It had been a good three-day conference for the three hundred and twenty or so students at Atlantic College in South Wales. Billed as giving both the introductory talk, and the concluding lecture, I was to be the outside parts of an obviously rich and varied sandwich. But so stimulating had that conference been that when I rose to give my concluding speech ‘Learning that Goes with the Grain of the Brain’ it was abundantly obvious that everyone was totally exhausted. With all the good will in the world, neither students nor staff could take in anything more.
Fighting their combined tiredness I stumbled to a stop midway through a sentence. The unexpected silence stirred a number of them and they began to look at me rather sheepishly; they hadn’t wished to appear rude, but they just couldn’t stay awake any longer.
My immediate reaction was to be cross – cross with myself for not having adjusted to the mood of the audience, and cross with the organisers for trying to squeeze too much into the programme. But forty or more years of working with young people quickly made me realise that it was neither the fault of the organisers, the students, nor myself. Circumstances simply conspired against each of us… there was no hostility towards me, for they had really wanted to hear what I might say, but they just couldn’t keep their eyes open.
I relaxed and, metaphorically tearing up my script, said, “We all need a breath of fresh air. Go for a walk and those of you who want to, please come back in half an hour’s time, and we’ll start again.” Three quarters of them came back and some even managed to organise the chairs in semi-circles facing me, not in rigid lines. They were now nicely relaxed and looked at me expectantly. I ignored my PowerPoint presentation, and just started talking to them – ‘talking to them’, that is, in the sense of what St Augustine said fifteen hundred years ago when he wrote, “I learnt most not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” Talking is full of contextual richness, but a lecture can be factually correct while emotionally boring.
Replaying the tape that was made of those first few moments I heard myself saying “to people like you, school can seem less about a passion to learn and more about getting good grades. How many times have you sat in class, bored and desperate just to get away? I suspect every teenager has felt like that – Albert Einstein felt like that, and acted upon it. One day at the age of fifteen he was sitting in a class when, all of a sudden, he decided that enough was enough, and got up and simply walked right out the door. He never came back.”
Thinking about that years later, Einstein wrote “it is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of enquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom.”
Later I asked them if they remembered being a kid and just wanting to play around with stuff – pulling things apart, knocking things together, and grownups saying ‘no, no, no,’. Or being called ‘good’ for sitting still or ‘naughty’ when you couldn’t bear to sit still any longer? It’s all well intentioned of course. But that doesn’t make it any less insane. Because the fact is, our capacity to create and learn knows no bounds – and the latest research proves it.
That conversation between me and those highly engaged seventeen-year olds went on so much longer than the allocated time that the caretaker, very pointedly and noisily, started clearing away the spare chairs. I moved to close the session when, to my delight, the afternoon which had started so badly ended up with the students giving me a standing ovation, and forty of them buying a copy of my book ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’. I agreed to a request that I should go back a month later to talk with them again.
Several were obviously fast readers for, in the weeks that followed, I received a number of emails. One said “I have read the book from cover to cover, twice, and really believe in what it says, yet I get totally frustrated by not being able, myself, to explain it properly to my friends. Please can someone help me do this better?” Whilst I know from having given the better part of a thousand lectures over the years on every continent except the Arctic and the Antarctic, this is unfortunately too often the case. Just why is it so difficult to assimilate the argument and then explain it? This is a real problem, and I just did not know the answer.
By nature I am a story teller, not an author, and as yet hadn’t found a way to reconcile the two approaches. I have all the material locked up in my head but not until I see my audience and sense where they are coming from do I know how to ‘pitch’ the ideas. Getting the pitch right is essential because helping people to understand these ideas fundamentally challenges the status quo. As an American colleague of mine once said, “Knowing what we now know we no longer have the moral authority to carry on doing things in the way we used to do them.” That means helping listeners to appreciate the weakness of their own unquestioned assumptions. Many people find that unnerving.
However popular might be a book like ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’, it inevitably focuses on a linear approach to setting out a case. A book is essentially didactic – a one-way stream of consciousness from author to reader. By St. Augustine’s reckoning, that is a long way off being a conversation.
That I had found myself throwing away my prepared text and instead turning the last session into much more of a conversation, had an interesting effect on two of my teacher colleagues who knew well the world of school, of classrooms, teacher-talk and of young people’s interests and had heard me lecture several times before. “We’ve got an exciting idea forming in our minds, but first you must see the animated documentary ‘The Story of Stuff’. Spend some time on this, because we think the case you’re making for fundamental change in the way we educate children could be far better illustrated if you use a more graphic style. That doesn’t mean putting up still more slides with lots of words on them. More importantly, it means creating pictures, moving illustrations and appropriate background sounds.”
I obviously looked unconvinced so they began to drive the message harder: “Because it’s so important to get as many people as possible to be interested in an alternative model of schooling you can’t rely on people going into bookshops. You have to go on the internet and plant some enticing ‘teasers’ – short animated graphic documentaries that give the essence of your argument. If you make these teasers attractive enough then you could stimulate a massive audience that so far neither you nor we have ever reached.”
I was still having a hard time trying to understand how such a significant story as the one I was trying to tell could in any way be turned into cartoons. Were not cartoons the stuff of children’s comics, not the meat of serious academic concern?
However I did as I was told and sat down and watched ‘The Story of Stuff’.
I must say I was enthralled. If this doesn’t seem too dramatic, the twenty two minutes it took me to watch this completely changed the way I now believe I have to deliver my message. If you, the reader, have not already done this for yourself, you should temporarily put down this article and watch the video. Then the rest of this will make much more sense.
