John Abbott in discussion with his Assistant Jim Robinson…


Jim Robinson (JR): John, whilst editing the Initiative’s papers for the Timeline, it seems that there were a number of significant conversations going on in 2006 – in Canada and Ireland – which could, had circumstances allowed, have been real ‘game-changing’ events.


John Abbott (JA): Yes, crucial conversations and connections in Ottawa and at the CEIFIN Institute in Ireland were shaped ideas that would set the course for significant engagement in Canada and the eventual publication of ‘Overschooled but Undereducated’. Through 2006 the Initiative was able to clarify its recognition of the potential for adolescents to be the Responsible Subversives our world so desperately needs, and to explicitly question the notion that schools can do it all. All this was set in the context of the potentially devastating twin agendas of runaway consumerism and environmental degradation.


JR: Looking at the papers, John, you were continuously getting people to question their assumptions behind the question of what kind of world are we educating our youngsters for? Working from your English base, and being invited to lecture intensively in Canada, you were becoming increasingly concerned that even the Canadians were allowing genuine education to be focused too specifically on education for job choices.


JA: Yes, my memo to Dr Paul Cappon, who at the time was Director of the Canadian Council of Education Ministers, and soon to become Director of the Canadian Council on Learning, raises this challenge that now, some eight years later, remains to be answered:


“It’s everything to do with the picture that you, I and many other people are projecting for the future of education.  The issue has been increasingly rearing its head with me for five or six years.  In essence it is simple; Is the world we say that we are educating youngsters for the one we really believe they (and us) would want to live within?  If our answer is no, or even ambivalent, then a second question inevitably follows; Are we currently doing the wrong things for students in general, and the environment in particular?


In my own country of England that we are continuing to educate youngsters for a consumerist world of continuously expanding materialistic expectations, when the external evidence is saying that this will lead to an environmental collapse, as well as the personal despair of all those who either can’t keep up, or don’t believe that this is right.  It is the work of silo-type thinking.  This is a very non-political correct stance to take.


English policy makers are ever more ready to quote OECD statistics to show that our students are either not working hard enough, or are working at the wrong things.  You will know that educational reform in England has probably proceeded more rapidly, and for longer, than in any other land.  You probably know that, while our students “are the most improved in literacy”, they actually enjoy reading less than their peer groups in any other country.  Our teachers are resigning in droves, and being replaced with a different kind of person, more of an instructor in a specified area than a teacher/mentor of the young.


At the HRSDC Conference in Ottawa earlier this month the speaker before me (a New Zealander) spoke at length on what could be deduced from OECD statistics as to what would be the probably shape of schooling in ten years time.  He was positively evangelistic in his enthusiasm that, so fast was the family collapsing, the only prudent policy was to assume the role of the school had to expand to counteract what he implied would be the total disappearance of the family unit.  As a statistician he was making the cardinal error of assuming that the statistics were an uncompromising guide to the future, rather than the reflection of a trend that might well be about to correct itself.


Such interpretation concerns me greatly, as I think it is very dangerous.  While I spend much of my time with policy makers, I probably spend an equal amount of time working with young people themselves, and with teachers.  Here I am enormously impressed that very many of today’s teenagers reflect just the same wishes that you and I had years ago… the one thing they really want to do in life is to build good families; they have seen the disasters created by many parents and simply don’t want to repeat them.  Despite the prophets of gloom twenty-first century teenagers really would like to know how to be good parents, and most of them would like to build strong homes.  (To me that is the voice of all our inherited instincts trying to make itself heard).  But here is my fear; by applying so many panaceas to correct what ought to be only a short-term problem, we are actually creating a dependence in society that, in the future, schools will be responsible for the whole of childhood, and that therefore nobody need bother to try to build up families.  In which case the cure will have been worse than the original problem.  It is scary.


Policy makers, especially those convinced that a form of statistics can be assembled that will eventually measure absolutely everything that matters, are so determined to press ahead with that which is quantifiable, that they are squeezing the very soul out of education.”


JR: John, as you were developing this thinking, you were spending a lot of time in Ireland. There was a great level of debate happening in Ireland at that time, especially in light of its booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ Economy and the improvement lauded by the OECD.


