Draft of Paper for the British PM


  1. For more than a decade Britain has assumed that its education system needs reform, not redesign. Our problems, we have thought, could be solved by getting the system to work more efficiently; work harder, not smarter, has been the guiding metaphor. Consequently, Britain has been largely uninvolved with the wider world’s research into the nature of effective learning that challenges the underlying principles of a system we simply take for granted.Scientists now understand more about the brain and how it grows; the mind and how it shapes itself; intelligence and how it expresses itself; and the significance of collaboration, diversity and continuous learning within organisations. These understandings raise serious questions about the viability and sustainability of current educational arrangements.

    Most school reform in Britain, as in America, has had limited impact because it simply assumed that learning and schooling were synonymous; schools have falsely been seen as being independent of the larger socio-economic structures of which they are an intrinsic part.

  2. If the skills the British need to be productive and socially cohesive – creativity, enterprise, purposefulness, collaborative working styles and community responsibility – are far more effectively developed through a fundamental redesign of the education system, based on a better understanding of learning then we should attend to these issues as a matter of national priority. Especially would this be so if we could achieve breakthroughs in student engagement at little if any added cost through a redistribution of current resources.
  3. Educational policy makers need the best possible appreciation of the nature and function of the brain to understand how people learn. As the planet’s pre-eminent learning species, it is our brains that have given us our superiority – not our muscles. Why, therefore, do so many young people seem so ill-prepared for work, or for participation in Civil Society? What has gone wrong? In our search for new ideas, what lessons from our past might we have forgotten?
  4. Until the late C18th most people in Britain, as elsewhere, learnt formally ‘on the job,’ and informally by being engaged within families and community. Informal and formal learning were intimately intertwined. Like countless generations before them they learnt practical and intuitive skills through apprenticeship. Apprentices worked collaboratively on tasks that made sense to them. They progressively took ever more responsibility for their own work, and this was work valued and needed by the community. Living, working and learning were inter-dependent – if you could not learn from your present experience you went out of business.However, the needs of a manufacturing economy changed all this by severing the ties between formal and informal learning. The bureaucratic structures and practices created to operate schools were drawn directly from the success of businesses in the late 19th century which gained increasing efficiency through finer and finer ‘division of labour’. Critical to the understanding of our present situation, learning was then structured as an abstract activity largely removed from everyday context; formal schooling progressively weakened the ‘natural’ connections between children and the adult community at large. Such skills as literacy, numeracy, and communication were improved by the schools. Others, mainly the social, practical, problem-solving skills on which ordinary people had depended since the beginning of time, were virtually ignored.

    For a country such as the United Kingdom seeking success in the Knowledge Economy of today this industrial model will continue to fail children and the nation because it is limited by technologies of the classroom, formal instruction, static knowledge, uniform stages of progression, prescribed knowledge, and a curriculum of self-contained bits. It is further confounded by attempts to cram all this into a classroom-based curriculum covering no more than 20 percent of a child’s waking hours between the ages of 5 and 18. It largely ignores the critical importance of informal learning in the creation of intrinsic motivation and sense-making, which grow largely from the experiences of an active life. This is where the community comes in. “The human mind is better equipped to gather information about the world by operating within it than by reading about it, hearing lectures on it, or studying abstract models of it”.1 “Most students require an active involvement in developing ideas, in order to gain any understanding of permanent value.”2

Current studies in the evolutionary and natural sciences show that this industrial model of learning is incompatible with our innate capacity to learn, and is largely inimical to the making sense of complex and ever-changing situations. Despite the cultural practices associated with two centuries of schooling, humans are still born with innate predispositions towards the earlier social, collaborative and problem-solving methods of learning.