It was pretty clear that I had much in common with Annie Leonard the environmental activist whose professional life has been spent trying to sort out the challenges of what to do with the mountains of stuff thrown away every day in New York City. In setting out to write her book (which preceded the twenty two minute video) she first did basic research on where all this ‘stuff’ had come from and, with a passion similar to my own, set out to persuade the public that unless they all began to understand how the economy actually thrives on producing stuff which we tire of so quickly we are fast in danger of burying civilisation beneath a heap of rubbish.
What the Initiative has been saying is similar, for, if we really took the time to apply what neurology and cognitive science now tells us about humans learn, we could empower the next generation to reverse the dysfunctional society that now threatens to engulf the world. That’s the target we have to strive to achieve, and to do this we have to get the message out far more effectively than we have ever done before.
Annie Leonard must be pleased with the response to her book, but what she obviously realised before me is that now, in 2011, fewer people have the time to read well researched and carefully articulated books of three hundred and fifty or more pages. Today we have become acclimatised to 24/7 journalism, constant internet connections and – more significantly – to careful and well targeted viral marketing that integrates voice, word, music, graphics and cartoons.
Once Annie Leonard recognised this she began to work with a team of animators, graphic artists and script writers to turn the whole ‘story’ into an animated graphic of only twenty-two minutes, and then put that on the internet (presumably having prepared the ground by making it easy for other groups to makes links to this on their own websites). The video graphic of ‘The Story of Stuff’ has been downloaded no fewer than thirteen million times.
The Initiative now needs to do the same with Overschooled but Undereducated. Having realised this, we then looked at the techniques used in a number of other animated documentaries. We looked at how well they had targeted a clearly defined audience, and the steps needed to help people get a deeper understanding of the different issues. We were particularly interested in how such videos drew people together, and how they then started to deepen their interest. We thought about the way in which parents might use such documentaries, then we thought about teachers, leaders in the community and politicians. At an early stage we realised that we would have to design the videos to be of immediate interest to people between 15 and 25, which would mean they would also be of interest to a slightly older age group so enabling us to broadly target the under 35s. These are the ones who already realise the dangers of having themselves been ‘overschooled but undereducated’.
“The first thing you have to do is to construct a script,” one of the animators told us, “and then we seek to build up the graphics around it. When we have the script the first step is to turn it into a series of story boards and then tie the individual graphics to the voice overview.” That sounds pretty straightforward, I told myself, full of ignorant self-confidence. Aloud I said to the animators, “you could take the first chapter of the book, which is an overview of the whole argument, and it’s only three thousand words long.” The animator smiled tolerantly, “you will need to thin your argument down and rigorously prioritise the key messages. Once you’ve done this then we look to see which of your original words still need to be spoken, and which replaced by graphics, and how much can be implied by constructing the appropriate context.” Incidentally it takes an animator a full day to construct seven seconds’ worth of cartoons for a video… so it’s a pretty intensive process.
“A video has to flow,” said the animator, “and like a composer you will have to highlight the key passages that need to be delivered at a different pace and with different emphasis. Four and a half minutes may seem very short to you teachers who usually talk for hours on end, but holding the attention of an audience who you never see and who can readily turn you off instantly by pressing a button, your videos need to be both fun and fascinating.”
At the time of writing, we are about five weeks away from completing what we now hope will be the first of a dozen videos, possibly under the generic title of ‘Born to Learn’, with the first being entitled ‘Bright Young Brains’. By the time you will read this you will of course be able to access this and judge for yourself whether this makes good use of four and a half minutes of a viewer’s time and, critically, makes them want to go further. You will also see the instructions suggesting the actions individuals can take.
Those of you with a particular interest in the significance of Howard Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences should ponder how even this has been drawn into the story, almost subliminally with the very young Everyman crawling towards a set of abstract images on a bank of television monitors.
|Still in storyboard format attempting to merge the abstract concept of Multiple forms of Intelligences with what are now known as predispositions, the ‘software’ bequeathed to every child through evolution that enables it to make sense of things in multiple contexts.|
Then think of Charles Darwin, his teachers saying that he would never amount to very much because he always spent his time collecting bugs and insects, yet he grew to be one of the most famous scientists of all time.
Then listen on the video to the actor, Damian Lewis, talking about adolescence: “If we hadn’t developed the urge to do things differently (to the clone-like learning of early years) we humans would never have made it this far. Up until about sixty or seventy thousand years ag, it was fine for children to grow up like their parents. But then along came the last Ice Age.
“Thank goodness for the several hundred or so of our ancestors who apparently chose to break away from their now doomed parents freezing to death in the ancestral caves, and built rafts and set off across the Ocean, hoping to find a warmer climate.”
It seems that everyone alive on the earth today can trace their origins back to the hundred or so ‘teenagers’ who slowly developed the wits to start thinking for themselves, and doing the unexpected. In the sixty thousand or so years since this started to happen this has introduced into natural adolescent behaviour the determination to go their own way and, in the words of the Cole Porter song, “don’t fence me in”.
The Initiative’s book ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’ sets out how the new research explains how humans have evolved to become the planets preeminent learning species. We are, literally, born to learn. Unfortunately, sometimes those in authority can trivialise this and assume that we are born to be taught.
The Initiative’s message is stark: to go against the grain of the brain is to deny what it means to be human.