JA: I have lived and worked in Ireland for many years and in the midst of the headlines of success there was a profound contradiction in the sense that Ireland was not a happy country. The rate of suicide amongst Irish teenagers had leapt over the previous twenty years from being virtually negligible, to being one of the highest in Europe. What was going on?  During the debate in the Irish Parliament in October 2003 about the dangers of being led too quickly by the OECD report, Senator Joe O’Toole (formerly the Head of the Irish Teachers’ Union, and widely respected across both the educational and the political arenas) exposed the problem of OECD statistics:


“My reservations about the OECD report are clear because the real issues in education are the unmeasurable aspects.  While I hate quoting philosophies or doctrines over 100 years old, John Newman’s definition of an educated person was the quality of tolerance.  Nobody will measure the quality of tolerance but … that is what we need more than anything else.  Nobody has found a way to measure the quality of mercy, understanding, creativity, risk taking, leadership or articulation which are all the issues needed to create a new generation of Irish people.  The problem with the OECD report is that it drives us through a right wing three Rs measurement of education, which does not measure up.


Sen. O’Toole went on to make proposals for curriculum development in light of these values,


“If I had my way, I would write a curriculum for the schools of Ireland.  I would go through all the sections of society and the professions and ask what qualities are required in the next generation of politicians, church leaders, business leaders, trade union leaders, etc.  When I have asked different people what are the qualities required, the answer is the same.  They want people who are responsible, ready to take unpopular leadership decisions, who will be creative, innovative, and articulate and will look at problem solving.  One will find, more or less, that people look for the same qualities in the next generation of leaders in any part of society.”


This presents a significant challenge to the current education,


“Where do we prepare futurists in the education system?  How do we measure somebody with a futurist capacity? We do not do that and if we continue along this road, we will keep valuing and rewarding people who can give the outputs that are measurable and easily put together.  The result is a dull generation of leaders who are total experts in a narrow area and cannot move outside it.  Often, they are totally tied to a subject.  This is not the way to run a country or to go forward and we need to look carefully at that issue … We have to put people into a situation in which they can deliver.”


JR: It seems that there was serious and considered debate taking place.


JA: Yes, and no more so than at the Ceifin Centre in Shannon.  Questions of the future were the focus of the 2006 Annual Ceifin Conference, and in particular the address from the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Ms Emily O’Reilly, “Imagining the Future – An Irish Perspective”. This striking speech deserves to be read in full and serves as both a warning and a challenge to deeply consider our deepest values, to ask ‘who or what is the real us?’ In re-imagining Ireland, O’Reilly challenges us to move beyond economic or material considerations:


“Let’s examine instead what makes us truly human, what makes us ‘happy’, what the pursuit of the latter should entail. Let’s fundamentally imagine all of ourselves on our death beds, forced as we would be at no other time, to examine our souls and the lives we have lead. A friend of mine likes to say that in order to lead a good life; we should also imagine what we would like to have said about us at our funeral. He has a checklist. That check list includes, that we were good to our families,  that we subsumed some personal ambition to the needs of those around us, that we contributed at work if we worked outside the home, that we contributed to the community and that we left some child at least better off for having known us.


Most of you here will subscribe to that, but are they necessarily the values that our children are imbibing from the social, educational, cultural and political ether that they imbibe. The wealthier we become, the more the air is sucked from our collective spirit, the glitzier the dried out husk of our humanity becomes.


So why do we even bother discussing it? Why not sit back and wait for tides to turn, stop banging our heads against the brick walls of smugness, complacency and massive self-satisfaction that are all around us? The answer lies in what I have struggled to explore a bit over the last twenty minutes-our humanity, the belief that sometimes people want to do better, be better, and thinks of people other than themselves. The deeply, heartfelt hope that our children will have better lives, and in the context of this shiny new wealthy Ireland, that that better life has to do not with the accumulation of stuff, but with an awareness of the true meaning of a rich life, of a life where the pleasures of love, of companionship, of reading, of art, of sharing one’s gifts, of seeking to attain ever higher understanding of the mysteries, beauties and even ugliness that surround us, are really all that matter.


But how we are as a people, how we treat each other, and particularly how we treat our most vulnerable, informs our relationships with other cultures, other countries. It can inform issues of foreign policy, of international aid, and every area where we interact particularly with countries that cry out for our help.


Self absorption, the relentless pursuit of the material, hardens our hearts, closes us off to those who need to share our gifts. It can happen on a personal level, it can happen on a national scale. But equally those small personal epiphanies can also begin to impact nationally, and we should be as conscious of the trickle up effect as the trickle down, of the impact of mass individual actions, mass individual decisions to re engage, to re discover the spiritual, re discover each other and examine and take on board the truth of what makes us fully human.”


JR: This is indeed challenging stuff, but also feels profoundly right. But what does this mean for the ways in which we organise our economies, and, as we look to the future, the ways in which we consider our education systems and the values at their heart?


