Learning pays – so what?

Sir Christopher visited New Zealand
as the Millenium fellow at AUT. The subject of his breakfast session was “Learning pays – so what?”
He kicked off with story of the proverbial three young men, Tom, Dick and Harry, who’ve been given task of learning how to play the trumpet. The question is, who is likely to succeed?
Tom doesn’t want to play the trumpet. He hates it. He just hates the sound of it. But he’s confident that if he liked it he could play it because he’s good at learning, and has trumpet.
Dick would love to play the trumpet. He loves the sound, but knows he’s no good at that sort of thing. He’s totally unmusical and knows his limitations. He also has trumpet.
Now Harry would love to play the trumpet. He loves the sound, and he’s confident he could learn because he’s good at learning when he puts his mind to it. Unfortunately he has no trumpet.
So who do we think will learn to play the trumpet? Harry of course, because he has motivation.
“Motivation and confidence are absolutely critical to success,” says Sir Christopher emphatically. “Harry hasn’t got trumpet. But what we know about the situation is that there are few trumpets around. So with motivation to learn, he’ll probably beg, borrow or steal one.”
The point of the story is to suggest that in the 20th century we’ve spent too much time thinking about providing trumpets and too little about developing people’s motivation and confidence.
“The problem in education today in countries like New Zealand and Britain, is not of trumpet provision. It’s the problem of building people’s motivation and confidence.
“The problem today isn’t that people aren’t good at playing the trumpet; as our story suggests, one boy didn’t want to play, and the other believed he was no good at playing it.
“But we know better. Dick could have learnt to play, but something went wrong with his self esteem and confidence.
“The problem with developing people’s talent is that you can’t do it for them. Learning has to be done for yourself. Those three lads had to do it for themselves.
“Therefore we need to build society of learners who understand the value of learning.”

One in six failure
When we’re honest with ourselves, education and training have been areas of relative failure in the 20th century, Sir Christopher says.
Britain has what he calls the “one in six rule”.
* One in six of our young people in the 20th century from beginning to end of it, have said “I hate school”. All our surveys say one in six — very high number — find the school experience intolerable.
* One in six play truant, either actually by running away from school, or metaphorically by thinking about something more conducive while in school, and some find the school experience so unpleasant they’re disruptive.
* One in six fails to develop numeracy required for job.
* One in six fails the literacy developed in the workplace.
This score has been constant throughout the 20th century.
Any manager who finds failure rate of one in six would very quickly work on fixing the problem.
So what, according to Sir Christopher, is going to make people employable in the 21st century?
Firstly, motivation, responsibility, determination. Without attitudes like that people aren’t employable.
Secondly, basic literacy, numeracy and technology skills.
Third will be communication, teamwork, leadership, fellowship, problem solving abilities and the learning habit.
Fourth is mobility in place, sector and role. “If work isn’t where you are, you have to have mobility to go, with confidence, where the work is. If work isn’t in the sector you trained in, be prepared to shift.
“For instance, if you joined as finance director, don’t disable yourself by saying you couldn’t handle people — you’re only finance director. That kind of immobility isn’t good.”
The next element of employability is level of learning. “Increasingly the bar of learning is being raised and by 2025, graduate level will be the prerequisite for employment.
“I’ve come across three employers in Britain who say they’re not ready to tell the world yet, but they only want either graduates or people determined to become graduates in their business.
“For the 21st century we’ll need to put attitude first, skills second and knowledge third. That is THE educational project for the future.”
So what’s being done about this huge challenge? Sir Christopher has three suggestions.
First you create conditions for self learning by creating rich environment for yourself of warm demanding adults, people who love and challenge you constantly.
Second, is an exploratory curriculum. This is one that gives you the chance to determine what you’ll learn. What was wrong with Tom, Dick and Harry was the imposed curriculum; ie why did they have to learn the trumpet? Maybe Tom would like to play the violin, but there was no negotiation with the curriculum.
The third feature is limited access to the peer group. “Be careful of spending too much time in your immediate peer group. Peer groups dumb you down! If you doubt this,” he says, responding to the smirking faces to that comment, “just think of half dozen men on Saturday night who go to the pub together. Just sit and watch their behaviour. You’ll see it revert to behaviour of the mindless sort. Their individual interests disappear and they become like one another. It’s not pretty sight. This is what peer groups can do to one another.
“So if we’re thinking about education, we should think twice about creating the factory model which our school system is — the 19th century factory model of education.”
This l9th century factory model, which every country in the world is wallowing through, was built on the idea of herding children together in their age groups. It’s unnatural, he says.
“Just think how odd it is to take children from age five to 18 and make them spend most of their waking time in the company of their own age group, with relatively small provision of warm, demanding adults. Ask yourself — has it worked this century? The one in six failure rate is one indicator.
“With this model we imposed almost unlimited access to the peer group, we gave the peer group the dumbing down effect, then we hear things like ‘my child was so interesting when he was young, now all he wants to do is the mindless things of his teenage mates’.
“We shouldn’t be surprised. Peer groups can be dangerous. The same goes for adults of course.”
Sir Christopher points to the success of the home schooling movement as an example of an alternative. American research into home schooling found it one of the success stories in education service.
“Unfortunately, we don’t talk about it, because it’s horrifying to find that parents who aren’t teachers are better at it than we are. Children develop cognitive skills and social skills at home, mixing with wide variety of older and younger children, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles — the whole gamut of mixed society in home environment, which you have to admit is much nearer to life. Isn’t it odd, then, that we think we can prepare people for adult life by putting them in peer age group?
“So start thinking about peer groups. There’s lot of evidence of high achievers who didn’t come through peer groups — Mozart and John Stewart Mills had the environment of warm, demanding adults who believed passionately in their potential.
“Would Mozart have become such musician if he’d been with his peer group from the age of five? Of course not, his mates would have said ‘don’t be silly, you won’t play the violin’. And of course he had that other element of success, an exploratory curriculum which enabled him to go off and write opera.”

The way ahead?
“I’m interested in developing adults who’ll take responsibility for their own learning and own employability.
“We can’t afford to say we’ll have to have more of the same. century’s long enough. It’s now time to sit down and ask how we can do better for our young people and

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