While there has to be an absolute limit to what a person can be taught, and even more to what they can memorise, there is no limit to what a motivated person who knows how to think, and collaborate with others, can learn for themselves.
Curious as it may seem the Department of Education in the mid 1990s had no mechanisms to watch out for, let alone search for, any forms of research (from Britain or anywhere else in the world) into the nature of the brain and human learning that did not come out of its own daily work on implementing the national curriculum in schools1. The National Commission report of 1993, “Learning to Succeed”, billed as a radical look at what was currently happening so as to shape the future, made absolutely no reference to any research on the brain that might challenge governments, or anyone else’s assumptions, that there was anything wrong with the way we taught children. The Commission’s solution was not for Britain to be smarter in how it approached learning, it was still to be about more of the same only delivered more efficiently2.
The difficulty of trying to interest anyone in England in these new ideas was compounded by the politicians who, not getting the immediate improvements from the national curriculum which they had anticipated, looked for somebody else to take the blame. They savagely attacked the so called “progressive” teaching of the 1960s, one MP even claiming that no real improvement would happen until all memories of Plowden had been expunged from teachers’ memories. Politicians wanted simple clues to good teaching; to talk about children’s ability to learn for themselves reeked of sloppy liberal thinking, and was readily dismissed as a measure of the failed past, not of possibilities for the future3.
The creation of a synthesis was made more difficult by a turf war that was breaking out in America amongst leading cognitive scientists and neurobiologists about which discipline should be awarded the large grants becoming available for research that might help improve the dire conditions in many of that country’s high schools4. The ever increasing popular interest in evolutionary studies aggravated this tension still further5. No one, it seemed, amongst that vast American research community was prepared, as Schrödinger had suggested, to stand back far enough to see what all this might mean if seen in its entirety. Evolution as an explanation for human predispositions was so offensive to religious fundamentalists that it was deemed not prudent even to mention it in the National Research Council’s major report of “How people learn”6, published in 1999. This had been partly seen off, it was rumoured, by the much publicised paper of late 1997 by a jaded cognitive scientist who claimed that to link education with the brain was “A Bridge too Far”7. In a limited way that writer was correct — neither the Americans nor the English had the methodology that enabled them to put three such different ways of thinking about the same issue together, and come out with any useful conclusions. It wasn’t that synthesis was a “bridge too far”; it was that too many sectional interests were preventing anyone even designing such a bridge. The English, with much else on their plate were happy to consign the whole issue of synthesis to the “pending” file.
So Education 20008, that organisation set up in England in the mid 1980s that had challenged the CBI to consider how an over-taught curriculum simply destroyed youngsters’ personal responsibility to think things out for themselves, went ahead on its own. It assembled a team of people, researchers, policy makers and practitioners, from several countries and from different disciplines to put together the first draft of such a synthesis9. At its heart this synthesis showed why learning was so much more than just the flip-side of good teaching, and why the home and the community were as significant as the school. Rather than thinking of the brain as a computer we now have to see it as a far more flexible, self-adjusting, biological entity, an ever changing organism that grows and reshapes itself in response to challenge, and with elements that wither through lack of use10.
Suddenly and totally unexpectedly, in the last months of John Major’s premiership, Education 2000 was invited to Downing Street to explain all this thinking. Was this simply a tired government clutching at a straw or a real moment of opportunity? The meeting was very carefully prepared for, and a briefing document submitted11. For an hour and a half the Director was grilled by three very senior civil servants, bright in the conventional way of a Winchester and Oxbridge education, but apparently desperately short of any personal experience of what a late twentieth century classroom felt like, and what attitudes teachers and pupils brought with them to the class. The questions were thorough, while the political assumptions were those of the time. The Director laid out the case most carefully. It seems that he almost succeeded, for in summarising the policy group’s response, the Chairman said, “Much to my surprise I can’t really fault your theory. You’re probably educationally right; certainly your argument is ethically correct. But the system you’re arguing for would require very good teachers. We’re not convinced there will ever be enough good teachers. So, instead, we’re going for a teacher-proof system of organising schools — that way we can get a uniform standard.”12
At least it was brutally honest. The truth was out. Schools were to be about instruction, not learning. It was depressing beyond words. Those who ought to be forming a vision for the future were so bogged down in the turmoil of the present that they couldn’t even see a lifejacket when it was thrown to them. Would a Labour government be any better?
Thesis 82: 25th August 2006