How children learn, and why some adults carry on learning for a lifetime – and others don’t – has fascinated me for years. As director of the Education 2000 Trust in England I was fortunate, in the early 1990s to meet and work with educators, researchers and policy makers from many countries. In early 1995 I approached several English businesses to sponsor the 21st Century Learning Initiative in Washington, DC. The group we set-up comprised some 60 educational researchers and practitioners from England, the US, Canada, Germany, Israel, Australia, Poland, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Colombia, Denmark, Lebanon, Scotland and Scandinavia. Between 1995 and 1997 we held six conferences at the Johnson Foundation’s Frank Lloyd Wright mansion in Racine, Wisconsin.
The Initiative focused on learning, not schooling, for the obvious reason – at least to us – that if we weren’t clear about how people learned, we couldn’t begin a proper consideration of educational reform. Our standpoint was that the crisis in education stems from misunderstandings about how humans learn rather than any generalized failure of schools and teachers. In other words, we quickly realized we were dealing with a crisis in childhood, not simply a crisis in schooling. The conferences echoed the more widespread problem of how society at large can convert disparate new findings on learning into useful route maps for the future of education.
We found many of the Initiative’s more academic delegates were stronger at setting out the details of their own specialization’s than finding any agreement on what the totality of their combined work might mean. When an array of esoteric opinions surfaced, I began to understand why politicians and the general public find it so difficult to understand professional educators and researchers. I also understood that within the mass of discussion were ideas that would influence childrenÕs learning if properly articulated and understood. It was left to me and my colleague,Terry Ryan, to synthesize the conference proceedings into something that could be useful to people wanting to transform the way their communities educate their young people.
I am a one-time geography and religious studies teacher at Manchester Grammar School, head master of an old grammar school being reorganized into a comprehensive school in the 1970s and, for a dozen years, director of the Education 2000 project in the United Kingdom. I have a passionate interest in improving youngsters’ ability to take control of their own learning. I often repeat the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity that states that it is wrong for a superior body to take to itself the right to make decisions that an inferior body is well qualified to make for itself. That doctrine has to apply to students as well as teachers. It also applies to those with the power to direct local communities when those communities already contain untapped resources that could regenerate community life and lift academic standards beyond anything conceived and delivered by outsiders. All this I wrote about in my earlier book The Child is Father of the Man: How humans learn and why. This subsequent book explores these issues in greater depth and focuses on setting out their possible strategic and resource implications.
I met Terry at an international conference he organized for the Polish Ministry of Education on education in a democracy. He is an American half my age and is an ideas sleuth who loves to try and understand all things political and economic. He is passionate in his search for understanding why things work (or don’t) the way they should or could. After getting his masters degree in political economy, he received a fellowship from the American Federation of Teachers to work with educational reformers and students in Poland from 1994 to 1995. His mentor was the former Solidarity leader Wiktor Kulerski, whose family did as much as any during the 20th century to create a free and independent Poland. His next book is a collaborative work on 20th century Poland with Kulerski entitled From the Shadows of the Past.
Both Terry and I are as conscious, if not more so, of our roles as parents as we are as interpreters of educational policy. Both of us are much concerned, as citizens, with the increasing fragility of our communities, and our planet.