John Abbott and Ted Marchese Appeared in the American Association of Higher Education Bulletin (1996).

Marchese: John, I take it that Education 2000 exists because of a certain dissatisfaction with the educational system.

Abbott: Yes. Leaders in Britain know our future as a society depends on the best work of educators. But they also observe far too many young people failing to acquire in school the skills, attitudes, and expertise they–and we–need for the future.

Marchese: What are they looking for in graduates?

Abbott: Creativity, enterprise, purposefulness, a good sense of community responsibility and collaborative work…

Marchese: To American educators, it’s a familiar list.

Abbott: As it would be to counterparts in Japan, France, Brazil, Australia…all of us are sensing that knowledge-based societies put a premium on higher-order competencies that traditional schools and colleges haven’t been good at developing. All this has been said before, I realize, and has been a staple of efforts to reform the schools. But even as test scores and the like inch up, we continue to get graduates who think narrowly, are teacher-dependent, who have too little ability to tackle challenges or embrace change. The situation puts us to wondering whether the traditional classroom is right for the task….the need may be less for “reform” than for fundamental redesign of the system.

Marchese: These competencies you want…say more.

Abbott: There are, of course, certain basics that the school was set up for and they continue to be important: skills of numeracy, literacy, and communication. But today we need a whole series of new competencies, abilities to conceptualize and so solve problems that entail abstraction (the manipulation of thoughts and patterns), systems thinking (inter-related thinking), experimentation, and collaboration.

Marchese: We see all kinds of movements today to add these to the curriculum.

Abbott: Well, not to prejudge, but I doubt such abilities can be taught solely in the classroom, or developed solely by teachers. Higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills grow out of direct experience, not simply teaching; they require more than a classroom activity. They develop through active involvement and real-life experiences in workplaces and the community.

Marchese: Granting that for the moment, why is it too much to expect that educators will help produce self-confident, self-sufficient learners?

Abbott: We want them to, of course. But understand how against the grain that expectation will be. The system of universal schooling was set up in the 19th Century to meet the demands of factory-based work for people with the basic skills and attitudes appropriate to a manufacturing economy–that is, people who could follow directions and perform relatively straightforward tasks in a reliable manner. Schools, even colleges, were then organized around a factory model, with separate courses, departments, credits and tests, all in sequence. In this model, learning is seen as an abstract activity, separated from everyday context, and as heavily dependent on the teacher, who imparts information and routine skills, aided by textbooks.

Marchese: It’s a system perfectly set up for the results we see…

Abbott: …which aren’t those we need for a knowledge-based economy. My concern, too, is that after decades of such a system, in which the school takes over responsibility for formal learning and social development, all too many people have come t o think of learning as the schools’ job, so that the community, even parents assume greatly reduced roles in the induction of the young into adulthood. Meanwhile, the young, set off in schools, have fewer chances to learn about their personal responsibility within the community.

Marchese: So the task is to get students out in the community and the community more involved with their learning.

Abbott: Just so, and for the sake of both parties if we want a learning society. The mistake is to think of learning as a school-based activity rather than one of life itself. If I might, I’d like to point out that there was plenty of learning be fore schools were around. Most of the people who flocked to the Globe for Shakespeare could neither read nor write. Even in 1830, when English inventiveness and enterprise led the world, the median level of schooling was two years. But people learned the practical and intuitive skills they needed through community life and apprenticeship; they worked collaboratively on tasks that made sense to them and took responsibility for their work. Living, working, and learning were interdependent.

Marchese: I know that Education 2000 has been looking in several quarters for ideas about the redesign of learning.

Abbott: Yes. Before the contemporary ones, though, let’s stay with history, because part of what we need may lie in recapturing successful practices of the past. Take apprenticeship. It embodied two learning principles suggestive for today. One was that when the apprentice was first starting out, the master craftsman spent a great amount of time with him developing basic skills, but always in a context of seeing where the lesson led to….so the youngster was taught how to square up a piece of wood, and saw how that timber was crucial to the British ship they were building. Second, as the apprentice got older and more experienced, the less and less support he had from the master, so that when he reached 18 or 19 he was expected to be self-sufficient. Note how different this is from the way schools operate, where the context and purpose for learning are typically missing and where teacher dependence is in full flower even at the university level.