    1. Until recently the study of learning, memory and the mind/brain relationship has largely been the preserve of philosophers and psychologists, and latterly of cognitive scientists – people skilled in working out the possible ways in which individuals process ideas and translate these into a variety of outcomes. Without the technology literally ‘to see inside the brain’ these findings have been inevitably tentative and imprecise. The invention of brain imaging technologies (PET scans and functional MRI) in recent years, now makes it possible for neurologists actually to watch a living brain at work.3
      • The unprecedented clarity which this technology now reveals about brain function is causing scientists to revise many of their earlier assumptions about how individual learning actually takes place. The behaviourist idea of learning as the product of stimulus/response, and of the human mind as fundamentally reactive, has been replaced by the view that people actively construct knowledge; that the mind gathers its sensory experiences and builds patterns and meanings; and that cognitive development from infancy involves learning.4 We become what we learn.
      • Studies in neurology challenge the frequently used metaphor that compares the brain to a linear computer waiting to be programmed, in favour of a far more flexible, self-adjusting, biological metaphor – the brain as a living, unique, self-organising organism that grows and reshapes itself in response to challenge, with elements that wither through lack of use. We make our brains as we use them. Their very shape, and the efficiency of their processing, is a measure of the way we operate. The more we use our brains, the more usable they become.5
    2. Insights from the emerging science of Evolutionary Psychology/Biology are starting to show how brain function has evolved over aeons of time in ways that equip every child with a kind of biological ‘power pack’ of potential social and intellectual predispositions.
      • ‘Predispositions’ are best described as encoded sets of processes, ways of thinking, or of doing things which, through a set of mechanisms and processes as yet only partially understood, represent a set of inherited ‘appropriate practices’ which are transmitted from generation to generation. Whether or not these are used within a specific generation depends entirely on the environmental challenge and other intrinsic motivations. ‘Predispositions” open up like ‘windows of opportunity’ at stages of life which evolution has found are the most appropriate to the individual’s development. If not used at that stage then the window closes, the easy option is lost, and the brain grows in a different way.6
      • The acquisition of language is a good example. Very young children appear to learn to use language almost effortlessly and without formal teaching. The child, it seems, just can’t stop learning to talk. If, however, a child is kept in a totally silent environment (where there is no interactive stimulation) until the age of five or six, then it is highly unlikely he or she will ever learn to speak.7 The predisposition having not been used, that section of the brain simply withers away (neural pruning). It is very much a case of ‘use it’ or ‘lose it’. Once the predisposition is past, learning becomes far harder. Learning a foreign language as a teenager is sheer hard work; learning to drive a car at 34 takes at least twice as many lessons as it does at 17.
      • Similar studies are challenging Freud’s generalised assumption that civilisation essentially represses man’s “basic instincts” by showing that there is also “a kinder, gentler side to human nature, that which enables us to function in groups on a day to day basis…these predispositions seem to be under increasing threat…love, pity, generosity, remorse, friendly affection, and enduring trust are part of our genetic inheritance, and may be the most significant of our inherited predispositions.”8 These studies are now suggesting that the human race is not necessarily as “selfish” by nature as modern society has found convenient to persuade itself.
      • A further predisposition which we are coming to understand better is children’s natural predisposition to play in social, collaborative problem solving ways. Evidence is accumulating to show that the predisposition towards such activities is at its strongest below the age of six. If such skills are not valued, and practised, in a specific generation then that predisposition towards such behaviour is rapidly pruned. Nature is economic. If collaborative skills are not valued then the networks are better replaced with ‘other’ skills that could be useful, such as the behaviour of the isolate and the dependent, or a simple regression towards violence.
      • The nature of adolescence; while as yet we know relatively little from neurology about the changes to the brain that take place at puberty, numerous studies from cultural anthropology show that earlier cultures exploited these changes in ways which thrust increasing responsibility and accountability onto the rapidly developing young adult. Adolescents with a task and a purpose are a resource of great value both to themselves and to the community. Adolescents who are bored, listless, uninvolved and unimaginative are both a threat to themselves and a statement that the culture they are living in lacks appropriate structures for the induction of its young into adulthood. In good measure their dissatisfaction with school reflects a schooling at odds with the brain’s natural function.
    3. Taken together, these issues (sections 5 & 6), would suggest we are failing to appreciate the young child’s need for close social interaction, and deep emotional relationships with few people when young. Later we fail to recognise the adolescent’s need to be energetic, and to assume and demonstrate responsibility. We actual create in the large classes of primary schools the very learning difficulties that we later compound in secondary schools by providing more supervision, and less challenge to accept personal independent responsibility. In other words we have an Upside down and Inside out system based on outdated and inappropriate assumptions about how people naturally learn. Consequently, we are failing to create appropriate opportunities that extend young people’s ability “to go beyond what comes naturally” that should otherwise enable them to reach those higher levels of thinking so badly needed in a complex society.
    4. Critical to this understanding is that effective learning is dependent upon emotional energy.
      • Children who learn because they simply want to work something out because it matters to them, are far more resilient and determined when they face problems than children who seek external rewards. The same goes for adults. Intrinsic motivation is far more significant than extrinsic. When in trouble the first group searches for novel solutions, while the latter looks for external causes to blame for their failure. The brain is essentially a survival system; it takes seriously those things that matter to it. Emotional well­being may well be more essential – to the brain – for survival than intellectual. “Learning and emotion cannot be separated; it is a waste of time to try”.9
      • “No curricular overhaul, no instructional innovation, no change in school organisation, no toughening of standards, no rethinking of teacher training or compensation will succeed if students do not come to school interested in, and committed to, learning… we need to look, not at what goes on inside the classroom, but at students’ lives outside the schools’ walls.”10


    1. For years there has been an arid debate between educationalists and others advancing the rival claims of the so-called progressive experiential-learning (assumed to be on the political Left), and discipline content-specific directed study (assumed to be on the political Right). Such polarisation for too long has obscured the broad middle course which utilises key ideas from both. Expertise is difficult to achieve without being a specialist, but it is much more than simply specialisation. It requires the knowledge of much content, and the ability to think about this both in the specific and the abstract. It is essentially that deep reflective capability that helps people of all ages break-out of set ways of doing things, unseating old assumptions, and setting out new possibilities. Learning is the result of deep immersion in thinking.11

This must become the central issue in all discussions about educational change. It is called meta-cognition, the ability to think about your own thinking. It is about the development of skills that are genuinely transferable and not tied to a single body of knowledge. Skills that can subsequently be applied in different settings. It is linked to a form of intelligence that is becoming known as reflective intelligence. In a world of continuous change this has to be the fundamental factor… every learner has to be a reflective practitioner.


