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May 27, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Today’s fast moving, technological world tends to dismiss apprenticeship either as a product of celebrity entertainment or as a trade skill for those not bright enough to go to university. How wrong we all are! My father was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. Born a day before the start of World War I he grew up on a farm and then went on to a small Devonshire Grammar school where in the late 1920s he studied for the Higher Schools Certificate (equivalent to A-Level). His Headmaster, a man of consummate wisdom, insisted that such academic high-flying youngsters should also undertake a craft apprenticeship at the same time.

My father, during his last two years in school, was apprenticed to a retired silver-smith who taught my father so well that the silver tea service he made by the age of 18 was eventually assayed by the silver-smith’s Guild as the work of a craftsman. He then gave the tea service to the girl he eventually married, who went on to become my mother. Years later he became a clergyman, yet he was forever the craftsman; to me he was as impressive in the pulpit delivering a sermon as he was – stripped to his waist in his workshop deep in the vicarage cellar – shaping a piece of metal in his forge.

Apprenticeship was an education for an intelligent way of life, a mechanism by which young people could model themselves on socially approved adults so providing a safe passage from childhood to adulthood in psychological, social and economic ways.

Adolescents are neither children, nor adults. No longer content simply to be sat down and talked at, yet not skilled enough to earn their own livings, adolescents push to get out and experience life for themselves. In the long evolution of the human race the characteristics of adolescence ─ energy, enthusiasm, idealism, devil-may-care attitude ─ must have had an evolutionary advantage that increased a young person’s chances of survival.

Apprenticeship was an education for an intelligent way of life…providing a safe passage from childhood to adulthood in psychological, social and economic ways.

Our ancestors didn’t try to intellectualise adolescence; they simply knew intuitively how to turn it to society’s advantage. There was no room in society for a youngster who couldn’t do anything properly, and understood apprenticeship as a form of coaching, not a form of teaching. It was about stretching the youngster’s powers of reasoning. “You have got to learn to think like me, then you will come to appreciate what I’m going to do next”, said the old craftsman. It was about showing how each sub-section of a job came together to create the whole. It was full of intuitive understandings, the things difficult to quantify in a textbook. It was about getting the learner to so understand what the task was all about that he eventually developed such a level of expertise that he was no longer dependent on simply playing by the rules. Master craftsmen knew when to break a normally accepted rule so as to get an even more glorious result. You had to be good to be able to do that.

Apprenticeship took learners beyond routinised skills to a third level, a level of understanding described by cognitive scientists as ‘the zone of proximal development’. As we learn, so the theory states, we progressively achieve a higher level of understanding. It’s rather like mountaineering – as we climb the foothills so we see the mountain tops more clearly, but we may never reach the mountain top unless aided by a team of mountaineers. Apprenticeship learning involves collaboration; it’s about talking things through together and being challenged to think outside the box. Interestingly, the French word for learning is ‘apprentissage’, from the verb ‘apprendre’ – a sort of metaphorical ‘catching’ of ideas.

The Philosophical Baby

May 24, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Queen Victoria created a most dangerous myth when she told the English that “little children should be seen and not heard”.  That myth lives on today in school budgets which persist in allocating more money to older children than younger children so resulting in larger classes for the youngest, and smaller classes in the upper years of secondary school.

I was working in America in the mid ‘90s when powerful research showed the significance of early-years nurture, which challenged the pre-imminent assumption that intelligence was mainly due to inheritance.

First it was the book, “Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children”, which showed that professional parents addressed 482 ‘utterances’ every hour to their babies at the age of 18 months; that fell to 321 utterances amongst medium income parents, and to 197 for parents on welfare.  By the age of three children of professional parents would have heard more than 30 million words, working class children 20 million and children of parents on welfare only 10 million.  A further Report from the Kellogg Foundation showed that the biggest predictor of success at the age of eighteen was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the fifth birthday.

It was with this knowledge that Jesse Jackson told the Principals of America “Go to every city, farm and town and say ‘no parent is too poor not to turn off the television set and sit down and labour alongside their child every evening’.”

Returning to England  a dozen years ago I was horrified to discover that here, as in the States, early child caring facilities originally set up to enable poor parents to enter employment were now being taken over as a resource to enable parents, already rich, to work even harder by leaving their children in the care of other people.

In 2009, Alison Gopnik’s “The Philosophical Baby” took the most recent findings from neurobiology and cognitive science to explain what an expanded understanding of children’s minds tell us about “truth, love and (ultimately) the meaning of life.”  Was that a wildly ambitious claim?  Not at all.  The research of twelve years ago that spoke about the use of language was only the tip of the iceberg – while children hear and internalise the words they hear us speak, at a much deeper level evolution has equipped them to so study us that what they are really learning is how our minds work.

