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Reflections on the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony

July 31, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics on Saturday  Friday night provided a spectacular romp through British history and achievement – from Shakespeare and the workers of rural England to the engineering brilliance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the political nerve and persistence of the Suffragettes and the musical talents of the likes of Dizzee Rascal.

The ceremony was a showcase for British ingenuity, toil and creativity and it has been very well received. Reflecting on the show, it really is a wonder what humankind has managed to achieve (especially from such a small island). But what for the future? If we were to run a similar show in 200 years’ time what achievements would we be reflecting on?

What we saw on Saturday night was a set of achievements that have come from a society which has nurtured its young in many ways – through family, community and schooling, for example.

Now we find ourselves in a period of rapid change that is impacting greatly on our economies, political systems, communities, families and schools. Through all this change we need to ensure our young are equipped to think, challenge and create, to be the responsible subversives that will shape future generations.

Top 10 most-read blog posts so far this year

July 25, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

As summer – traditionally a time for catching up on reading – is upon us, we thought we would share our top 10 most read blog posts of the year. Enjoy!

  1. Running too fast
  2. HMC Speech, 2011
  3. Eduction in 2012 (part one) – time to rethink the structure
  4. Adolescents Crave Purpose
  5. The successful leap from adolescence to adulthood
  6. A perfect storm
  7. Encouraging students to become responsible subversives
  8. John Abbott in British Columbia by Jeff Hopkins
  9. Every child needs to feel they are an expert at something
  10. Turncoat? The life and death of school systems


10 steps towards a better education: #8 Reverse an Upside Down System

July 23, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In the eighth of our 10 steps on developing better education for our children, we look at the need to put resources into primary education.

These 10 steps first appeared as a part of our briefing paper for British parliamentarians, which is why they talk about ‘parliament’. They could equally apply to many governments around the world . . .

#8 Reverse an Upside Down System

The grain of the brain is now sufficiently well understood to make it obvious that the present system of schooling, by ascribing greater resources and status to secondary schools over primary schools is, quite literally, upside down.

If those resources were reallocated and an appropriate pedagogy developed this would enable formal schooling to start a dynamic process whereby students would be progressively weaned from their dependence on teachers. By ‘front- loading’ the system this would ensure that as children grow older they would have such good foundations on which to build that formal schooling would extend their own informal learning in ways which excited, rather than bored, them.

Such a ‘whole-system’ solution will require Parliament to instigate a radical, bold and far-reaching overhaul of the respective responsibilities of school, family and community. It is not more money that is needed to transform English education, rather it is to reallocate those funds that are being spent now in ways that should go with the natural grain of the brain so as to radically enhance the quality of education, the life of children and national well-being.

10 steps towards a better education

#1 Understand Learning

#2 Reassert Intelligence

#3 Affirm the Family

#4 Strengthen Community

#5 Unpack the Curriculum

#6 Preparing the Teachers

#7 Empower Local Communities



'We learn through modelling behaviour'

July 18, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In this reflection on our animations, Jeffrey Kelley looks at teaching practice and the importance of modelling behaviour. Jeffrey’s is just one of the many stories we are receiving in response to the animations. Please read more or share your stories here.

I worked 13 years in the Boys and Girls Clubs of America movement. I became curious as to why many students didn’t like school and why so many teachers only lasted a short time in the profession. I came to one conclusion education is about communicating understanding and the problem is simply our method of communicating.

The method of communicating we try to use is outdated. We are still trying to use order of communication, which is similar to order of operations in Math. Unlike Math, in order to use this method to communicate, fear must be present. The fear I speak of is that relating to the repercussions of speaking out of turn.

In the classroom, the teacher is supposed to speak first while the students listen to understand, then the teacher would then reciprocate and allow the student to speak, while the teacher would then listen to understand the student. In a society that is changing and growing through understanding, fear is being diminished.

Fear is that which we do not understand, as we understand more we fear less. How can teachers build enough fear in the classroom to get students to stick to the order during communication? The truth is, they cannot. They cannot hit students, they are not able to yell at students, students are often not worried about grades, and when enlisting the help of a parent, whose hands are also tied, yields no success they become angry and frustrated.

My response is, “Perfect.” We must find another way. I never liked the idea of dominating children for their own good. I believe it causes damage to creativity and self-esteem. I believe the new way to communicate is simple and quite affective. We learn through modeled behaviors, and this happens through reciprocating behavior in the absence of fear. The way a baby learns.

What is being modeled in the classroom now? I am the teacher, listen to me first or I will use fear to force you to listen. How does a child reciprocate this behavior in the classroom? They try to make the teacher listen first, by attempting to use fear or they do not listen to the teacher first if the teacher does not listen to them first.

