Children, from a very early age can progressively come to understand that a lesson about learning something, can also be made into a lesson about how to “learn-how-to-learn” and remember something. They can become more and more their own teachers. This is the key to instilling the intrinsic motivation necessary for life-long learning.

Knowledge About How We Construct Our Systems for Learning

Formal schooling world-wide is largely the creation of the last 100 years. Its achievements have been immense, and it has been widely replicated around the world. Yet, for all its achievements, it is eventually limited by the technology of the classroom, formal instruction, uniform stages of progression, prescribed knowledge, and a curriculum of self-contained bits.

The needs of the emerging knowledge economy go far further than the industrial economy that preceded it by requiring that young people possess, in addition to a range of basic skills (numeracy, literacy and an ability to communicate), personal competencies such as the abilities to be self-starting, quick-thinking, problem-solving, risk-taking individuals who can operate in collaborative situations. Young workers need the transferable skills of the “quizzical craftsmen;” the ability to go beyond their own expertise and thoughtfully evaluate new domains and problems. Such skills and attitudes are more naturally developed in the rich, collaborative problem-solving and uncertain world of apprentice-type learning (not to be confused with 20th century industrial apprenticeship) than ever they can be in the formal classroom with its inevitable emphasis on tasks, schedules, measurable results and manageable disconnected activities.

Social, economic and technological changes in recent years have posed two direct challenges to the industrial model of schooling; 1) the need to move from relatively precise skills – the trained specialist – to the skills of adaptability and enterprise, and to do this not simply for the few but for the majority; 2) the declining sense of community, of family, of inter-generational dialogue, and the fractionalization of employment have reduced the opportunity for intrinsic motivation (informal learning). As the fiber of the community has deteriorated, societies have found it less contentious, and politically expedient, to pass an ever increasing responsibility for the experience of young people to the schools, rather than to reassess its own social priorities.

Faced with the dilemmas this creates governments have attempted to define evermore closely what is taught within school, and have started to assume either that informal learning is largely insignificant, or that such learning as takes place in the community can be inappropriate. Not only, therefore, have schools to teach the basics during that 20 percent of a child’s waking time between the ages of 5 and 18 spent within a classroom, but increasingly they are being required to substitute for what, in a healthier society, would be provided by a range of community and family functions.

A New Proposal: The Creation of Learning Communities

Within a society dependent as never before on the intellectual and practical capabilities of people to demonstrate creativity and the mastery of a variety of skills, the key object of formal schooling has now to be to give every child the confidence and ability to manage their own learning as an on-going lifelong activity. Schools, therefore, have to 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, collaborating with colleagues as appropriate, and using a range of resources and learning situations within the entire community.

To achieve this, the formal school system and its use of resources has to be completely reappraised, and effectively turned upside-down. Early years learning matters enormously; so does a generous provision of learning resources. The formal education system has to be redesigned broadly on a cognitive apprenticeship model, which will involve an eventual redistribution of resources away from much secondary and tertiary provision towards the elementary sector. This will need to be accompanied by new forms of instruction which from the earliest possible years make it obvious to the learners that, as they progress, they will be held ever more responsible for the development of those skills they already have, while being supported in higher order skills (how to reason, solve problems, and develop strategies for thinking ahead) only until such times that they can perform these themselves.

The smallest classes and the greatest availability of teacher support should be with the youngest children. It is critical that this support is used both for the development of basic functional skills, as well as building the foundation for an approach to learning that gives the child an ever greater sense of mastery over the skills which he or she can effectively develop. As children are held evermore responsible for their own development (and effectively work much harder), an increasing proportion of their time should be spent working in non-classroom type learning environments supported by information and communication technology, and the greater community.

Conclusion

If a nation or a state accepts that its economic and social well-being will increasingly be determined by its citizens’ ability to continuously learn and adapt to change then the issues addressed above need to be at the center of all discussions on education reform. Focusing on the structures of formal education alone will not lead to successful long-term solutions.

It is now possible to help the majority of young people, rather than the gifted few, become successful learners who will then relish the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. There is now enough evidence about how effective human learning takes place, and internationally there are examples of all this at small scales, that new models of learning can begin to be discussed and debated at the highest political levels. For such models to emerge the whole system must be changed significantly, and such change is not likely to happen of its on volition. If change were as simple as applying what we know, the researchers, educators, and policy analysts would have arrived at large dissemination plans long ago. Radical new ways of education entail very long and hard pathways in order for change to be widespread. This is the challenge.