Good evening. It is both an honour and a pleasure to be invited to give this lecture. I do so with some trepidation. I know I am easily carried away with my enthusiasm!
Some years ago my wife and I were on a Sunday afternoon walk with our three sons. Our youngest, Tom, who was all of 8 at the time, was holding my hand. Suddenly he looked up at me.
“Daddy, how do little children learn to talk?”
I was so fascinated by his question that I delayed a split second too long in my reply.
He looked at me reproachfully.
“I think that’s a pretty simple question but I bet you’ll give me a long and complicated answer!”
I will do my utmost to avoid that this evening.
My first sight of Dublin was from the deck of the Liverpool mailboat as it entered the Liffey way back in 1949. I was 10 years old, and highly impressionable. In the early morning mist the Sugar Loaf stood out like the magic island of Bali Hai, bidding me welcome to my first ‘foreign’ country. The horse-drawn cabs at the quayside seemed the perfect solution to an England of petrol rationing; little meat and fewer sweets! Five years in Trinity in the 1960s and nearly 20 years as part owner of a small farmhouse on the shores of Loch Derg in Co Galway, turned my fascination into a deep, and I hope mature, love of all things Celtic. While I don’t return to the land of my fathers, I delight in returning to the land of my intellectual and spiritual origins.
I wish to speak to the somewhat provocative title of “Over-schooled and Under-educated”.
Right at the start I must reassure you. This is not to be an attack on schools, nor will it in any way seek to diminish the role of teachers. You must understand that I, as a onetime teacher, believe, as did the Ancient Greeks, that the education of the young is so important that only the wisest members of a society should be entrusted with their nurture. Nevertheless, my belief in the importance of my profession has never prompted me to minimalise the importance of parents. We teachers tend to see individual children for only a few of the dozen or so years they spend in school. Furthermore we see them, t in the main, in the context of a classroom.
I need to share two thoughts with you. It has only been in the past 150 or so years that ‘school’ has figured largely in human experience. While it’s true that the human brain is the most complex organism in the universe, and that brains are all to do with learning, please remember that, for 99.9% of human history our brains have been shaped by learning-on-the-job, not by out-of- context instruction. Schools, even now. are not the only place where people learn, and many cognitive scientists see as many limitations in classroom- based instruction as they see opportunities.
Abraham Lincoln was an outstanding President of his country, yet he had only a year’s schooling. In the 1620s a million or so visits were made to the London theatre by people willing to stand for 3 or 4 hours to watch a Shakespeare drama but, and it’s a staggering thought, less than half of them could read or write. But they were intelligent and shrewd observers of the human condition. Never assume that learning and schooling are necessarily synonymous.
Now a simple statistic. However you do the calculation, there is no child in an OECD country who, between the ages of 5 and 18 spends more than 20% of its waking hours in a classroom. Once you have allowed for weekends,holidays and time before and after school each day, you can’t get that figure any higher. Fully three-quarters of a child’s waking hours are not under the direction of a teacher. To a greater or lesser extent, if they are under the direction of anyone at all, they are under the direction of parents.
I chose the title of this evening’s talk because, after 36 years as a teacher – and as a teacher who I hope always strove to do the very best he could for his pupils – I believe I should ultimately be judged not by how well I did as a teacher but how good I was at being a father of three sons.
I hope there is nothing priggish or self-congratulatory about that statement. As both a teacher and a father I have often made awful, embarrassing mistakes. Yet it is parents who are there before a child first encounters a teacher; it is they who are around in the evening, at the weekends and during the holidays. It is we parents who need to be there at 3 o’clock in the morning when an anguished teenager comes face to face with a reality they can’t stick. Or we should be.
Tonight I want to examine a range of research into just how it is that we humans learn to develop our intellectual, practical and social skills. Only when we understand better how learning takes place can we see the appropriate balance needed between the home. the community and the school.
Children are born inquisitive. The more stimulating the environment the more questions a child can ask. The more diverse that environment, the more the young learner comes to appreciate the complexities and the ambiguities of life. Our brains are predisposed to look both at detail, and at the big picture. Peripheral perception is a survival mechanism. In times long past if any one of our ancestors became just too engrossed in chipping a flint to produce a perfect axe edge he would never have noticed the bear creeping up behind him. By and large it’s the genes of successful learners that are transmitted to the next generations. Ineffective learners – those who can’t see the wood for the trees – simply die out.
You had better be clear about what I mean by ‘education’. I take the Latin word ‘educare’, not only as the root of the word ‘education’, but also as defining its fullest meaning. ‘Educare’ meant “to lead out”, in the sense of a Roman general leading his troops from the security of the camp onto the open field of battle. Knowing that his soldiers had been well trained such a general was confident that they could apply such learning to the complex challenges of a tough life. They had been prepared both to stand on their own feet and to work as a team. They knew what was good about tradition, but they also knew how new traditions were made. That’s what I mean by ‘education’ ….preparing young people to become capable adults who can stand on their own feet, and can do better than their teachers.
Eric Hoffer expressed this brilliantly when he said “In times of change learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.