How can a teacher or student be successful under these circumstances? They can do the opposite of what most are taught. Teachers can be taught to listen to understand students first based upon what the student understands, and model a behavior that when reciprocated is beneficial to education.

Students that thrive in the classroom as it exist, have already been taught to create these reciprocal behaviors and thus are able to help teachers teach them. How do these students learn to create their own success in the classroom? Well I believe they were or are being taught by a person or persons in their life that modeled or model the behavior of listening to understand the child first. Why don’t most parents model this behavior? They often feel stressed, tired and overworked because of the perceived or actual need to work more. They then try to maximize their time, by becoming a drill sergeant and telling kids what to do first, and getting angry at them when they do not do what they are told. The child learns the modeled behavior and proceeds to adopt this way of doing things.

Why do people in education get angry? The same reason as everyone else on the planet. People get angry because of a misconstrued belief that they can make people listen to understand them. Which, in the absence of fear, is not possible. They get angry to the degree they feel they can make another listen. The very reason domestic disturbances often bring about the greatest amount of anger. Why would a teacher who is trying to help people, want to be angry all the time? They don’t want to be and change professions. If you look at politics, terrorism, education, poverty and wars, which of these could not be solved through this enhanced communication method? Not a single one…Politics are about people who are trying to communicate and help our society grow. Terrorism is an attempt to use fear to control behavior.

10 steps towards a better education: #7 Empower Local Communities

July 16, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In the seventh of our 10 steps on developing better education for our children, we look at the role of the community in shaping our schools.

These 10 steps first appeared as a part of our briefing paper for British parliamentarians, which is why they talk about ‘parliament’. They could equally apply to many governments around the world . . .

#7 Empower Local Communities

An incoming government [these steps were published prior to the 2010 UK general election] faces a breakdown in trust between central and local government. While Britain prides itself on being a democracy it frequently for- gets that such a fragile concept cannot flourish unless each new generation is well-nurtured in the affairs of the mind, and appropriately inducted into the responsibilities of adulthood, and the maintenance of the common good.

To make democracy a daily reality England should replace the large and increasingly moribund local authorities with a contemporary version of the School Boards as existed from 1870 to 1902.

Such Boards should be based on discreet communities where trustees are directly elected for the sole purpose of devising and administering the most appropriate education for everyone within their community, funded directly through taxes set by the Board – local taxation, with full local responsibility.

Parliament serves the country best when it creates the conditions for people to put their personal creativity into action; it does much damage, however, when it hedges its proposals with so many do’s and don’ts that it inhibits individual (and subsequently national) creativity.

10 steps towards a better education

#1 Understand Learning
#2 Reassert Intelligence
#3 Affirm the Family
#4 Strengthen Community
#5 Unpack the Curriculum
#6 Prepare the Teachers



The role of schooling in shaping young lives

July 13, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Update: Listen to John’s speech here.

On July 7th John Abbott was invited to present the prizes on the annual speech day of the secondary school where he himself had been educated – St John’s School, Leatherhead, in Surrey. What he had to say explains part of the origin of the thinking behind the 21st Century Learning Initiative.

He entitled his speech ‘How goes it with the Children?’ You can read the PDF of the speech here – St John’s Speech Day  – and below is the transcript in full . . .


Thank you headmaster for inviting me to present these prizes almost exactly 60 years after I, as a rising 14 year old, received a prize here myself! This is a daunting experience! When I shook hands with Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery, never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would, one day, be me distributing the prizes. Therefore I look at you prize-winners and suggest that you should start thinking about what you would say in 40, 50 or even 60 year’s time! Make sure you live lives that are worthy of reflecting upon.

Amongst hunter/gatherer tribes in the remotest parts of Africa, there is a traditional greeting– ‘Umbutu’. ‘Umbutu’ doesn’t mean ‘how are you’, but ‘how goes it with the children?’ It is a most serious question about the skilfulness and resilience of the upcoming generation. To people living on the edge, ‘Umbutu’ is a matter of life and death.

I doubt if teachers at St John’s in 1953 had ever heard the word ‘Umbutu’. But they would have approved of the sentiment. Most of them had served in the War and knew that the continuation of what already seemed a pretty fragile peace required that youngsters should grow up to be thoughtful, resilient and responsible. The threat of nuclear war was terrifyingly real.

