This article first appeared in the March 21, 1999 Winona (Minnesota) Daily News. The Initiative would like to thank The Winona Daily News for letting us reprint their interview here.

Relearning learning: Educator John Abbott has devoted his professional life to a message that inspires fundamental change: “It takes an entire community to educate a child.”

John Abbott is worried about our children and our future.

But the president of the 21st Century Learning Initiative is an optimist, and part of his power for change in the way communities view education is his contagious enthusiasm, and emerging optimism that says communities have the knowledge, the power and technology to use the human capacity for learning to transform the world.

Abbott will be in Winona April 22 (1999) to help moderate and participate in a community-wide discussion of education for the 21st century. In an interview last week, he talked about the 21st Century Learning Initiative’s mission to change the way the world views education, and about his own passion for learning.

Winona Daily News: What kind of experience have you had with places like Winona?

John Abbott: This is really where my life story started, because I was a principal at an English high school, and for a dozen years I tried every single trick in the business to try and bring about fundamental change. But then, progressively, one realized that schools standing by themselves can’t do everything. You need a whole community behind you.

And so in 1985…we started by taking the town of Letchworth, which is a town of about 35,000 people in Hertfordshire, and said: What would happen if the people of Letchworth felt that nobody other than themselves would be responsible for sorting out their education system? What would happen if the state passed all responsibility down to a level as small as a town? And what would happen if enough resource was provided to give every teacher a significant amount of time over a period of years to retrain to begin to understand how you could open up the whole community as a learning resource for young people? And how teachers themselves could begin to change their teaching format so that in addition to getting children to understand subjects…(they could) get children to understand how they actually learned, what a successful learning strategy is?

And we were introducing that at a time which computers were first becoming available, and we went even further and said: “What would happen if we provided a computer to every seven children?”

And for three glorious years, we had marvelous experience of what Winona is now trying to do – the whole town coming together and saying nobody else is going to sort this out unless we do ourselves, and let’s get behind all the schools, not just one or two, and work it with a program in which the teachers would see themselves not as teachers of a particular school but teachers of a whole young community.

WDN: What changed?

John Abbott: In the short run, the thing that changed was the enthusiasm of the pupils to start doing things that beforehand they had not wanted to do – because they (now) were living with vastly enthusiastic teachers. And that was the heart of it. We actually went right down the line and said (that) if you want exciting students, you want exciting teachers.

What made them exciting was the fact that for the first time in their lives the authority had been in a sense overridden. The powers that be…were actually saying you’re so important that we will provide you with at least 10 percent of your time to be continuously upgrading your skills, the way in which you work with children. So that rather than saying retraining is something which is done after school on the back of an envelope, we’re actually saying your professional development is so important we’re putting it on the timetable.

And what went along with that were a whole series of individual programs, one of which meant that over a three-year period, two-third of the teachers spent three or four weeks shadowing people in other forms of employment so that part of the retraining program for teachers was that teachers had the opportunity to shadow other professionals and look at what other professionals were doing dealing with issues of change.

WDN: How does an individual school district move toward that model?

John Abbott: There are a couple or three strategies that are going to be very important. One is not to let people think you are going to be very important. One is not to let people think you are condemning what they used to do in the past because often what they did in the past was the best that they could do given the knowledge they had at the time…It’s a question of saying what was good enough in the past, which really was good enough in the past, is not good enough into the future.

The second strategy, which is vitally important, is to bring everybody into an active discussion about what the issues are. People are talking and talking and talking until eventually people realize they’ve convinced themselves they can’t just go on doing it the way they used to do it.

What happens to children in any one day (in traditional education) is the result of meeting half a dozen different teachers for three-fourths of an hour each, and unless each one of those teachers believes in what they are doing, then the experiences of the child is not going to be as good as people like myself are trying to get it to be. And so you do have to invest in helping people understand why change is necessary.