This is the Pre-Conference Briefing Paper for the keynote given by to the Business Council of British Columbia Human Capital Conference,  22nd November 2012  at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, Vancouver.

Contrary to many a childhood memory, learning is not an alien activity which has to be imposed on humans; rather it is a set of instincts and predispositions as fundamental to the human condition as sex or survival.  The challenge facing modern societies is how to build on these natural skills and instincts in a way which vastly extends our range of abilities… in a way which goes, ‘beyond what comes naturally’.

We are starting to know far more about how human learning occurs – particularly the development of those higher-order skills which are becoming of increasing importance in the Knowledge Society – and how these can be effectively developed.  The political debate however remains locked into a conflict between ‘experiential learning/discovery methods/thinking skills’, deemed to be the traditional preserve of left-wing thinking, and rigorous study of the disciplines through didactic teaching and a memorising of the facts, frequently deemed to be the preserve of the political right. It is becoming clearer (to those who can see it) that there is a solution emerging.

It is this. If teachers consciously and quite explicitly get young people not just to learn, and understand through specific subjects, but at the same time to reflect very carefully on how they achieve their learning, then the child develops skills which are transferable. In other words it is not good enough just to know something, it is through knowing ‘how you come to know something’ that higher-order skills are developed.

These skills take time to develop, and are demanding in terms of adult support and encouragement. As any parent in a hurry knows, it is quicker to tell an inquisitive child the answer, than it is to help them find out that answer for themselves. Time spent with children, particularly when they are young, almost invariably pays handsome dividends later on.

The argument which prevailed for a century and more saw the imparting of basic skills largely as a matter of routine instruction. Only after this, when children get older, were they deemed to merit serious and individual attention, so as to learn as much as possible about subject disciplines. In this model larger class sizes in Elementary Schools give way to smaller classes in High School. This seemed logical if such knowledge was more abstract and more dependent on specialised instruction. Accepting such a model, to decrease primary classes is simply to add to the cost of the overall system.

My argument is very different.   It goes like this.   No longer is it sufficient for any child to leave High School feeling that they have ‘completed’ their learning. Virtually everyone will have to be able to return to quite specific learning tasks several times during their lives, if they are to remain employable. Such a heavy demand is there likely to be for this in the future that it will be quite impossible to provide it through the education system as currently conceived. It will be just too expensive. People will have to rely on their own ability to direct and monitor their own learning… direct teaching will always be expensive, direct learning including the use of Distance Learning techniques is cheaper, and increasingly more readily available.  (Compare the cost of a three year undergraduate course at an Oxbridge College as being of the order of £30-40,000, with a four year part-time Degree through the Open University, costing an average of £10-12,000).

The key objective of formal schooling has now to be to give every child the confidence and the ability to manage their own learning, ‘to know how to know’, often expressed as:

“Traditionally schools have been concerned with the transfer of culture, and the development in pupils of a range of skills, habits and attitudes, evolved from the experience of earlier generations. The pace of change is now so great that this is no longer adequate; young people have to be equipped to ‘go where none of us have been before’.

“Schools therefore have an additional task; they have to start a dynamic process through which pupils are progressively weaned from their dependence on teachers and institutions and given the confidence to manage their own learning, cooperating with colleagues as appropriate, and using a range of resources and learning situations.”

To achieve this, the formal schools system, and its use of resources, has to be completely reappraised, and probably turned upside-down. Early years learning matters enormously; so does a generous provision of learning resources. If the youngest children are progressively shown that a lesson about learning something can also be made into a lesson in how to know how they ‘learn to learn’ and remember something, then the child, as he or she becomes older, starts to become his or her own teacher.   In highly industrial terms, therefore, the child ceases to be totally dependent on the teacher as an external force, and progressively becomes part of ‘the learning productivity process’. In this model the older the child becomes, the more the child as a learner becomes a resource that the school has to manage, additional to that of the teacher.

While an increasing number of people recognise that autonomous learners are an essential component for commercial and social regeneration, there would not yet appear to be enough faith in the system as a whole, to escape from prescriptive curricula objectives based on the ‘fail  safe’ principle of minimal acceptable knowledge. It is far too easy for such a curriculum to actually frustrate the development of higher-order skills, and the autonomous learner. So far my own country, England, has failed to recognise the key relationship between the development of the process of learning, the curriculum which this needs…  and the assessment process which should follow from it.

Following from this my argument to reverse staffing ratios and create even smaller classes in the early years of Elementary education (and to develop a very particular style of education), and then progressively to provide children with an ever richer array of learning resources as they get older, would require the child to become an ever more competent manager of his/her learning.  In effect, a system which progressively weans children from their dependence on the teacher, and in very practical terms inducts them more and more into the use of a variety of self-learning materials, has also to induct the child into the life of the greater community.

My argument would require the adult community – parents and others – both to give more of their time to the individual child, and to create communities where children have the opportunity to become full contributing members; places where children learn from their experience of ‘being useful’. In this way, the disastrous trend of more than a century whereby children have few, if any, direct responsibilities until they are past 18, and where youth has been seen as a mixture of ‘disconnected theoretical learning’, and extensive holidays, has to be reversed. This will not be easy. However, time spent helping children to learn how they could contribute within the community would pay dividends in the long run for the community at large, and, immediately, for the individual child. If children need communities, then communities need children even more.

It is the destruction of a sense of personal responsibility for learning in the very earliest years of schooling that is such a major factor in the ultimate creation of a dependent, and sometimes lack-lustre society. While British Columbia is to be congratulated on the progress it is making in this regard, it is therefore frustrating that many a national politician across the developed world does not see in this argument a way of breaking out of the culture of dependency, and recognise that better results really could be gained from a redistribution of resources linked to a better appreciation of the learning process.

John Abbott, 22nd October 2012