The more opportunity they have to do this the quicker the brain grows.  “An American child learns what American minds are like and a Japanese child learns what Japanese minds are like”, Gopnik wrote, “just as they learn what American and Japanese tables and chairs and landscape are like.”  It is why I was treated to such an interesting description of the fossils of middle Dorset by 12-year-old Louis, the only child of two highly successful journalists.  While both parents probably had good genes it was the way that the boy had studied the way his parents’ brains worked that actually mattered.

David Brooks in his fascinating study “The Social Animal” that is quite rightly the number one New York Times Bestseller, quite rightly quotes a Nobel laureate as saying that the brain looks like an eco-system, a fantastically complex associative network of firings, happens, reactions, and sensations… all competing for a different piece of control over the organism. Brooks continues, “as we wander (remember my blog on meandering?) the mind makes a near-infinite number of value judgements, which accumulate to form goals, ambitions, dreams, desires and ways of doing things.”


Are Flat and Level the same thing?

May 16, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Amelie, now aged 8

That’s not a difficult question, at least for an adult.  But when asked by a bright, inquisitive six-year-old girl trying ‘to help’ as I was building a large shed in the garden two years ago it wasn’t necessarily that easy to answer.  How do you get a six-year-old to understand the theory of gravity, and how do you then explain that an intersecting line with a 90 degree angle produces a level surface?  And in doing so encourage the child to ask another question?

Over the past 20 years I have read much, and written a lot, about how children learn, and in the 20 years before that I had been a classroom teacher in many kinds of schools.  The difference between me in the classroom able to artificially control the flow of questions, and me hanging on to the top of a ladder considering (in the light of the theory of the zone of proximal development!) just how much detail to give Amelie’s question about level or flat was, quite simply, that I wasn’t in the right mood to actually deal with her question properly.  It’s the issue that bugs parents every day, and its why craftsmen of old had to balance their desire to produce quality work, with the demand to educate their apprentices.  What mattered most to me at that moment, was it to get the job done quickly, or help Amelie to learn?

Admittedly I was in a hurry, and the rain clouds were closing in, but my past history reminded me of all the people in years gone by who had taken time out of their busy schedules to answer my little questions.  If they hadn’t given me of their time at the moment when the question was real to me, the opportunity would have been lost for profound learning experiences.  Reluctantly I came down from the ladder…

“It’s comfortable to stand upright, isn’t it?”, I said (and she agreed), “but if you lean over too far you lose balance and fall over.”

Quick as a light she came back, “What’s balance?”

“Wait a moment”, I replied, “the reason you feel comfortable standing upright is that your weight is going straight downwards.  It’s being pulled by what is called the force of gravity.  Now try leaning over…”  She did, nearly falling over.  She giggled.  “That is because the weight of your head and the top of your body are no longer going straight down through your body but are going straight through space down to the earth.  You are now out of balance.  When you are standing upright and holding a length of wood with an equal amount on each side, then that piece of wood is balanced, and we describe it as a level.”

That took a bit of getting through!  So I got out a length of twine, and attached a weight to it to create a plumb line.  We then tested this against one of the posts I had earlier put up (which was thankfully vertical).  Then I got the spirit level, and demonstrated how this could easily give you a true vertical, and true level.

Amelie thought for a moment and then burst out excitedly, “I know what flat means, it’s something which doesn’t have any bumps in it!”


A Flawed Diagnosis

May 16, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Michael Gove: needs to relieve education of its suffocating bureaucracy

Re-reading my last blog I realised that there are a number of issues that I want to share with you that are simply too complex to fit into a blog of 5-600 words. Too abbreviated, and they make little sense. That might have applied as you read ‘Schools, Children and Local Democracy’. So let me rectify this by republishing (very slightly modified) something I wrote 18 months ago, just before the General Election resulted in Michael Gove becoming Secretary for Education. It went as follows:

The BBC series Yes Minister was some of the finest political satire ever seen on television. Hacker (Paul Eddington) infuriated his Permanent Secretary (Nigel Hawthorne) by his ability to pick up what seemed the right issues, and then confuse these with his need to win votes. In one particular episode Hacker, as Minister of Administrative Affairs, is given the additional responsibility of sorting out local government. Interviewing him on The World at One the redoubtable Ludovic Kennedy says, “You have, Mr. Hacker, an ever increasing empire; it has been said that you are now Mr. Town Hall as well as Mr. Whitehall!”