JA: Firstly, I think hope for what Ms O’Reilly wonderfully articulates must become vision.  And then action follows. As I said to Paul Cappon,

“What was needed was not more research, but the ability to synthesise and understand the research that we already have.  I believe this is even more necessary now.  ‘Without a vision the people perish’, wrote Isaiah three and a half thousand years ago.  That is exactly what is needed, desperately needed, now.  In the absence of a federal voice in Ottawa, only you at this stage can qualify as the Canadian Isaiah.  That must be a terrifying thought.  But it’s true. How can I help?  These are fast moving times, and they call for truly radical solutions.  Such solutions will have to dream the apparently impossible dream, and then say ‘why not?’


JR: And it was this thinking that led you to convene the Ottawa meeting?

JA: Ottawa was a significant gathering. It was the first time I connected with Heather MacTaggert, and out of discussions visions grew that led ultimately to our determination to write Overschooled but Undereducated.  That vision centred on the crucial transformative role that adolescents can play as Responsible Subversives. Heather and I developed the ‘Responsible Subversives Guide for the Impatient’ as a means to develop the tools necessary for equipping students, educators, parents and community members. This was an inspiring and envisioning piece that put front and centre the opportunity and responsibility of adolescence; Heather then wrote


“Contemporary society has forgotten the significance of the turbulence of adolescence. Society has convinced itself that teenagers are not knowledgeable enough to be allowed to influence policy until they are fully qualified, probably in their mid-twenties. Yet two different areas of research on adolescence show us how wrong that thinking is.  The first goes back to the concept of “flow”, formulated by eminent Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his famous study on how best to prepare youngsters for the world of work (2001) he showed that, more important than a string of academic achievements, was whether a young person had ever experienced the thrill of being submerged in an intensive activity (regardless of what this was about) that was so stimulating that, instead of feeling more tired the harder the youngsters worked, the more this actually gave them the energy to work still harder.  Csikszentmihalyi calls this a state of “flow”.


This enhanced brain activity can be measured physiologically by showing the difference in electro-magnetic activity between normal brain use and what happens to the brain during periods of flow.  The brain actually uses up less oxygen than it does under normal conditions, so producing less of the chemicals that make the individual feel tired.  This is a kind of neural over-drive; the brain goes further on less “gas”.  Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that, while relatively few teenagers experience a state of flow within classroom-based activities, it is those young people who were able to find activities that were so exciting to them somewhere else during their teenage years, they are the ones who thrive later in adult life.  Having once accessed “flow” as a teenager they were far more likely to be able to do this in later years.  Teenagers are set to become better adults if they discover causes that satisfy both their intellectual and emotional needs.


The second important area of research is that now becoming available through functional MRI scans that show the amazing structural changes going on in the adolescent brain.  At its simplest this research suggests that the structural disturbance within the adolescent brain is a critical evolutionary adaptation (built up probably only in the past 60,000 years of human evolution) that subconsciously forces youngsters to break away from their earlier dependence on other people to tell them what to do, and what to think.  It forces them into working things out for themselves.  It now seems that the adolescent brain, being “crazy by design” is an essential process that prevents children from simply being “clones” of their parents.  As such it would seem that it is actually adolescence that drives the continuing development of civilisation.


For something like eight or ten years the adolescent brain breaks away from the conventional.  It asks all the unacceptable questions, it thrives on risks, and will never take at face value what others tell it.  Then, in its mid-twenties, that brain disturbance ceases as new neurological channels are established that will last a lifetime.  Here seems to be the critical issue.  If youngsters are not able to take advantage of this “craziness”, because society-at-large has decided that adolescence is a kind of disease that had to be treated with an increase in academic studies (as a form of diversion), then these young people emerge later as the “compromised” adults, so feared by today’s teenagers for the very reason that they lack any ability to do things for themselves”.


JA: This document in its conclusion captured the Initiative’s position that has sought to prioritise and maximise the opportunity that adolescence presents – this was imperative in 2006 and it remains a challenge at the heart of how we think about and organise our education systems. Adolescence is not a threat it is an opportunity:


“The 21st Century Learning Initiative believes that at this, perhaps the most critical period humanity has ever had to face, it is essential to capitalise on these characteristics of adolescence seeing them not as a problem, but a stage in life (long ignored) that could represent a massive, untapped source of energy ready to be released.


The Initiative is not naively arguing that adolescent energy alone is all that is needed.  Rather it is arguing that adolescent energy, supported by the very best knowledge that is now available, could become sufficient of a driving force to overcome the massive political, social and institutional inertia characteristic of a modern society, made up as it is of so many adults who earlier in their lives never experienced the thrill of “flow”, and were urged to so conform that they never took a risky decision in their lives.”