This article by John Abbott and Terry Ryan appeared in the January 1998 edition of The American Administrator magazine.

For more than a decade politicians, business leaders and educational leaders have assumed that their education systems needed reform, not re-design. On both sides of the Atlantic reformers have insisted that young people can be successfully prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the Knowledge Age by getting systems of education designed for the Industrial Age to work more efficiently and towards a higher standard. In taking this stance, much of the emerging body of research into the nature of human learning that challenges the underlying principles of the systems that reformers have taken for granted has failed to be fully appreciated.

New forms of education await development through exploiting the new insights emerging from an ever increasing array of research into just how it is that people learn-how-to-learn (and thereby develop real understanding and transferable skills), and then merging these insights with best practice from around the world. If learning is the critical issue for the future, and not simply more schooling, then a transformation of the life of the community is as essential as any restructuring of formal educational arrangements.

Learning and schooling are not synonymous. No form of schooling can continuously compensate for a dysfunctional community; perversely, the harder the schools try, the less incentive communities have to help themselves. At the most fundamental level, it is impossible to bring up children to be intelligent in a world that appears unintelligible to them.

Key Elements of a Learning Community

Details of the proposed redesign should be determined by the members of the particular communities involved. The broad outlines, however, include:

  • new relationships between young people and the adults in their communities, replacing the isolation from real life that makes current schools so ineffective;
  • much greater investment in the personal, social, and intellectual development of young children; leading to
  • assumption by adolescents and young adults of greater responsibility for their own learning and for contributing to their communities.
  • a new unit of change; something smaller than most current educational administrative units, but larger than a single school. This would be coterminous with what people feel to be the place where they belong, and for which they feel a sense of identity and hopefully responsibility.

Sources of Knowledge Compelling a New Approach

The proposed redesign should be based on four bodies of knowledge derived from recent research in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive science, anthropology, sociology, the evolutionary sciences, and related fields:

  • knowledge about the biological nature of learning,
  • knowledge about the impact of information technology,
  • knowledge about the relationship between thinking processes (meta-cognition), and the development of expertise, an
  • knowledge about how we construct our systems for learning.

New Knowledge About the Biological Nature of Learning

Until recently the study of learning was largely the preserve of philosophers and psychologists, and latterly of cognitive scientists. Neurologists, as a result of functional MRI and CAT scans, are now able literally to watch specific patterns of activity within the brain light up on a computer screen. The unprecedented clarity that this technology reveals about brain function is causing scientists to revise many of their earlier assumptions about how individual learning actually takes place.