I like to think of that guy – whoever he or she was – as the archetypal teacher, sitting on a stone by an open fire surrounded by kids who would have joined in the simple, but ever so profound, question “What does it all mean?”

That’s the essence of my talk.

“Learning is a consequence of thinking.”

— David Perkins
Smart Schools, 1992

“Learning is a consequence of thinking.” It’s a simple and profound truth. Repeat it to yourself in the Council Chamber when you next debate the institutional arrangements for education! Thinking – not simply instruction.

How do you learn? What was your most powerful learning experience?

Here’s my story. When I was about 10 years old my parents employed a man to do odd jobs. Old MacFadgen had served his apprenticeship as a carpenter in the Navy in the 1890s. Once he qualified, though, the Navy didn’t need any more carpenters. So he spent his entire career shoveling coal into the boilers of battleships. One thing kept him sane. In his free time, he would go up into the shadow of the gun turrets with little bits of wood and his chisels and whittle away to his heart’s content. He was a brilliant carver.

Each Friday evening, when he had finished his jobs, he would show me these little wooden figureheads he had made all those years before. I became hungry to do the same thing. “If you want to learn how to carve, you’ll first have to learn how to sharpen a chisel,” he said. I nodded, and for several weeks I learnt to sharpen chisels, which is not an easy task.

Then he produced some strange bits of wood with the most awfully contorted grain. “You’ll never learn to carve unless you know how to work the grain of the wood,” he said. And so for weeks that is just what I did. Then finally he said, “I think you’re ready to start carving now.” Then he let me go. By the time I was 13, I was quite a good wood carver, and then I went off to a conventional boarding Public School.

Woodwork, never alone carving, was not on the formal curriculum!

In those days you could not go to Oxbridge without Latin. My Latin teacher, however, was even more bored with Latin than I was. He spent all his time telling us how he had won the war single-handed in his silly little tank in the African desert! I failed Latin three times. I had six weeks to go until I could take the exam for the last time. If I failed I would not have got to University, and I wouldn’t be here now.

Then the school carpenter, a menial employee not entitled to enter the common room, came and congratulated me. “You have been chosen to represent the UK as a schoolboy woodcarver at an international exhibition at Olympia,” he said. My morale soared, but then it crashed, because woodcarving, unlike debating or rugby, was not recognized by the school.

If I was a better woodcarver than anyone else, I rationalized, why couldn’t I learn Latin? The answer appeared simple – I wasn’t in charge. So that afternoon I went to my Latin teacher and explained that I wouldn’t come to any more of his lessons. I would teach myself. For six weeks nobody knew what to do with me; but that didn’t matter. I memorized vast chunks of Caesar’s Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid. Night after night I lay awake testing myself on conjugations and declensions. And of course I passed Latin. Six months later I had forgotten most of it…but I still woodcarve!

You see learning has to do with a hunger to make sense of something. The whole brain, including the emotions, has to be engaged. If you separate emotion from intellect you court disaster.

I told that story – and you each have your own stories – because early in life I came to realize that learning and schooling were not synonymous. Our neural structures and our inherited predispositions predate schooling by at least 29,500 years.

I love the excitement of learning; I delight in the company of active young minds working things out for themselves, but for years I was frustrated by the institutional hurdles that get in the way of powerful learning. I was so uncomfortable as a headteacher that in 1985 my conscience wouldn’t let me continue to preside over a system that I didn’t believe in anymore.

Learning is that reflective activity which enables the learner to draw upon previous experience to understand and evaluate the present, so as to shape future action and formulate new knowledge.

— John Abbott
(Expanded in The Search for Expertise)

Several years ago I tried to define learning. Read this. Sherlock Holmes never, ever walked into a room and saw everything. He only saw what he was looking for.

Learning is about making connections between the known and the new. It is a highly reflective activity that is about personal and continuous improvement.