This article written by John Abbott appeared in the January 1998 issue of the House of Commons’ Parliamentary Monitor.

If young people are to be equipped effectively to meet the challenges of the 21st century it is surely prudent to seek out the very best understandings from current scientific research into the nature of how humans learn, as well as about the potential of the technologies of learning, before considering further reform of the current school system? A story to make the point.

During the Second World War, the US government was impressed by the performance of the Queen Mary and theQueen Elizabeth, which transported thousands of troops so fast that German U-boats were unable to catch them. When the war ended, the American government subsidised the building of a passenger ship – the SS United States – that could go faster, and carry even more troops, than its British counterparts.

The United States entered service as a commercial liner around 1959. At a speed of nearly 40 knots, she cut the travel time from New York to England to just 84 hours.

Three years later, however, she started to lose money, and recorded a loss for every year thereafter. After just ten years she was mothballed, hauled off to a Turkish port, and lay rusting for a quarter century.

Why the sad demise of this grand ship? Because the DeHaviland Brothers pioneered a commercial jet aircraft, The Comet, and British Overseas Airways Corporation used this to cut the trans-Atlantic travel to just eight hours. The days of the great liners were over. There was nothing wrong with the United States. She was simply overtaken by a totally new form of technology, which opened up more opportunity for more people at lower cost.

The story offers a valuable parable for those of us shaping education systems today. Schools as we have known them have done a good job in many ways, and could probably be improved by tinkering with them a bit more. Like the United States, however, today’s schools are designed with technologies and ideas of a quickly fading era; everyone travelled at the same speed, and to the same place. They mirror management ideas from the Industrial Age; their productivity is inherently limited by the technology of the classroom, formal instruction, uniform stages of progression, prescribed knowledge and a curriculum of self-contained bits; a one-size-fits-all-concept.

In the Industrial Age this was fairly successful in developing basic, entry level skills for most youngsters (literacy and numeracy). The school system effectively sifted and sorted human capital for a predominantly manufacturing economy. It created, coincidentally, a high rate of social dependency. But, in today’s knowledge economy, basic skills alone are not sufficient.

England depends as never before on the intellectual and practical capabilities of all people to demonstrate creativity and a mastery of a variety of skills. In the future we all have to be constantly “redesigning” ourselves, without having the luxury of being told how to do this. Surely, it follows that the key objective of formal schooling has to be to give all children the confidence and ability to manage their own learning as an ongoing lifelong activity? “The school as factory” can not be tinkered with, cajoled, or mandated into producing such an outcome.

Fortunately, there is growing knowledge from international research about the biological nature of human learning, particularly as it applies to very young children and adolescents. This new knowledge tells us that we should now be investing far more resources in the education of young children (the smallest class sizes and more teacher support), progressively building up their various competencies, so that as they grow older so they are held ever more accountable for their own learning, and skill development (larger class sizes and more expectation of independent learning).

Radical developments in information and communication technologies put learning and conventional education systems on a collision course. Learning and schooling can no longer be regarded as synonymous. Successful learners need no longer be constrained by time, place or rigid structure, nor by a curriculum with too tightly prescribed knowledge and over standardised disciplines.

Knowledge about how the brain learns, merged with opportunities created by technology, open up an array of new design opportunities. We in the 21st Century Learning Initiative refer to this as turning the system “upside down and inside out;” it is about a reallocation of funds, not simply more money.

“Upside down” because schools must begin progressively weaning pupils at an early age from their dependence on teachers and institutions. “Inside out” because as children are held ever more 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 by the greater community. It would be the pupils who would be exhausted at the end of term, not the teachers.

We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to totally redesign learning (not simply schooling) so that it goes with “the grain of the brain.” Will England lead the way, as it did with commercial jet aircraft and trans-Atlantic travel? That’s up to us. Are we big enough, to be bold enough? You see there are still large luxury liners on the seas. Mostly they are just cruising in the Caribbean. They are not in a hurry to get anywhere – their business is entertainment, not production.