John Abbott

John Abbott is the president of the 21st Century Learning Initiative and curator in chief of our archive.

So, who is John Abbott?

My shortened C.V. records that for 20 years I taught first at Manchester Grammar School and then was Headmaster of an old 16th Century Grammar School as it converted to a Comprehensive School of nearly a thousand pupils.

Additionally I had taught for short periods in a boarding Preparatory school: in a Secondary Modern school, and then did my teaching practice in a Dublin high school.

Other things from my youth deeply influenced my subsequent thinking – I grew up in Portsmouth amongst the bombsites of the War; went as a boarder to a Surrey public school where I enjoyed being thrown onto my own resources; learnt to woodcarve and hitch-hike, and at university rowed in the junior eight.

All that may seem a long time ago, but it was the world in which I and my friends grew up. I was nine years old when The Times Educational Supplement published the short article, ‘What Should School-Leavers Know?’ To introduce a touch of levity at this early stage in the Archive just how well would you have done 65 years ago?

At university I led a number of schoolboy expeditions to the Hebrides and later, when teaching at MGS led a number of expeditions to Iran and Eastern Turkey (1966-74) and was the Deputy Chairman of the Young Explorers Trust at the Royal Geographic Society. Two years after starting at MGS I was asked to give up teaching for 18 months to travel around the world fundraising from Old Boys for a major building programme. In the course of that work I became convinced that my professional interests lay far more in opening up the opportunities for comprehensive secondary schools for all abilities, than it did at that stage in selective, or independent, secondary schools. In 1972 I was appointed Deputy Head, and, in 1974, Head of Alleynes School. Out of all this came my involvement, alongside so many others, in creating the Initiative.

Two books greatly influenced my early thinking about education; Sir Richard Livingstone’s ‘The Future in Education’ (1941), and John Newsom’s ‘The Child in School’ (1948). Subsequently it was David Hargreaves’ ‘The Challenge for the Comprehensive; Culture, Curriculum and Community’ (1982), and then Christopher Wills’ ‘The Runaway Brain; The evolution of Human Uniqueness’ (1993) and Henry Plotkin’s “Evolution in Mind’ (1997) that set my thinking off along the lines which culminated in so many of my later conclusions. My own book, ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’ (2010) is the best Summary of all this.

As curator of the 21st Century Learning Initiative archive I have organized our work into Folders. These folders are organised in chronological order, starting with an historic overview of the evolution of humankind, through in the last folders simply to the events and thoughts of a single year.

This has been done for a very good reason – context matters quite enormously when dealing with the coming together of scientific research and political dogma.

It has been well said that, “It is not people’s ignorance that you need to fear,” when introducing a new idea, rather it is “what people know which ain’t true any longer that causes all the problems” (Josh Billings 1818-1885). A proper understanding of how ideas change over time is critical. When, for example, I did a Post Graduate Certification in Education (PGCE) in 1965, none of my lecturers spoke about the brain because quite simply the technology to see the operation of a synapse would not be understood for a further 10 years. Behaviourism was an almost acceptable explanation for human learning, except it just did not resonate with what many people recognised from their own experience.

Have we come a long way from then? … I fear not, and sincerely believe that in England we have gone backwards since 2004 and 2005. Current PGCEs tend to start the historic explanation of Education with the Great Education Reform Bill of 1988… which is almost as absurd as my generation thinking it all started with the 1944 Education Act.

Although I grew up as a young teacher to recognise the shortcomings of IQ testing and the tripartite system of secondary education, and was strangely confused by the ongoing tension between central and local government, it was only very recently that I came to realise that the roots of each of these problems lay in the fiasco of the 1902 Act.

Only in 1991 does the research on Cognitive Apprenticeship (which only became available in the mid 1970s) start to explain, for those able to understand it, that ‘Overschooling’ children may very well damage what should be their innate capabilities to help themselves. The paper ‘Can the Learning Species Survive in Schools?’ (Folder 11) could only have been written with a knowledge of the Initiative’s Synthesis. These arguments are not easy to make with people who lack sufficient detailed background knowledge both of the science and of history… and becomes disastrous when new policies are being made on the basis of thinking already a generation or more out of date.

These Folders rely heavily on the texts of ‘Learning Makes Sense’ (1994); ‘The Child is Father of the Man’ (2000); ‘The Unfinished Revolution: Learning, human behaviour, community and political paradox (2001); ‘Master and Apprentice, Reuniting Thinking with Doing’ (2004); ‘Towards a New Way of Doing Things’ (2006); and ‘Overschooled but Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardising our adolescents’ (2010).