Not quite appreciating the irony of the comment, Hacker grins broadly, “Well, it’s awfully flattering for you to put it that way…” Then comes Kennedy’s shattering response. “It wasn’t me who put it that way Mr. Hacker, it was The Daily Mirror. I was merely seeking confirmation that you are now this country’s chief bureaucrat…”

Michael Gove, as possible Secretary for Education, is an able politician set upon an important mission to relieve education of its suffocating bureaucracy. Infinitely more savvy than the fictitious Hacker, Gove’s earlier experience as a leader writer for The Times ensures that he gives his former colleagues just the lines which they like, and leaves few banana skins behind him. An ardent Tory, he stands for a modernised yet traditional approach to the curriculum, and wants schools to be run by parents and commercial sponsors, not by elected members of the community. Gove praises the City Technology Colleges which, as Kenneth Baker explained to me as he established these in 1988, “would enable us to break up the powers of the LEAs.” Twenty-one years ago potential sponsors such as BP, British Gas and IBM (as well as academics like myself) rejected the idea, not because we were in any way against the development of technology and scientific education (which Gove suggested in a recent speech), far from it, but because we believed that the running of schools – however difficult this might be – was the prime responsibility of democratically elected local councillors.

That was a generation ago, a time when next year’s politicians were still in short trousers, with or without blazers and ties. Since then that social cohesion for which England now yearns, and for which Gove’s Shadow Cabinet colleague Iain Duncan Smith is such a powerful advocate, has left us struggling in 2009 with ‘Breakdown Britain.’ Gove places his faith in Academies. Academies are just like any other school except that they are released from many of the regulations that central government has imposed on all state schools, and are administered not by locally elected representatives, but by private sponsors. An Academy is in effect master of its own destiny, concerned entirely for itself. Under the old local authorities if a school down the road was in trouble, resources were diverted from other parts of the system to improve it. Now, if that school down the road goes to the wall, it creates an opportunity for an Academy to swallow up its pupils, and itself grow bigger.

‘Survival of the fittest’, business people argue, is the only way to go. But Darwin knew that human life was more complicated than that; species evolve when they can build on opportunities created by others, as do today’s evolutionary psychologists who note “selfishness beats altruism within groups; [but] altruistic groups beat selfish groups every time.” By sweeping away all the local authority arrangements for creating a fair balance of resources, Michael Gove could find himself having to sort out the endless contentions that will inevitably arise between all the warring factions. With so much at stake they will appeal to natural justice, not to the laws of economic survival. Even Solomon, in all his wisdom, wouldn’t want to do that job.

If the initial diagnosis is flawed, then so also may be the prescribed medicine. And the wrong medicine may end up killing the patients it sought to cure.
Gove in his crusade to enable schools to think for themselves must not destroy all the middlemen (locally elected officials) or else he will be driven crazy by some 20,000 head teachers banging on his door, all at the same time, pleading that they are special cases. The last thing he wants (or we need) is for him to be Chief Bureaucrat.

Schools, Children and Local Democracy

May 12, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Hereford Shirehall

Two days before the local elections and the referendum on the Alternative Vote, I was asked to attend a public meeting, organised at short notice by a number of local people dismayed at the low level of public interest in these issues. It was not well attended – the numbers of candidates seeking election outnumbered the members of public.

Discussion was desultory, and as the meeting drifted to its conclusion one of the candidates asked me what I thought of the local council’s plans for school closure. Knowing nothing about local factors I made a side-step and explained the ‘upside down and inside out’ nature of English schooling which I believe is the root cause of education’s problems. Suddenly the meeting came to life; “You’re absolutely right,” said one of the candidates, “but as this is not on the Westminster agenda there’s nothing locally we can do about it.”

It has not always been like this. In the latter part of the 19th century local communities were established to set up, and run through a locally elected School Board (as is still the case in the US), whatever schools their communities needed. They were empowered to level local taxes on every householder to meet the costs of all the schools. The money was raised where it was to be spent.

By 1902 Parliament feared that such local control was undermining its own status and replaced this with legislation for Parliament to pass to each Authority the monies it decided nationally should be sufficient for the job – as defined by Westminster but not by the local town hall.

With the passing of the 1944 Education Act a new working partnership was defined. Parliament would describe the general shape of the school system, provide the money for this, and then leave it to each Authority to shape this in the local interest. Meetings of County Education Committees came to dominate town hall policies. But as heavy industry and old-style manufacturing began to collapse in the late 1960s many of the Authorities in the old industrial areas found they needed more money to shore up a creaking system than could be raised locally. Central government then established a Rate Support Grant to make up from national taxation what local rates could no longer provide.

