Are our schools places that encourage reflection? Do young minds formulate hypotheses that link a study of history with, say, the issues of global warming, with economic instability, with matters of equity and sustainability as well as their own potential earning capacity – hopefully without having to sell their fertile eggs! Because THAT is what the world will need. Powerful, connected, thinking.

If not, we (ministers, civil servants and everyone) will have failed disastrously. That’s why I entitled my speech “Battery Hens, or Free Range Chickens?” Cleverness will never be enough – our country desperately needs creativity, and the ability to think holistically, and ethically.

Just before the ’44 Education Act, Sir Richard Livingston, then President of Corpus Christie College, Oxford, published a short book The Future in Education. Note this extract.

“The test of a successful education is not the amount of knowledge that a pupil takes away from a school, but his appetite to know and his capacity to learn. If the school sends out children with the desire for knowledge and some idea of how to acquire and use it, it will have done its work.

Too many leave school with the appetite killed and the mind loaded with undigested lumps of information. The good schoolmaster is known by the number of valuable subjects that he declines to teach.”

— Sir Richard Livingstone
The Future in Education, C.U.P., 1941

It reads well, and has a high feel-good factor. But it contains the historic tension – is education about content, or is it about process? For too long the pendulum has swung rapidly from side to side. Political positions have been, and even now are being, staked out. Neither polarity is good enough. Here is the challenge which has brought me to where I am today. In the better understanding of Metacognition – that cumbersome word describing how we can Make Thinking Visible, and consciously direct our multiple learning strategies – is the key to the transformation of education. We really can learn-how-to-learn.

With the emerging convergence of all this research we can express this with a clarity that was not possible even five years ago.

To make such a synthesis we have to study five key issues.

  1. The biological nature of learning
    • The brain of the developing fetuss
    • The brain of the young child
    • The brain of the adolescent
    • Brain plasticity
  2. The science of the learning
  3. Construction of knowledge
  4. The impact of new technology
  5. The nature of home and community

Each issue is highly significant, but it’s only when these are taken in their entirety that we find the design brief to move from the world of the Cunarder to that of the intercontinental jet.

The future belongs to those countries first able to synthesize the findings from these disparate subjects. There – on the edge of uncertainty – is the opportunity for genuine innovation.

This morning I can only deal in the barest outline with the biology of learning. However, when you leave this hall collect a copy of the recently published Policy Paper that unpacks the implications of all this. I urge you to read it most carefully.

Pregnancy and the Developing Brain

“There is no period of parenthood with a more direct and formative effect on the child’s developing brain, than the nine months of pregnancy leading to the birth of a full term baby. The mother’s emotions affect the fetus, and so do her general habits and the parents’ physical environment. (Probably) half of birth defects are due to avoidable exposure to medicinal drugs, recreational drugs, alcohol, tobacco smoke, and toxic agents at work and at home.”

— Marian Diamond and Janet Hopson

The Magic Trees of the Mind 1998

The 3 bones of the inner ear are the only bones that reach full adult size by the sixth month of pregnancy – “Mozart in the womb.”