‘J school’ was then small – only some 350 of us. One man, DW Pitt, nicknamed ‘Horsey Pitt’, taught me both A Level History and English, but his real passions were music, Renaissance art and cricket. He was no oil painting – with a Hapsburg sloping jaw and a sagging stomach – but his fascination with knowledge knew no bounds. His lessons passed seamlessly from English history to the writings of Adam Smith or Bunyan, to the Treaty of Versailles and the poetry of Donne, Goldsmith and Dryden. Not for him the artificial silos of separate disciplines – ‘your job is to join ideas together’, he insisted, and we did just that (and I have done ever since). He fired our imagination and worked us hard.

My Latin teacher however was the ultimate digresser. Keener to recount his experiences in the tank corps in the African desert than in helping us with the details of Latin grammar, I became so disengaged that I failed Latin O Level three times. I was all set to take it a fourth time (and bound to fail) when a curious event changed the course of my life.

As a youngster earlier in Portsmouth I had been taught to wood carve by an old retired sailor. Amongst things in my tuck box when I came to Leatherhead were that old sailor’s carving chisels with which I continued to carve even though this had nothing to do with any exam I would take. Just as I was despairing at my chances of passing Latin, I discovered I had been chosen as the best schoolboy woodcarver in the country at an international exhibition.

With a burst of confidence, I told my Latin teacher I wouldn’t come to his lessons anymore and instead I would teach myself all I needed to get through the exam. Knowing that I was now on my own, I worked harder than I had ever done before and when eventually the results came out, I got 89%. I quickly forgot all that Latin that I had learnt for the exam, but I still wood carve. That was the experience that largely accounts for my subsequent life, and standing here.

There were many other influences in my youth; an inveterate hitchhiker, I was intrigued with the conversations I had on endless journeys with lorry drivers. One conversation stands out more clearly than any chapel sermon; ‘I’m not a philosopher’ said the driver over the hum of his engine ‘and I’m not sure about religion but I do know that I want to leave this world in a slightly better state than when I came into it’.

I left school in the summer of ’58, when England was embroiled in a possible war with Egypt, so rather than going to university, it seemed all of us school leavers would be sent to fight in the defence of the Suez Canal. Horsey Pitt, of course, was up to the challenge; ‘If you’re possibly going to die for your country, you’d better know why. So here’s my final essay for you; “the roots of civilisation are 12 inches deep” discuss’.

Fifty or more years later, I’m still trying to answer the question.

It was a mixture of all these experiences, together with a natural empathy for young people that persuaded me to become a teacher. Note I didn’t say schoolteacher – just teacher. Schools as institutions trouble me. Although I’m told that I’ve had a successful career as a teacher, head teacher, researcher and confidant to politicians and policy makers, schools leave me with a dilemma.

Let me explain. Too often I have observed that those who excel in school often fail in later life to deliver on their early promise, while significant numbers who struggle in school pleasingly surprise us in later life, “it’s an uncommonly puzzling thing” as Mr Tulliver rightly pointed out in ‘Mill on the Floss’, when speculating on how children’s thinking develops.

By the early 1990s I was asking audiences to question whether schools weren’t being forced into treating children like battery hens rather than free-range chickens. In 1995, nearly 20 years ago, I was invited to Washington to set up an international foundation to consider what research in subjects such as neurobiology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and philosophy might help us to understand the wonder of human learning.

For four years I met with some of the world’s most fascinating scientists as we began to tease out what I (the essential woodcarver) called ‘the grain of the brain’. We concluded that humans are endlessly adaptable but it seems, only up to a point. Driven to live in ways which are utterly uncongenial to our inherited traits simply drives people mad.

At a conference chaired by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev in San Francisco in 2001, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists was asked to explain what all this research meant. Thinking carefully he said “I don’t think I can put it any better than Confucius 2,500 years ago when he said ‘tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; let me do and I understand’”.

That is the dilemma of modern schooling. It is far cheaper to tell somebody something than it is to show them, and it needs even more time (therefore money) to let them discover it for themselves.

The German philosopher Nietzsche said it succinctly: “It is a bad teacher whose pupils remain dependent upon him.”
This is serious stuff, for England is again living on the edge. That edge to my generation was nuclear war – to today’s school leavers it is global warming, a world population out of control, the collapse of the world economy, shortage of water, and the threats of uncontrollable epidemics. You have even more to think about than we did but unfortunately society has allowed itself to become too dependent on telling you what we think you need to know, rather than giving you a range of challenges to work out the answers for yourselves. Every head teacher in the country, as well as Michael Gove, needs to remember what Milton said 400 years ago, that ‘a complete and generous education (should) fit a person to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously (in private as well as in public affairs)’.

In as far that half a century later I am still trying to answer that question about the roots of civilisation, I believe we had a pretty good education back in the 1950s. It may sound corny to quote Frank Sinatra, but he got it pretty right in his song I Did It My Way… I wouldn’t dare do a karaoke but let me remind you of what the song says:


…there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spat it out
I stood tall and did it my way.