These national subsidies persuaded Conservative politicians that the need for such money was more to do with local inefficiencies than it was with the structural problem created by a collapsing local economy. After bitter encounters throughout the 1980s, first a Conservative then Labour administration hit on the idea of giving individual schools the right to opt out of local control. Receiving money directly from Westminster to do what Westminster rather than local politicians deemed necessary, traumatised the 140 or so town halls around the country.

Now, in 2011, government is set on making the majority of schools into academies. In terms of how they teach most academies simply carry on as their predecessor schools had done but – and here is the real problem – rather than the town hall having the responsibility to create a level playing field, each academy is in competition with all the others. At a time of falling pupil numbers some schools are simply bound to fail. But now local people can no longer plan for a coherent way of developing their local provision. Education is now specifically defined as what is taught in classrooms, with little regard given to what every child needs to learn from their everyday real life experiences beyond the walls of the school. Hours which children used to spend on after-school activities are now too often spent sitting in buses transporting them from A to B while other buses move other children from B to A), in the belief that the market economy achieves something more efficient than what thinking people can logically decide.

No wonder those potential local politicians last week looked so demoralised! They have been left to sort out local muddles created by national policies. If the local politicians are disheartened by democracy it’s likely their children will want not truck with democracy. As town halls sink into obscurity Westminster politicians swamp us all with micromanagement.

Chocolate Cake, but no Jobs for the Boys?

May 9, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

All we wanted was a chocolate cake. But in one of the old pottery towns of Staffordshire that meant getting into a car and driving several miles through a lifeless urban landscape of derelict factories and boarded-up shops. The supermarket, when we reached it, was huge and resembled the departure lounge of a decaying international airport; outside in the rain endless cars searched for parking places, while inside the crowd pushing down the endless aisle offering hundreds of varieties of virtually the same food, resembled a bad-tempered football crowd.

Acne-spotted youths and older men, who still look like the tired factory workers they had been five years before, stacked the shelves with little enthusiasm and total disregard for customers’ questions. While posters advertised job seekers allowance and retraining courses at the local college, shoppers mechanically stocked high their trolleys as if this were their only physical activity of the day.

“I don’t feel hungry anymore,” said my wife, “even for chocolate cake.”

I longed to be at home in Somerset. Yet the same thing has happened even in Georgian Bath. The death of the small shop, the disappearance of the baker, the butcher and the grocer. The disappearance also of something I can just remember from my youth – the delivery boys with their bikes, and the fiercely independent local shopkeepers, derided long ago by Napoleon, and adored by Margaret Thatcher as she recalled her own father and her childhood living alongside the shop. In 1909, a hundred years ago and the year my grandfather became 21, Bath had a population of 60,000 people, two-thirds of its present size. Serving that population were 56 bakeries, 49 butchers, 56 dairies, 27 fishmongers, 93 greengrocers and 99 grocers. Probably some 600 boys would have carried their produce in the ample baskets in the front of their bikes, while hundreds of apprentices would have learned to bake, to prepare meat and manage vegetables, not to mention those in engineering, book publishing and construction.

Now there are only two butchers within a mile of the city centre, there is no baker and only one greengrocer. We do have four supermarkets which sell everything, and their in-store bakeries ensure a constant aroma of freshly baked bread… but all the ingredients come ready-mixed from central depot, and shelf stacking has replaced apprentices. Middle-aged men driving vans have taken the place of the bicycle delivery boy, and almost every shop in the city is part of a national chain, whereas in 1909 nearly every shop was privately owned.

There is an old biblical expression that echoes down the years, “by their works ye shall know them.” Adolescents now, as in 1909, 909, or even B.C.9, still crave to become themselves by being recognised for the quality and relevance of what they are able to do. In society’s hurry to accumulate ever more wealth the adolescent’s need to have something worthwhile to do has been ignored in favour of the customer loading his or her shopping trolley ever higher. This may well satisfy people in the short-term, but the real thrill of retail therapy is spending the money you know you deserved to have been paid. Today’s shoppers don’t look that happy, do they? And the adolescents… don’t they simply crave for something meaningful to help them make sense of their lives?

