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Turncoat? The life and death of school systems

April 23, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

It was in January of last year that I was advised by a colleague closely associated with Michael Gove the Conservative politician who six months before had become the Coalition’s Minister of Education, to have a meeting with Rachel Wolf – the 25 year-old former internee on whom Michael Gove was much dependent for pushing through his agenda on free schools, and academies.

The recent use of the word ‘academy’ to distinguish it from ‘schools’ is interesting; to Plato the Academy was a wooded garden where philosophers would discuss matters of great intellectual interest. In more recent parlance an Academy was seen as being something more than a school but less than a university, and frequently defined a group of people meeting around specific big issues… such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, or academies of literature or music.

The use of the word ‘free’, in the sense of free schools, in the present English political context means schools that are ‘free’ of what some politicians have seen as being the disastrous intervention of local education authorities who, under the arrangements set out in 1944, acted as the intermediaries between central government’s responsibility for strategy, and its implementation in many thousands of schools.

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The successful leap from adolescence to adulthood

April 16, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Of the many papers written on the topic of how we learn, John Abbott’s story of Lieutenant Peter Puget remains the most popular. It is more a story than a paper – although it was originally prepared for a conference – and describes the story of Peter Puget’s development as an adolescent midshipman into a successful Rear Admiral.

Being a midshipman, Puget had to learn a range of skills including navigating the ship using a sexton and climbing the rigging in howling gales in order to trim the sails along with fellow sailors. He had to learn how to command the ship and gain the respect of fellow sailors.

John says of midshipmen: “Their entire adolescent energy was spent learning to perform complicated tasks – boredom they did not know and pocket money they did not have.”

Puget went on to have a hugely successful career at sea and is credited with discovering the Pacific North West.

The paper is not simply a story of Puget, however. John ties in Puget’s story and experiences of adolescence with historical context – at the time, bored adolescents at Eton were busy rioting – and also with current research around the development of adolescents, including the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work on ‘flow‘ and what makes adolescents tick.

John concludes that the work of Csikszentmihalyi broadly reflects that of Confucius. Those  adolescents who make the best transfer to adult life are those who take responsibility for themselves.

“Those youngsters who make the best transfer to adult life are those who, as adolescents, were most involved in, and responsible for, themselves. Adolescence is a time to demonstrate that you have learnt so much from your early life experience that you now need to demonstrate that you can do it yourself.”

The story doesn’t end there. Whilst researching the paper John discovered that Puget had lived 18 doors down from his home. So, they were almost neighbours – separated by a few doors and a mere 180 years.

Read John’s paper: Lieutenant Peter Puget, the grain of the brain and modern society’s failure to understand adolescence

[Pic credit: Washington Secretary of State]

Why is reforming education so difficult?

April 3, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

John Abbott recently spent a few weeks in British Columbia where he advises the government on education.

His trip saw him deliver many talks including this one, to the annual meeting of the Superintendents of British Columbia meeting at the Hotel Vancouver in the centre of Vancouver city.

The event was attended by some 450 people. A description of the event was given by one of the Superintendents, Jeff Hopkins in this post. In this he describes John Abbott as ‘helping people see the connections between ideas and fields of study that are not normally seen as fitting together – the harmony that exists among otherwise isolated musical notes. He is a harmonizer, and that is what empowers him to be a catalyst’.

John and the Education Minister, the Hon. George Abbott, were invited to do the midday slot on Saturday which attracted the largest numbers of delegates. Subsequently this film was put together by the organisers and distributed on YouTube.

There is much in this to interest people far beyond British Columbia as the issues which it talks about are surely of significance across the English speaking world.

Education in 2012 (part two) – time to let teachers flourish

April 2, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In January, John Abbott shared his hopes for education in 2012. In part one he talked about the need for a new structure to provide the education our children need.

In this second part, John turns his attention to teachers. Teachers, he argues, need to be given the space to be spontaneous in order to adjust their lessons to the needs of their children. That doesn’t mean they should spend their lessons trying to get a laugh from the kids, rather that they should be able to be spontaneous as required.

Teachers are currently over-prepared for lessons which means it is very difficult to be spontaneous.

He expands on the problem: good teachers started off by being good learners. They probably had good teachers. They come into school excited by sharing learning with students. They then hit regulations which say teaching is not about interpreting what the children need, rather following instructions.

This following of instructions is what John  calls a teacher-proof way of running schools and it provides a uniform standard. It is the preferred way of running schools for the current government.

Looking back over the last 20 years, the rule books administering schools have got fatter and fatter and the room for individual action has been squeezed out of it, says John.

It is a sobering fact, he says, that 40% of newly-qualified teachers resign within the first three years of starting teaching.

We are producing from an over-regulated system tired and stressed out teachers and tired and stressed out teachers do no good to kids. There are too many constraints on teachers. And if we have teachers who are bored, we will have children who are bored.

John says he was struck by a comment he heard from a student saying it is easy to learn how to fit in, it is a lot more difficult to learn how to do your own thing.

This is the crux of the problem – we have a school system that makes it easy to conform but what society needs is people who can break out of that and who have the tenacity to put something better in its place.