Paul Fisher is a freelance writer on education for the Guardian, the Independent and The Times Educational Supplement.

The first contention of The Unfinished Revolution is simple: humans are born to learn, and learning is what we are better at than any other species. Subsequently, if those working to improve education don’t have a good grasp of where we come from as a species, then it will be difficult to chart a course for where we want to go.

The book takes the risk of synthesising research from many disciplines and countries and is a primer on cognitive science and biological interpretations of the brain’s activity. It ties recent findings to education and the bold opening conviction has it that science is already providing a workable analysis to confirm the general belief that school isn’t working. While acknowledging it will be many years – if ever – before scientists have the evidence to formulate a complete theory of human learning, the argument begins at a point some way beyond current political wrangling. So what next?

Rather than rest on school-is-dead laurels, the book urges policy changes that spurn the fashion for narrow targets imposed centrally on individual schools. The general tone is more can-do than rejectionist: evolution equals improvement; humans are born to learn and learning is what we are best at; intelligence can be developed; and schools – if education keeps pace with new scientific studies about the brain – can be made better. The first chapter opens a route into the broadest of appeals and ends by declaring: “Societies now stand at an evolutionary crossroads where the way ahead must be to capitalise on fresh understandings.”

Intertwined with this big agenda is a history of education in Britain and the US and how schooling has been altered both to reflect assumptions about learning and to meet labour demands of agrarian, industrial and then post-industrial economies. Recent history is set against the backdrop of evolving philosophies from Plato through to people like Howard Gardner, Susan Greenfield and John Bruer. The book unravels the bitter debate between those who assert learning is through experience and based on enquiry and those who say learning is an instructive process to transfer skills and culture. Rather than engaging directly in the instruction versus enquiry lines of argument, the evidence is deployed to identify a continuum where the development of innate qualities during the early years should inform the changes that characterise the adolescent desire to take control.

Polemic reverts to history as the book says how the instruction/enquiry polarisation was serviceable for so long as mass education had to balance the need of providing an officer cadre to run industry and the nation-state with the demand for a workforce drilled into specified ways of working. And here is the unfinished revolution of the title, for the new knowledge economy has changed the philosophical/industrial landscape and requires innovative experts (those who go beyond single specialisms), equipped to respond to technological change. Perhaps the most exciting contention of the book is how much an emerging understanding of the biology of learning already synchronises with broader economic trends. If enough people accept this proposition, then that, in turn, heralds a move away from production line schooling towards a reconnection of learning environments with the lives children will enter on becoming adults.

Within this intellectual romp through theory and practice, other educational philosophy gets a plain English airing and the book puts the work of Rousseau, Noam Chomsky, Edward Thorndike, John Dewey etc into a palatable context. It does enough here to qualify as a course book for trainee teachers, at least in the countries where the new pragmatism still extends to teachers studying the philosophy of education. Educational theory slides into wider social observation about the optimum size of social groups, the way employment patterns impinge on family or how information overload can lead to stasis. One example gives the flavour. Having noted that puberty is beginning earlier, the authors write: “In an effort to protect adult jobs it is now almost impossible to begin a job that offers a living wage until the age of 22 or 23. For an extended period of 10 to 15 years adolescents are neither children nor adults.

The media glamorises the 17-year-old beauty, while moralists seeking to hold together family values call for a morality based on ever-longer periods of delayed gratification. The biological turmoil is real enough, but the cultural confusion is greater.”

The authors, John Abbott and Terry Ryan, are an interesting couple. Mr. Abbott is the former head of a British comprehensive school who moved on the lead Education 2000 and on again to form the 21st Century Learning Initiative, a cross-disciplinary international affiliation formed on the assumption that if we don’t understand how people learn, we can‰t begin a proper consideration of educational reform. It was a starting point that appealed to Mr. Ryan who is 30 years younger and a Midwestern political researcher who previously worked for the Warsaw-based Foundation for Education for Democracy. Both men have lived by fund-raising and working out on the lecture circuit and so are well versed in the art of grabbing attention. In a world where ideas must be heralded by soundbites, they deploy a lexicon of slogans:

  • “Go with the grain of the brain
  • from teaching to learning
  • if our children are not getting what they need, it is because we are failing to say what we want
  • the three ‘I’s: ignorance, ideology (self) interest
  • or is it nature and nurture?
  • the more we use our brain, the more usable it becomes
  • the age of anxiety
  • schooling should be a weaning process.”

Slogans slide into the less punchy “we are creating a potentially dangerous disconnection between the schooling we provide our children and the economy we are creating for them to enter into as adults.” The prose is punctuated with the urgent lists (things people find wrong about education all over the world, the main tenets of behaviourism, the four factors to have homogenised American education and so on) and culminates in a graph highlighting the clash of modern schooling with the progress of normal human development.

Their solution is as straightforward as it is radical: they propound an evolutionary back to basics and want to revive what they call a “cognitive apprenticeship” where expensive instruction from adults is concentrated on getting the very young to learn how to learn thus preparing them for a gradual withdrawal of formal teaching. This weaning process would “go with the grain of the brain” and also go with political grain by costing no more than the inefficient systems we have now.

The Unfinished Revolution exudes the urgency of those who deplore an “upside down inside out” educational system constantly twitched by short term demands for quantifiable results. Pessimism and frustration are redeemed by an optimism well summarised in a chapter epigraph quoting John Maynard Keynes: “The power of vested interest is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” There is, however, nothing gradual in the torrent of ideas in this book with Messrs. Abbott and Ryan eventually repeating their line about our presence at an evolutionary crossroads and pointing to a brighter way ahead. What starts with a consideration of human development ends on a hope-filled statement of communitarian ideals.

At the core of their thought is a revival of the old optimism that science will deliver a better world. We end on a note of prophecy looking forward to “a society motivated by thoughtfulness, developed through a model of learning that genuinely extends our inherited learning capabilities. People will quickly recognise that, in developing the learning skills of the young, the lives of whole communities will be revitalised as they change and grow. This involves escaping from 19th century assumptions that learning and schooling are synonymous. Good schools alone are never enough. This is about communities that think differently, work differently and are designed and built differently. We have the opportunity to generate a more purposeful, more creative and even more sacred place in the universe.”