrival of David Blunkett, the Minister of Education who, being late, then never stopped to answer questions. Neither did he hear my speech, nor was he willing to meet me later in London for me to explain my ideas. Personally, and immediately, I was furious that if David Blunkett were not to hear this directly from myself, he would never, ever, hear it from his advisers.

The Chief Education Officers were sensing a deeper, more dangerous, tension. By now it was a thinly-guarded secret that Ministers were systematically planning to abolish both the position of Chief Education Officer and the LEAs for which they had responsibility. Living mainly in America over the previous three years I was slow to appreciate that, should this happen, the country would lose those essential local (and therefore democratic) agencies possibly able to bring about the Learning Communities of the future for which the Initiative was arguing…. and for which the audiences I was lecturing were so enthusiastic.

I was starting to see a further problem; few such administrators seemed able to think beyond present arrangements and constraints as to be able to grasp the exciting financial implications of what I was saying – namely that a reversal in the premium that had for so long been extended to secondary education, in favour of shifting more resources to primary education, would enable such a pedagogy to be developed in the early years of schooling that would finally blast apart so much of conventional secondary practice. Should this happened then eleven year-olds would come into secondary schools expecting a far more enlightened and productive relationship with their teacher, resulting ultimately in better learning, and less teaching.

Just before flying to England to deliver that speech the Initiative, fearing that neither England nor the USA were intellectually culturally ‘safe enough’ locations in which we hoped to expand our work, issued an aide-memoire arguing for the establishment of an Institute for ‘The Advanced Study of Human Learning and Community Development’ (**) which we thought should ideally be located in a small, high-profile independent country, where the influence of national politics might not be so intrusive on a research institute as it was in Britain and America. To that end I was targeting a little-known US based charitable foundation, ‘Atlantic Philanthropic Services’ (APS) , based in New York, which was generously supporting the Initiative with an annual grant of £100,000 a year. APS was also contributing generously to various community schemes in Ireland and elsewhere. Therefore early in March I went to Dublin to discuss this, first with the Provost of Trinity College (who was highly supportive), and then scheduled a meeting with the agent of APS (then based in Dublin), with whom for several years we had had excellent relationships.

Then came the horrible shock. In the next half hour, the man from APS virtually blew the whole idea out of the water, in ways which would completely change the Initiative’s future. “We just don’t like your Policy Paper,” the agent of the donor said. “You are just becoming too broad. We now intend to concentrate on Further Education and no more on the 5-18 age group. Our community projects have to be separate to schools….getting them mixed up together makes it all unmanageable (which, of course, was exactly what we were proposing in arguing that it should be the total community that should be the unit of change, not the single school). He then went on and said, “I have sent your Policy Paper to the Professor of Education at the University of Cork, who has read what you are proposing with considerable reservations and so, rather than supporting you in setting up such an Advanced Institute, we have decided to terminate our support completely at the end of the year”.

I had never met Professor Hyland, communicated with her, nor visited the Education Department of the University of Cork.  There was more going on here than I have ever been able to understand….. though latterly I have had my suspicions relating to that cluster of New York charitable foundations that seemed to assume that they could dictate the pace of educational policy thinking and research, not only in the United States but in any other country that they thought might upset American assumptions. If this was so, and I believe it was, this was and is extraordinarily dangerous. Deep water here (see fourth paragraph on from here concerning the US Secretary of Education).  (Minutes later, back in the meeting, the agent tried to redeem himself by questioning why we might have thought of going to Ireland, “The people other than the Provost are pretty feeble, and who would take any notice of anything that might come out of Ireland in any case”.   Yet again the Initiative’s thinking was being screwed up by another organisation’s agenda that probably had almost nothing to do with the case we were making….and not for the last time.)

I returned to Washington drained of all energy, simply having no idea as to what to do next. When a copy of the Professor’s Report (****) reached me days later (all 26 pages, almost as long as the Policy Paper itself), I was even more dumb-founded and annoyed for much of it made little sense and was full of unjustified assertions. For any future innovators wishing to ‘toughen themselves up’ this Report should be read. After the successful presentation to the North of England Conference only six weeks before, I just could not get my mind around such a ‘turning-of-the-tables’.

Though this was Dublin at the start of the 21st century I appreciated all too well Machiavelli’s warning in ‘The Prince’ of 1518 (see Folder One), and the sentiment of Rudyard Kipling’s “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same/….you’ll be a Man, my son!” It was a hard blow, and although I have been back to Dublin many times since then (including two years later to do the Irish equivalent of the annual Reith Lecture on Irish radio), it would never be completely erased from my mind.

We responded as best we could, but so confused had been the Critique that it took us 31 pages to do so. (****) Perhaps we let this become too personal. We concluded, “Contrary to Professor Hyland’s critique, what we are seeing is that the Policy Paper excites, stimulates and encourages people in many lands and gets them to start questioning seriously the way they currently provide learning opportunities for all their young people”. After all the energy we had expended arguing our case, we then had to suffer the final indignity of having absolutely no response from either APS or Professor Hyland. The next few months were to be extraordinarily demanding and difficult.