So, parents and teachers of the graduating class of 2012, I ask you “Umbutu – how has it gone with your children?” Long may St. John’s aspire to prepare young people to grow to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously, to stand up for what they believe is right, and have the courage not simply to go along with the herd…. and good luck to whichever of you 14 year olds may have to present the prizes somewhere around 2075.

Thank you.

Guiding principles in reforming education

July 11, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In an previous post, we shared a presentation John Abbott, president of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, made to Reform Scotland.

We have since updated the presentation by adding a voiceover from John. The result is ten-minute walk through our guiding principles on how we can reform education. These principles are based on years of synthesising research on how we learn, much of which is captured in John’s book, Overschooled But Undereducated.



10 steps towards a better education: #6 Prepare the Teachers

July 9, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In the sixth of our 10 steps on developing better education for our children, we look at the role and skills of teachers and how we need to rethink their core skills.

These 10 steps first appeared as a part of our briefing paper for British parliamentarians, which is why they talk about ‘parliament’. They could equally apply to many governments around the world . . .

#6 Preparing the Teachers
Quality education is everything to do with teachers, not much to do with structures, and very little to do with buildings. Teachers do what they believe in extraordinarily well, but what they are told to do merely to a mediocre standard.

Productive pupil/teacher relationships are based on explanation, on talking things through, and seeing issues in their entirety. Which is why teachers not only need to know a lot, but be wise enough to draw upon only that which is necessary for the learner to know at that stage.

To achieve that, teachers need both technical subject knowledge and considerable expertise in both pedagogy and child development, combined with the avuncular skill of brilliant story tellers.

Immediately the country should take several thousand of this year’s unemployed graduates and over the next three years pioneer a new Honour’s Degree in applied pedagogy to include aspects of neurobiology, educational psychology, evolutionary studies, didactics, philosophy, social psychology and especially community and family development, so as to create a cadre of experienced and pedagogically knowledgeable teachers with the authority to begin restructuring all aspects of pre-university education.

10 steps towards a better education

#1 Understand Learning
#2 Reassert Intelligence
#3 Affirm the Family
#4 Strengthen Community
#5 Unpack the Curriculum

'I was one of those book learners'

July 6, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In this story, Everett Houck reflects on his own education and development and how he came to be a teacher and how his style of teaching did not fit in. Everett’s is just one of the many stories we are receiving in response to the animations. Please read more or share your stories here.

I was one of those book learners. I could read anything and recite it back word for word. As a result, I did good in school, but when I got out into the workplace, I found I did not understand anything.

I always had a fascination with TV, so I started to try to fix them. I went to the library, got some basic test equipment and found that I could fix most broken TVs. There of course were some that were not worth fixing, and some that I did not have the equipment to fix.

I expanded my learning to other things and found that instead of spending a lot of money on new, I could buy broken and fix it and save a lot of money. I bought a cheap house and fixed it up myself, by watching home improvement shows.

I got laid off in my 40s and went back to school and ended up becoming first a teacher assistant and then a teacher. I taught in an alternative school for kids that had been expelled from regular school and found most of them stopped learning in about the third grade. I tried to set up a program to teach the basics and it worked very well.

I suffered a stroke in 2002 and have not been able to return to teaching. I was put on the list to be cut, I think mostly because I would not use the boxes and boxes of worksheets that the district bought to teach Math. I was constantly being called into the principal’s office because I was not teaching the same way as the other teachers.

When I had my stroke and had to take time off to recover, I was put on the do not rehire list. Last year I applied to the foster grandparent program to supplement my social security and I was placed in a low income school where there is almost no teaching going on.

Every day the district delivers boxes and boxed of worksheets to get the kids ready to take the end of year test. It was my job to try to help those students who had no understanding of basic concepts, to finish worksheet after worksheet in the vain hope that it would help them do better on the test.

Sad to say, there was no learning going on in this school. They did really badly on the end of year test and the school is scheduled to be closed.

O levels: they came, they went, they might be coming back. Why?

July 4, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

To understand the UK government’s position on O levels and its desire to bring them back into UK education we explore the history of the exam – its origins, the thinking behind its introduction and who it was for.

John Abbott was a headmaster responsible for putting children through O levels and CSEs, an experience he describes as ‘sheer hell’. The system was divisive – O levels were for children who were to take an academic route into higher education, CSEs were for readying children for the world of work and life outside of school.

Then came GCSEs – an attempt to have one exam to fit all. And now we have talk of a return to O levels. Where is all this headed? As well as looking at the history of the O level and GCSE, John looks at what type of examination might better suit children, teachers and society as a whole.