This article written by John Abbott appeared in the Conference issue of the House of Commons’ Parliamentary Monitor (1998).

Education, so politicians in many lands are quick to claim, is at the top of the political agenda – the “number one” item. Yet, for most people, education seems a strangely boring topic. Like religion, people sense that it’s important, but prefer to leave it to others to practice or think about. Search a bookshop and you are most likely to find the education section in some dark, out-of-the-way, corner, and most of the books on the shelves will be about specialised topics of little general interest. Few education books make it to the front of the shop, and even fewer are promoted as best sellers.

This is strange, for there is more material now about the nature of human learning and its importance to individuals, to society and to the economy at large than at any previous time. It is found in books all over the shop – in many different sections: in neurology and cognitive science; in physics, biology and evolutionary psychology; in economic and political theory; in business studies and systems thinking; in information and communications technology, and in cultural anthropology and even in archaeology, philosophy and theology. In fact there is so much about the nature and importance of learning that it is virtually impossible to keep up with all the ideas. It is learning which will drive our future economies. Yet the education section remains dusty and remote and to search here for a clue as to why education is now the “number one agenda item” is to become even more confused.

What is happening? Is it that education, as previously understood to mean schools, is simply being sidelined, and for some reason is unable to keep up with these new discoveries? Has education ceased to be about learning? Why is it that teachers world-wide seem depressed, fed up, disillusioned and unsure of themselves? Is school “dead”?

Yet, ponder this: children start life inquisitive. Their endless questioning can drive us to distraction! It’s as if each and every child wants to make their own particular sense of the world around them, as if no one had ever thought about such matters before. Even on a good day, constantly they reinterpret what we say – our cherished personal summing up of the world – in terms of their own experience, their own interests and their patterns of inherited predispositions. These predispositions seem to vary quite enormously; one child in a family seems to think like a poet, another like a mechanic. There are things here which scientists are now in a position to begin to understand far better. Many of these reflect what good teachers have known since long before Socrates — that learning is not simply the flip side of teaching.

Like most of our social institutions, traditional learning theory and traditional schools are based on a linear mechanistic model of the world. Mechanistic understanding is now deemed to be of questionable value. So surely it is right to question whether learning as organised in schools is consistent with what we now know about the brain? The human brain is the most complex adaptive system known in the universe, that is it is a mechanism adept at detecting patterns in the environment, interpreting and responding to these, and changing the rules subsequently so as to be able to do this even better in the future. Yet, most educators and policy makers know little about how the brain works, and much less about the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. Is it possible that we are failing to capitalise on these ideas and persist with educational strategies that simply fail to go with the grain of the brain?

As Professor Robert Sylwester of Oregon notes, “Get rid of the damn machine model of the brain. It’s wrong! The brain is a biological system, not a machine. Currently we’re putting children with biologically shaped brains into machine-oriented schools. The two just don’t mix. We bog the school down in a curriculum that is not biologically feasible.”

Most conventional school reform fails to realise its potential because it attempts to mandate new structures without changing the important rules in the system. New learning theory and practice constitute fundamentally new rules governing the interactions between players in the educational system. As these new ideas and rules spread throughout the system, we should expect to see old structures break-up and new ones form. This means we should look forward – yes genuinely look forward – to an extensive period of turbulence in education. Maybe, just maybe we have an Upside Down and Inside Out system.

Eric Hoffer had it right when he said “in times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”