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It’s your world to shape, not just to to take

May 10, 2013 in test, Uncategorized

It’s your world to shape from Responsible Subversives

John Abbott recently returned from a whistle-stop lecture tour of British Columbia where he shared the thinking of the initiative. A part of the trip involved sharing his thinking with students, which is why he entitled his slides, It’s your world to shape not just to to take.

That was the essence of what he said to everyone he spoke to – students, parents, teachers, politicians.  People warmed to the topic. Young people have to do something about the world they live in.

As John says, ‘If we really want youngsters to produce the world of the future then we have to recognise that they are already criticising deep down what we are doing. They want to be involved in working things out from the very beginning.’

The message is clear: we need a better form of pedagogy to get our youngsters up and running to shape our future world.

In this week’s podcast John shares some of his experiences from his trip.

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘It’s your world to shape, not just to to take’ on Audioboo

The slides are are also available here.

Where does understanding fit into the curriculum

May 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

In this week’s podcast, the 21st Century Learning Initiative’s Janet Lawley concludes her look at the curriculum.

Janet says that understanding brings us to learning, which brings us to what education is all about. Schools major on knowledge and skills but they do not always lead to understanding.

Learning is what education is – or should be – all about. Learning is about looking at where what children are discovering sits with everything else they know.

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘Reconsidering the curriculum #3: understanding’ on Audioboo

Related reading:

  • Teaching for Understanding
  • Review: The Educated Mind

Reconsidering the curriculum #2: skills

April 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

Following on from last week’s podcast on knowledge, The 21st Century Learning Initiative’s Janet Lawley rethinks the second element of the school curriculum – skills.

The traditional school curriculum features academic skills – reading, writing, languages and ICT. They are all essential skills and all academic.

But what about practical skills – where do they fit in to the curriculum? Skills are central to learning. You cannot learn a skill theoretically – you have to practise it. As you do with academic skills.

We need to accept that by practising skills we get better at them. We also need to drop the distinction between academic and vocational skills so that we think about how skills fit into learning in a more holistic way.

Skills are central to education, they build on our knowledge and they help us to learn in an active way.

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘Reconsidering the curriculum #2: skills’ on Audioboo

Related reading:

  • The Primary Curriculum – trying to grow up
  • Some Principles of Educational Reconstruction


Reconsidering the curriculum #1: knowledge

April 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

Kicking off our three-part series on reconsidering the school curriculum, Janet Lawley looks at knowledge and how we acquire it. She argues that gaining knowledge to become a specialist is no longer enough – we need our children to be able to become specialists and at the same time have a wider perspective beyond specialisms in order to gain expertise.

Knowledge on its own is not enough as a basis for the curriculum.

There is also an inherent problem with knowledge and that is: what should be included in the curriculum – what is it we want our children to know?

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘Reconsidering the curriculum #1: knowledge’ on Audioboo

Related reading:

  • Towards a totalitarian education system in England – Sir Peter Newsam
  • Why did we let it happen? Thoughts on reading “Towards a Totalitarian Education System in England” by Sir Peter Newsam

So, what knowledge should we be developing in our children?

Unicef research, well-being and education

April 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

This week children’s charity Unicef published data that puts the UK in 16th position – below Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Portugal – in a league table of child well-being in the world’s richest countries. Learning and education is a major factor in the research and is an area in which the UK performs badly.

On the flip side, it will come as no surprise that Scandinavian countries make up four of the top five countries for child well-being.

With this being the case, the 21st Century Learning Initiative’s Janet Lawley looks at how education in Scandinavian countries helps boost children’s well-being.

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘What do this week's Unicef research findings tell us about education and child happiness?’ on Audioboo

In the Unicef research Finland was ranked number one for educational achievement by the age of 15. In this video, John Abbott discusses the Finnish education system.

Watch the video:



The Eye of the Storm

April 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

The Eye of the Storm is both an analogy and a metaphor, describing that region at the centre of a violent tropical cyclone of mostly calm, windless conditions. Well experienced sailors understand that the safest thing to do as a storm approaches is, counter-intuitively, to sail directly into the storm in search of the ‘eye’, where they could find sufficient respite and plot a new course.

In the bringing up of children, there has always been a conflict between those who would stress process, and those who would emphasise content, the former believing that real education is about helping young people to learn how-to-learn, the latter placing greater emphasis on learning a body of facts and ideas that reflect that society’s belief system.

Recent research into human learning explains how our inquisitiveness is an innate drive to make sense of our environment. This is a most critical survival skill and needs to be constantly fed through a variety of rich learning experiences, so giving children transferrable skills that they’re able to apply intelligently in an expanding array of novel situations.

But while children are born to learn rather than to be taught, all too often it is easier for those who want to find quick and cost-effective ways of making education accountable to measure simply those things which are learnt, rather than assessing the process of learning. Short cuts to learning to get through an exam do not necessarily develop those transferrable skills essential to deal with a lifetime of continuous change.

Confucius understood this more than 2000 years ago; “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, but let me do and I understand”. In 1570, in the first book ever written in English about education, Roger Ascham urged the cultivation of what he called ‘hard wits’ rather than the superficial ‘quick wits’ of those youngsters whose memories were good but who couldn’t work things out for themselves. “Because,” he said engagingly, “I know that those which be commonly the wisest, the best learned, and best men also when they be old, were never commonly the quickest of wits when they were young”.

Interest in how children develop their mental capacity has its origins deep in history, but formal schooling in England only dates from the late 18th century, primarily as a way of keeping children off the streets. In the late 19th century public schooling was defined as a cheap way of equipping youngsters to do as they were told, rather than – as had been the case with apprenticeship in earlier years – working things out for themselves.

