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You are browsing the archive for 2013 February.

We are who we are because of the stories we hear

February 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

History is about telling stories – whoever you are or wherever you are in the world, there is a story about where you have come from. And these stories are the making of our children – they will help them understand where they have come from and their place in the world. Stories will define who they  are.

But it is dangerous to consider that there is only one way to tell a story, which is a current concern in English education where politicians would like to see more focus on facts about British history in the teaching of history.

There are always a number of ways to tell the same story and history teachers, like all teachers of all subjects, should be there to pose questions that make our children challenge all their earlier assumptions.

Listen to the podcast

listen to ‘The stories we tell’ on Audioboo

Related reading

  • Almost right but ultimately, totally wrong
  • The role of schooling in shaping young lives
  • History teachers learn to face the facts



A simple solution to our educational troubles

February 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

This week’s podcast aims to offer a simple solution to England’s educational troubles (to those of you not living in England you will nevertheless find this of interest). Building on last week’s podcast in which John described how the three legged school of school, community and family must be in balance for an effective education, John reflects on what is needed for change.

The answer is simple: some deeper thinking on the fact that schools alone cannot prepare children for the lives ahead of them. And if you don’t believe home and community matter you cram it into the schools, which is what we are seeing in the UK.

What’s more, there are two myths that continue to haunt education:

  1. Children should be seen and not heard.
  2. Secondary education is more important than primary education.

Having a much clearer idea of what the human brain is capable of would provide us with the catalyst for change.

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘The solution to England’s educational problems’ on Audioboo

Related reading

  • It’s Really Very Simple … The Solution to England’s Education Problem


Battery hens or free range chickens?

February 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

Last week’s podcast ended by posing this question: Do we want our education systems to produce battery hens or free range chickens?

Picking up on that question this week, John takes a deeper look into the role of education and explores what kind of education we – as individuals, families, communities, nations – might want for our children.

Casting his eye back over the last 50 years, John argues that making consumption our way of life has helped us become less and less happy.

He then links this to the work of cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham whose book Why students don’t like school has shaped the UK’s education secretary Michael Gove’s thinking on how to develop education.

Willingham believes knowledge comes before imagination (which is counter to Einstein’s thinking) which has become a justification for Gove to focus on fewer subjects in the school curriculum and increased testing.

This is potentially devastating for the future wellbeing of society as we need to educate children to make connections between how they are being brought up, the world they are going to inherit and the world they are going to shape.

John has put this to Willingham – the opening discussion is below – and will be following it up in the coming days and weeks.

Listen to the podcast

listen to ‘Where do we really think we want to go?’ on Audioboo

Related reading

  • HMC Conference presentation, St Andrews, UK 

Conversation between John Abbott and Daniel Willingham

Dear Professor Willingham,

No doubt you have heard much from my countrymen about the influence, correct or incorrect, your book has had on Michael Gove, the English Minister of Education, and probably don’t want to hear more!   I was away lecturing in British Columbia when his comments about the significance of your book hit the headlines…hence my delay in writing.

I am a former secondary school headmaster of an ancient Grammar School founded in 1588.  Which is largely irrelevant in comparison to the fact that for the last 27 years I have led multi-disciplinary research team into the nature of human learning, and for four years worked with the Johnson Foundation of Wingspread, Wisconsin during which time I got to know well Bruce Alberts President of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, and Rod Cocking who master-minded the NRC report “How People Learn; Brain, Mind, Experience and School”.  From them I learnt that the specifically sharp focus on schooling came about at quite a late stage when it became necessary the financial sponsorship of your Dept of Education, a subject on which at a later stage the US Secretary of Education, Dick Riley, elaborated to me.

In England I am often assigned, by teachers and educationalists, a space to comment on the more extreme utterances of Ministers (which gains me no bonus points from the politicians!).  I don’t know how much you know, or want to know, about English educational politics, but having lived in Virginia for four years  and visited your country very many times over thirty and more years you ought to know that the tension generated by successive right-wing, or pseudo right-wing Ministers seizing the control of public education from the local Councils generates tensions similar to those over States Rights in Civil War days.

I have recently been asked to write the lead article for the National Primary Heads Association…that informal clustering of the majority of this country’s 30,00o elementary teachers feeling that they are fighting tooth and nail for their beliefs that education is about  much than simplistic, quantifiable test results….i note that you don’t assign as much authority to Einstein as I do, yet I will rest part of my case on his declaration that,” not everything that can be counted, counts, and that not everything that can be counted ,counts”

In time, once you have had the opportunity to read the enclosed, I would be interested in your response.   If you wish to follow up where all this thinking comes from might I suggest you go to , proceed to The Ideas, select the Timeline and go to Folder 4 and look at the Synthesis that emerged from the Wingspread conferences, and then the Policy Paper  that summarised all this in Folder5.    If you strayed into Folders 13 and above you would get a better feel for the muddy waters this side of the Atlantic.

If you have the time to respond I will then look forward to continuing the discussion.


Dear John

Thanks so much for writing. You’ve asked for a response to the article you attached.

The article touches on a wide-ranging set of issues that would require a long reply in its turn to reflect my own thinking on all these issues. But briefly:

1) I don’t think that the role of evolutionary theory in cognitive theory is settled or without controversy.

2) I think that even if it were and learning were deeply understood there’s not a straight path to application of the knowledge in education. Cognitive science is a natural science and education is an applied endeavor. As such, education always entails goals, and the same scientifically sound conclusion can be taken to mean very different things in the classroom.

Best wishes,


The Heart of the Matter

February 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

In this week’s podcast, John takes us right to the heart of what constitutes an appropriate education for our children. This thinking is based on the synthesis of more than 30 years’ worth of research and learning around how we develop as humans and how we best learn as children.

The three factors at the heart of an appropriate education are:

1 The three-legged stool
The three-legged stool is made up of three legs that balance when all are of equal length. The legs are community, home and school. At home children develop their emotions, at school they develop their intellect and in the community they develop their sociability and ability to see their way through the world. If any leg gets too short (for example, our current focus in the UK to get children into school for longer at the expense of family time), the stool doesn’t balance.

2 Learning never proceeds in a straight line
Our minds meander, picking things up along the way and moving them around. We have a helicoidal brain that picks things up, moves them around and reorders them.

3 Adolescence is an opportunity not a problem
Adolescence is when decide to make decisions for ourselves. We need to let children develop themselves by learning from their own decisions.

Wrapping up the podcast, John questions whether an appropriate education should produce battery chickens or free range chickens . . .

Listen to the podcast:

Listen to ‘The heart of the matter’ on Audioboo

We’ve set up a forum for discussion raised in this week’s podcast – join the discussion here.

Related reading

  • Brain Science, Adolescence and Secondary Schools: A Critical Disconnect
  • Can the Learning Species Survive in Schools
  • Battery Hens or Free Range Chickens: What kind of education for what kind of world