See Peter Wilby’s article “It’s not just our communities they kill, but free markets too”


May 5, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

We all experience moments when too many things come together, and it’s impossible to concentrate on one issue before being forced to move on to another. Everything gets mixed up. Family issues as mundane as children moving home and needing an extra pair of strong hands to do the lifting (and a signature on the occasional cheque!); the forthcoming birth of a grandchild, and the death of an elderly mother, grandmother, as well as changes at work when old structures have to be replaced by new ones. On top of that are concerns about national politics, and local affairs – Osama bin Laden’s execution and concerns about the Alternative Voting system.

Stop the world, has been the age-long plea, I want to get off.

Sometimes, amid all the confusion, what seem to be very little things suddenly stand out. Such things, or ideas, chase around our minds, looking for a suitable link to make with other thoughts. There is no time to deal with them now, but you feel they are too important to be ignored, they excite you, and they could be the missing link in your own thinking.

Several evenings back, reading through one of my favourite quarterly journals – Human Givens – I came across a quote from Plato made some two and a half thousand years ago. I give it to you to ponder as you prepare to vote on that Alternative Voting system:

“Those who think they are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

The second was a cutting I had taken from an article in the BA High Flyer magazine ten years ago, entitled The Mystery of Creative Families. I don’t know who wrote it. Something in that article, however, stands out very powerfully now, more than a decade later. It reads:

“A stream seems to run through creative families. Such children are not necessarily smothered with love by their parents. They feel loved and wanted, and are secure in their home, but are often more surrounded by an atmosphere of work and where following a calling appears to be important.”

Think on that one as well for, as the Initiative has said so many times, “however good schools may become they can’t do it all on their own” and “a balanced education involves home, community and school as equal partners.”

For further reading take a look at To Be Intelligent, first published in Educational Leadership by ASCD in 1997 and later reprinted in Psychology 98/99 as one of the four best articles available that year on cognitive processes.

* Desiderata, taken from mid 17th century Latin as meaning something desired, something worth working to achieve.

Apes, Humans and 747s

May 5, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized


Look familiar? The human genome differs from the Great Apes by less than 2%.

In his book Evolution in Mind, Professor Henry Plotkin gave a fulsome explanation to Dobzhansky’s assertion that “antecedence becomes cause” – how we think today is largely shaped by the structures in the brain which have developed over enormous periods of time as our ancestors perfected ways of thinking that had enabled successive generations to survive. Geneticists are now reasonably convinced that the human species first split from the Great Apes some seven million years ago. Since then the human genome has come to differ from the Great Apes by less than 2%.

The vast majority of our genetic composition was shaped before that split. That 2% difference is concentrated almost entirely in the brain – the rest of our bodily structures remain remarkably ape-like.

Seven million years is hard to envisage. Try thinking of it in terms of generations, each averaging twenty years –this reduces seven million years to a more manageable 350,000 generations. Can you envisage a family tree of 350,000? Well, 350,000 is roughly the number of minutes we are awake in a year. Try thinking of each generation as lasting a minute on that genealogical table of a whole year. Most of us know only five or six minutes of that year-long story – our parents and grandparents, ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. Imagining it like that it seems incredible that the human genome has only changed by a mere 2% over that vast number of successful impregnations. Over all that time our arms and legs remain very like the ape, but we have very different kinds of brains.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her recent book Mothers and Others; the evolutionary origins of emotional understanding (2009) gives a dramatic picture of “antecedence as cause.” Hrdy notes that most of us are accustomed to being squeezed and strapped into rows of uncomfortable seats as we, along with 400 other travellers, settle into a Boeing 747. Uncomfortable as this can be, there are few instances of passengers assaulting each other, or the flight attendants, yet I have never heard of one passenger murdering another. With stiff backs and crumpled knees we disembark hours later at a distant airport.

Now imagine replacing the human passengers with Great Apes. Even if you were successful in strapping them into their seats all mayhem would quickly breakout. Ears would be torn off, and blood would flow. The first ape to figure out how to undo the seatbelt would rush off down the aisle looking for a fight. Others would follow. Within an hour or so all would be carnage.

However hard you try to civilise apes by educating their young in the very best Frobel, Steiner or Montessori schools you would not change their nature enough that, when they were adults, they would be able to behave in a sufficiently civilised fashion to survive such an experience. The reason is simple. Apes have not inherited from their ancestors those sophisticated structures in the brain that enable us humans to follow the safety instructions and, with a fair injection of empathetic understanding, still walk off that plane a dozen hours later… even exchanging business cards with newfound colleagues! Apes only understand dealing with the present and only distinguish very simply between friend and enemy.

That is what “antecedence” means…and it obviously means a great deal.