In the current turmoil of educational politics, a ‘perfect storm’ has developed between these two polarities. Their theoretical bases are so different that there appears to be no meaningful dialogue between the protagonists. It could be seen as a conflict between Michael Gove who would call to his support Frederick Winslow-Taylor and the Behaviourists, and Roger Ascham supported by Confucius, John Dewey and the Chartist leader William Lovett, who scorned such ‘quick fix’ education: “need we wonder that scholars have so little practical or useful knowledge – are so superficial in reasoning… what is needed… is a pedagogy of self activity. Give a man knowledge and you give him the light to perceive and enjoy beauty, variety, surpassing ingenuity and majestic grandeur, which his mental darkness previously concealed from him.”

Aiming for the eye of the storm, the Initiative seeks a speedy accommodation between these two traditions, lest we be swamped by the conflict and sink forever beneath the waves.

Listen to this week’s podcast:

listen to ‘In the eye of the storm’ on Audioboo


Functional literacy

March 29, 2013 in Uncategorized

We live in volatile and uncertain times and technology is powering change in the way we operate. So what’s the one thing we need our children to be comfortable with? Change.

In this week’s podcast John talks about ‘functional literacy’ – the ability of our children to feel comfortable with our ever changing society.

This will require our children to develop the skill to manage their own learning. To do this they will require four skills:

  • Thinking
  • Communicating
  • Collaborating
  • Decision making

Ask an employer the type of skills they require from their employees and they will include at least one of these skills. So what stops us developing these skills in our young?

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘Functional literacy – what is it and why do our children need it?’ on Audioboo


Related reading:

  • Educating people for change

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

March 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

At the end of the lectures John gives he usually gets asked how to turn the ideas of the 21st Century Learning Initiative into action. It’s a big theme for us and our thinking is that by being equipped with the right information we can then start to make some informed decisions. That’s why we are working on making the research archive as accessible as possible.

But that’s not all. We also depend on each other for tips, advice and support which is why have set up the Responsible Subversives Community. And with this in mind I asked John to share the best advice he has been given.

Here is what he had to say:

listen to ‘What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?’ on Audioboo

Related articles

  • Too busy to think
  • Apprenticeship

Let us know the best piece of advice you’ve been given – I’ve set up a forum thread here.

It’s good to talk

March 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

Talking helps us humans to grow our brains and to keep them agile as we grow and get older. And being a social and inquisitive species makes conversation – the sharing of ideas about ourselves, others and past and possible future events – central to our survival, and ultimately our humanity.

In the latest two installments of our 99 Theses on Shaping a Better World, we look at how and why we have become the chatterers that we are and why conversation in its earliest years is critical to a child’s development.

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘99 Theses on shaping a better world: #8 Endless chatterers’ on Audioboo

We also share a second podcast in the same series which looks at the size of our brains. How is it that if we have such premature brains at birth we go on to become the planet’s pre-eminent learning species? All is revealed . . .

Listen to the podcast:

listen to ‘99 Theses on shaping a better world: #9 Big heads’ on Audioboo

Specialists versus experts

March 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

In this week’s podcast, John talks about the difference between experts and specialists. As a piece of related reading we have taken an excerpt from John’s book, Unfinished Revolution, which expands on this relationship.

In Frederik Winslow Taylor’s book The Principles of Management, published in 1911, stated that:

“The primary, if not the only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement; that in fact human judgement cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

The deification of efficiency and of the specialist had begun.

Taylor began the cult of the specialist and there is a distinction to be made here between specialisation and expertise. This is vital to educational policymakers, for expertise enables transferable skills to move from one set of problems to another.

By working within the well defined parameters of a specialism, a specialist knows a subject from top to bottom. A specialist is the ultimate analyst who knows all the rules, all the tests and all the possible combinations and formulae. Authority rests on the depth of knowledge, and is uncluttered by the need to assess extraneous influences. Specialists exude a confidence in their competence and in some this comes through as arrogance. Discussion with such people is often difficult for they know all the answers “in their box”, and if you ask a question from a different box they are not interested. lust where their specialisms fit in a bigger synthesis docs not trouble them, for that is essentially unquantifiable, imprecise and highly uncertain.

There are no rules for that kind of they say, and so these questions are best left unanswered. A caricature perhaps, but the world has come quite rightly to be fearful of over-specialisation for, in some hard-to-define way, it does not seem “rea1”. Specialisms break the world down into bits, and such a reductionist approach gets us both individually and collectively, into trouble.

“Experts” in contrast, “tackle problems that increase their expertise,” whereas “[specialists] tend to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves [by going beyond the rules and formulae they accept]. Experts indulge in progressive problem-solving, that is they continually reformulate a problem at an ever-higher level as they achieve at lower levels, and uncover more of the nature of the issue.

They become totally immersed in their work . . . and increase the complexity of the activity by developing new skills and taking on new challenges.

Experts are quick to grasp the overall situation; they synthesise rather than just focus on a single issue. Big issues fascinate them and – aware of what they don’t yet know rather than what is already known – they are open to different disciplines and questioning.

Experts understand the rules but they also know how to reformulate them and expand them to fit new circumstances. As opposed to continually fragmenting knowledge, experts seek a unification – “literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation”.

While specialisation with the – encouragement of Taylor and the behaviourists -has become a feature of modern society, it is not particularly natural to the human brain.

To repeat what we stated in the opening chapters, the brain has evolved over the millennia to be a multi-faceted, multi-tasked organism predisposed to thinking about new data and ideas from various perspectives. The brain works in terms of wholes and parts simultaneously and the glory of human learning is that it is essentially a complex, messy, non-linear process. The brain can, literally, do almost anything – but in its own way.