This article was prepared by John Abbott for The Independent newspaper in Great Britain. The article appeared in Information Technology and the Comprehensive Ideal published in London in 1997.

Being an English academic working with researchers outside the United Kingdom offers me the opportunity to relate British events to what is happening in other countries. Distance certainly lends a sense of perspective, if not always enchantment!

“In a global economy knowledge is everything. It is the country which knows how best to educate it’s young people that will compete most successfully in the global marketplace,” claim politicians in many lands. International competition is obviously intense. We all want, it seems, the same thing.

Defining this “thing” clearly is hard, and its essence elusive like quicksilver. “What you earn depends on what you learn,” claims President Clinton. On Thursday, April 9th, in The Independent, Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of OFSTED, battled with Seamus Hegarty, the Director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, to prove that most educational research was a waste of money. We, the English, it appears to Mr. Woodhead, know what we have to do – the only thing is we have to do it harder, more efficiently, and in a more closely prescribed manner.

Yet, on The Independent’s previous page, a report on the Committee set up last year by David Blunkett to advise on “Creativity and Cultural Education” questioned such simplistic solutions when they asked, “How do you manage to tap students’ creativity in an education system which is consumed with the very basics?” This is a critical question, especially as critics have seen earlier attempts to develop creativity among Primary School students as being responsible for a perceived fall in standards.

The answer, as Mr. Woodhead argues, lies in moving beyond simply more research in the “sociology of education.” However, Mr. Woodhead should be advised that such research is just a tiny corner of a very large body of research — much of it international and most of it not by educationalists —highly pertinent to his responsibilities. He should look well beyond the box of the sociology of education at the emergent research on human learning. Professor Ken Robinson, Chair of the Creativity Committee noted that “the most interesting and ground-breaking research is happening where archaeology meets science, and where music meets sociology.” It’s happening through synthesis.

Research findings into the biology of learning from cognitive science, neurology, developmental psychology and the evolutionary sciences tell us that if we want young people who are able to think across boundaries then the primary purpose of education should be the development of transferable skills. Transferable skills are defined by cognitive scientists as those skills which can easily be transferred across new domains of knowledge and disciplines. Now, at a time when the half-life of useful scientific knowledge is thought to be less than seven years, we are slowly coming to recognise that it’s not so much what you know when you leave school that matters, as what you understand about how to go about solving novel problems.

In a world of continuous change, the ability of individuals to plan and implement their own learning without external direction is the key to success. Research from cognitive science and developmental psychology show that learning is nothing if it is not a deeply reflective activity in which every new idea is internalised and used to refine, or to change, or to upgrade, earlier, more naive understandings. This intrinsically driven learning gives children a greater sense of mastery and control and is what leads to successful life-long learning. Learning is a consequence of thinking.

To understand the relationship between basic skills and creativity, we have to face the old hoary conundrum of transferability, and before doing that it is critical to appreciate the subtle difference between two key concepts which are too often confused in the public mind – Specialisation, and Expertise.

Recent work by two Canadian cognitive scientists (Bereiter and Scardamalia), further extended by the findings of neurologists and systems thinkers shows that a specialist, by working within the well-defined parameters of a specialism “knows his subject from the top to the bottom.” A specialist knows all the rules, all the tests, and all the possible combinations and formulae. His authority rests on the depth of his knowledge, and is uncluttered by the need to assess extraneous influences. A specialist exudes a confidence in his/her competence – in some this comes through as arrogance. Discussion with such people is often difficult for they know all the answers or are just not interested. Where their specialisms fit in a bigger picture does not trouble such a person, for that is essentially unquantifiable, imprecise and highly uncertain; there are no rules for that kind of thing, so these are questions best left unanswered.

A caricature perhaps, but the world has come to be fearful of specialists for, in some hard-to-define way, we sense they are just not “real”. They “think the world apart”, and that gets us into trouble and makes us schizophrenic.

“Experts,” in contrast, “tackle problems that increase their expertise,” whereas “(specialists) tend to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves (by going beyond the rules and formulae they accept),” argues Bereiter and Scardamalia. “Experts,” Bereiter and Scardamalia have observed “indulge in progressive problem-solving, that is they continually reformulate a problem at an ever-higher level as they achieve at lower levels, and uncover more of the nature of the issue. They become totally immersed in their work (flow), and increase the complexity of the activity by developing new skills and taking on new challenges.”