To celebrate his 65th birthday, Ernest fulfilled a dream: He performed Bartok’s First, Second and Third Piano Concertos, accompanied by the Leeds Sinfonia Orchestra. His CDs sell alongside those of the greatest pianists of our day.

Ernest believes in the potential of all young people to develop their particular abilities. “I discovered my interest,” he says, “before the crushing routines of my little school would have reduced me to a mere cog in a machine. Ability is not innate. It exists like a shadow of ourselves when we are willing to stand in front of a bright light… We must say to every child, ‘You are special. You are unique; but to develop your genius you have to work at it, and stick with it year after year’.”

My son Tom comes from a privileged background. Young Ernest certainly did not. But creativity does not depend on privilege, nor does learning necessarily follow from teaching. Thus the old plaint of the teacher: “I taught them everything I ever knew, but they were so uninterested that they learned nothing!” Contrast that with David Perkins (1992), writing in Smart Schools, “Learning is a consequence of thinking” (p.78). We should remind every child of this statement each day.

How Do We Create Intelligence?

The understanding of learning will become the key issue of our time. The creation of intellectual capital has been going on with every generation for millions of years, with perhaps one exception – and that is what has happened over the past five or six generations.

Until the early 1800s, people learned in real-life, on-the-job situations. Then our industrial society required people to develop no more than a range of functional skills (such as reading, writing, and calculation) that allowed them to fit into the dull routines of manufacturing. Schools ignored the more inclusive skills that enabled people to make sense of things for themselves in earlier ages. For much of the past century or more, the spontaneous, deep learning of the Toms and Ernests of this world has existed largely outside the formal education system of Western industrial nations.

The ability to think about your own thinking (metacognition) is essential in a world of continuous change. Through metacognition, we can develop skills that are genuinely transferable. These skills are linked to reflective intelligence, or wits. As never before, the human race needs all the wits it can muster.

Being able to step back as a specialist and reflect – to honestly re-evaluate what you are doing from a general perspective – is naturally developed in the rich, collaborative, problem-solving, and uncertain world of the apprentice, as opposed to the tasks, schedules, and measurable activities of the formal classroom. Expertise requires much content knowledge – and metacognition. This deep reflective capability is what helps us develop new possibilities.

A New Model of Learning

A model of learning that could deliver expertise is ours for the asking. It would work on the basis of the biological concept of weaning – giving very young children plentiful help and direction, and then reducing this direction progressively as children master more and more skills. In this model, as adolescence ends, young people will already have taken full responsibility for directing their own learning. The age of 18 should mark not the beginning of independent learning but the age at which young people perfect that art and know how to exercise it responsibly.

Formal schooling, therefore, must start a dynamic process through which pupils are progressively weaned from their dependence on teachers and institutions and given the confidence to manage their own learning. Surely it should be the child who is tired at the end of the term, and not the teacher.