Shortly after arriving back in Washington, I was invited to meet with Dick Riley, the US Secretary for Education. A busy but deeply thoughtful man, what had been meant to be a half hour meeting, lasted – to his secretary’s annoyance – for nearly two hours. Dick Riley was much engaged by what we said, and offered two clues as to why Americans would find our proposals so difficult to put into practise. Firstly, it would be because, to a considerable extent, we argue our case on the evolved nature of the human brain, with the possible consequence that something between 25 and 30% of all Americans would dismiss this out of hand for fundamentalist religious reasons. Secondly, by advocating a more effective and systematic form of schooling this would weaken the universities’ argument made over the past 50-60 years that because the quality of high school education was not good, US undergraduate degree courses needed to be four years , not as in Europe for three years. With such an unchallenged assumption American tertiary education had become an enormous and highly institutionalised force that would never subscribe to a form of pre-university education that would deny them the chance of growing rich on the revenues of four year primary degree courses. The powerful Tertiary education lobby in the States would only see an enormous economic downside in improving the quality of high school education (in this might have lay the explanation for APS’s behaviour towards us).

Here in the immediate future the Initiative was to face its second ‘near-death’ experience; the first having been in 1984/5, and the third to be in 2010.

This bizarre situation was at least partially resolved  by the extraordinary help of two of the trustees  who then personally underwrote my salary for the following three years, and the fall-out from the public interest already generated by the Policy Paper  produced an invitation to address more than sixty conferences ranging from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland to Paris, Seattle, New York, Quebec, Seoul, Jakarta and Nova Scotia.  Eventually such lectures and training programmes were to generate just short of a million pounds over the next six years.

 

Presentations and conferences held across the world in 1998 and 1999

1998

JAN Millfield School Somerset
FEB Cheshire Primary Heads’ Conference Windermere
NW Region Governors’ Conference Oldham
East Lancs Partnership Blackburn
Irish National Teachers’ Conference, Dublin Ireland
Newcastle N Tyneside
MAR Estonia (Tallin) Estonia
Solihull Primary Heads’ Conference Solihull
APR Mind Matters Conference, Washington USA
Krasnow Conference, Virginia USA
Pozan   Conference Poland
Chief Inspection Conference Chester
MAY Washington State Rotary  Conference USA
American Higher Education Association, Spokane USA
NAHT Eastbourne National Conference Eastbourne
JULY CEA/CSBA Annual Conference, Quebec Canada
Cornish Head Teachers’ Conference Truro
Plymouth University of St Mark’s and St John’s Plymouth
Limerick Teachers’ Conference Ireland
AUG

11

Rössing Foundation Conference Namibia

17

Open University Colloquium online

19

Ninth English Language Teaching Conference, Medellin Colombia
SEPT

17

Open University Colloquium online Milton Keynes

24

Seattle Pacific University US
OCT

13

East Lancashire Partnership Conference Burnley

14

Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Deputy Heads’ Conference Hemel Hempstead

15

Jane Jacobs’ Conference Ontario

23

NSEE, Norfolk, Virginia US
NOV

06

ISACS Conference, St Louis US

13

New Brunswick Canada

18

Seatcco Jakarta
DEC

01

UMASS, Amherst, Massachusetts US

10

British Council Meeting in Ontario Canada

1999

JAN

07

North of England Education Conference Sunderland

29

Ontario Primary School Boards’ Assoc Toronto
FEB

02

Cornwall Prosper Group Conference Plymouth

03

Guernsey Society for Education Conference Guernsey

04

Solihull Primary Heads’ Conference Solihull

 

08

GEM Conference Guernsey
MAR

01

LEADS Annual Policy Conference, Regina Canada

17

Manitoba Assoc of School Trustees, Winnipeg Canada
APR

08

SCIA National Conference Chester

09

SEAL, Warwick University Warwick

19

Children – Our Common Wealth, Covington, Kentucky US

22

Community for Learning, Winona, Minnesota US

30

Symposium on Learning, Edmonton, Alberta Canada
MAY

21

Partnership for School Improvement, Montreal Canada

26

Education Seminar – Government Isle of Man
JUNE

15

Norfolk Head’s Conference, Royden Norwich

16

London Institute of Education/European Forum for Freedom in Education London

18

Somerset Association of Secondary Heads Somerset

29

Simcoe Learning Community Canada
JULY

3

Lancashire Association of Schools Governing Bodies Lancashire
AUG

8

Whistler Leadership Summit British Columbia

16

Human Capacity Development for the 21st Century Washington D.C.

26

Regina School District Saskatchewan

27

Maple Creek & Eastend School Divisions Canada
OCT

1

State of the World Forum San Francisco

15

Bucaramanga Colombia

17

Alberta School Boards’ Association Canada
NOV

22

Teaching & Learning Conference, Saltwells EDC Dudley

24

Canadian School Boards’ Association/Canadian Child Care Federation: 2nd Canadian Forum Ottawa

26

Management College, Dunchurch Rugby