    1. Just as we are undoubtedly on the brink of new understandings about learning, so too are we on the brink of radical developments in technology which are so fundamental that they hold the power to alter, not merely our education system, but also our work and our culture. At its roots, however, this technological revolution puts learning and conventional education systems on a collision course. The traditional role of education has, for too long, been predominately instructional and teacher moderated, but the essence of the coming integrated, universal, multimedia, digital network is discovery – the empowerment of the human mind to learn spontaneously, without coercion, both independently and collaboratively.


    1. The changes outlined in this proposal cannot be handled piecemeal. The creation of learning communities – communities that have as their first priority the learning and nurturing of all its young people through the use of all its resources, both formal and informal – able to satisfy a range of social and economic expectations, requires a completely new way of understanding how young people learn how to learn, and are inducted into adult life. Learning is essentially a social, collaborative, problem-solving activity.12
      • Within a society dependent as never before on the intellectual and practical capabilities of people to demonstrate creativity and the mastery of a variety of skills, the key object of formal schooling has now to be to give every child the confidence and ability to manage their own learning as an on­going lifelong activity. Schools, therefore, 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, collaborating with colleagues as appropriate, and using a range of resources and learning situations.
      • To achieve this, the formal school system and its use of resources has to be completely reappraised, and effectively 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 about 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’. The older the child becomes, the more the child as a learner becomes a resource that the community has to come to value.
      • Following from the argument to reverse staffing ratios and create smaller classes in the early years of primary education (developing as a matter of course a very particular style of education), would be the progressive provision to children of an ever richer array of learning resources as they get older. Learning is not bound by the walls of an institution. If young people are to develop the skills and attitudes they will need it is essential to view learning as a total community responsibility. It is not merely teachers who can teach, it is not just pupils who need to learn, and it is certainly not just the classroom that is any longer the major access point to a range of knowledge, information and skills. The crisis of education is not so much the failure of teaching in the classroom as it is the failure of the community at large to capture the imagination, involvement and active participation of young people.
    2. Such new ‘Models of Learning’ are, of their own natural volition, already going through a particularly difficult and painful birth process. Education 2000 believes that it would be prudent to facilitate and speed up this process as it should show how a more dynamic and flexible framework, unconstrained by many of the current regulations which simply extend the life of an already outdated system, could draw upon these new understandings of learning, and build on all the new technological and community opportunities. Critically, such new Models of Learning will require new ‘Units of Change’ – something bigger than a single school but smaller than a conventional LEA – something which approximates far more closely to what people define as ‘their patch’. However administratively or politically convenient it might have been in the past to see learning and schooling as synonymous, this just won’t do any longer. It is learning and community which have to be inter-dependent.

“Knowing what we now know, we simply can no longer do what we now do.”13

We now know enough about how effective human learning takes place, and have numerous examples of all this at small scales. So far no country has moved to create policy space to do this on a large integrated scale. This is what we are proposing. Without strong support and encouragement from government it will be hard for such units to define themselves. Without agreed waivers in advance to release them from those regulations that simply perpetuate the present arrangements it will not be possible for them to develop totally new arrangements.


    1. It is proposed that a challenge be issued for half a dozen communities to volunteer as test communities, each of some 50,000 people over at least a ten year period. (Amounting to no more than .5 percent of England’s total population) This would enable Britain to mount a national program, utilising some half dozen local test communities, in order to test various mechanisms, and give practical demonstration to the effectiveness of “turning the whole system Upside down and even lnside out.” Within each community ways have to be developed to address five key issues: 1) the biological nature of learning; 2) meta-cognition; 3) the construction and organisation of knowledge; 4) the impact of new technology; 5) the nature of future communities. New forms of continuous professional development for all teachers will be needed to sustain this. Funds would be required to stand the initial cost of change,” and the associated research and development costs. This is likely to amount to an average of an additional 10 percent per annum of those funds allocated to the educational needs of a particular community, averaged across the entire program.

Should such arrangements be widely replicated at a later stage they would not need the same support


  1. This proposal offers Britain a unique opportunity to develop and test genuinely new learning structures based on the best understandings about human learning gleaned from around the world in ways which could eventually transform the current system.The research, concepts and ideas outlined above are the result of the work of The 21st Century Learning Initiative which is sponsored in part by Education 2000. The Initiative is a transnational program based in Washington, DC, to synthesise the best of research and development into the nature of human learning. Its purpose is to inform and stimulate public debate on how this can be used to improve education, work and the development of communities worldwide. The findings of the Initiative challenge key aspects of current educational practice.

1 Schank and Cleave, 1995 
2 Alberts, 1997
3 Diamond, 1996
4 Cocking, 1996
5 Caine and Caine, 1996
6 Shatz, 1996
7 Chugani, 1996
8 Wright, 1995
9 Sylwester, 1995
10 Steinberg, 1996
11 Perkins, 1995
12 The Institute for Research on Learning, 1995
13 Pace­Marsha1l, 1996