This presentation was given by John Abbott as the keynote speech to the Canadian Child Care Federation’s Linking Research to Practice: Second Canadian Forum held in Ottawa in November 1999.

Note: the ideas in this speech are developed much further in the Initiative’s Policy Paper which is available as a PDF file.

Politicians in many lands are quick to claim that education is at the top of the political agenda. What does that mean? For most people education seems a strangely boring topic. Search through Chapters and you are likely to find the education section in some out-of-the-way comer. Few of the books on the shelves are best-sellers.

Yet there is more material now about the nature of human learning than at any previous time. It’s found in books all over the shop – in cognitive science, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, information sciences, management studies, economics, philosophy, pedagogy and religion. There is so much about learning that it seems impossible to keep up with the research.

Why, therefore, do we have a “crisis” in education? Is it that all teachers, in every country, have suddenly started to underperform? Or is it that teachers, administrators, departments of education, ministers, prime ministers have simply failed to move into the rest of the bookshop to study what is now known about human learning?

Humans are born to be intelligent, to learn. Our brains give us our superiority. Each brain is an example of the most remarkable, complex organism in the entire universe.

We each have more neurons in the brain than all the trees in all the forests of both North and South America combined. More significantly, we each have more synapses, or potential neural connections, than all the leaves in all the forests throughout the world!

Over millions of years of evolution, natural selection has favored those members of our species who have developed brains best able to relate and adapt to their immediate environment – to learn. Strong evidence suggests that our brains have not changed in essential form in 30,000 years. About 100,000 years ago, when humans started to talk, our brains started to grow. This increased the size of our skulls.

Every other mammal delivers its young with its brain virtually fully developed. But if the human were to do the same, women would have to carry their babies for 27 months! Evolution compromised. Humans deliver babies at nine months with brains only some 40 per cent fully formed. Here’s the magic.

The human brain comes equipped with a whole series of intellectual predispositions to learn incredibly rapidly from our environment. Providing, that is, they are properly stimulated at the stage immediately after birth.

A Hunger to Make Sense

“Learning is a consequence of thinking”(David Perkins, Smart Schools, 1992.) This is a simple and profound truth. Thinking – not simply instruction.

When I was about 10 years old, my parents employed a man to do odd jobs. Old MacFadgen was a brilliant carver. Each Friday, after finishing his work, he would show me the little wooden figureheads he had made. I became hungry to do the same thing but he told me if I wanted to learn how to carve, I’d first have to learn how to sharpen a chisel. So for several weeks, I learnt to sharpen chisels. Next, he produced some strange bits of wood with very contorted grain. He told me I had to learn how to work the grain of the wood, and for weeks that is just what I did. One day, he told me I was ready to start carving and he let me go. By the time I was 13, in a boarding school, I was quite a good wood carver.

In those days, you could not go to university without Latin and my Latin teacher was even more bored with Latin than I was. I failed Latin three times and had six weeks to go until I could take the exam for the last time. Meanwhile, I had been chosen to represent the UK as a schoolboy woodcarver at an international exhibition. My morale soared and then crashed: woodcarving was not recognized by the school.

If I was a better woodcarver than anyone else, why couldn’t I learn Latin? The simple answer was that I wasn’t in charge. That afternoon I went to my Latin teacher and explained that I would not attend class but would teach myself. For six weeks, I memorized vast chunks of Caesar’s Gaelic War, Virgil’s Aeneid.

I passed Latin, but six months later I had forgotten most of it. However, I still woodcarver That is because learning has to do with a hunger to make sense of something. The whole brain, including the emotions, has to be engaged. We all have such stories that taught us that learning and schooling are not synonymous. Our neural structures and our inherited predispositions predate formal 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 learning. I was so uncomfortable as a head teacher that in 1985, my conscience wouldn’t let me continue to preside over a system I didn’t believe in anymore.