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‘Re-think education to meet the demands of the 21st century’


Education in the year 2000 needs a serious re-think if it is to prepare young people for the challenges of the coming century.

That is the key message from John Abbott, former Director of Education 2000 and President of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, who was speaking yesterday at the University of Bath as part of a country-wide tour aimed at stimulating debate about the way education is delivered in this country. Abbott says that developments in two key technologies - information and communication technologies and the technology of the brain - mean that we need to fully re-think the processes of education and redesign learning systems to fit with these new discoveries. It's not sufficient, he says, to bolt new methods developed as a result of understanding these technologies onto our existing education systems.

Abbott's observations about the nature of learning will make uncomfortable reading for those responsible for the education of school-age students, but they also have a relevance for anyone involved in adult education. He identifies three key considerations which will need to change in order for education to be successful in the 21st century:

  • It's easy to assume that everyone learns in the same way. We have been slow to realise that brains function in different ways, and that culture and nature have strong influences on the way we learn.

  • The technology of classrooms is relatively recent - the human brain was developing long before classrooms were invented. Abbott points to research from the Santa Fe Instititute for Studies in Science, which argues that "The method people naturally employ to acquire knowledge is largely unsupported by traditional classroom practice." The learner needs to be very much involved with the learning process.

  • "Teachers tend to see education as a stand-alone discipline rather than an integral part of a greater endeavour." (Sir Jeffrey Henry, Prime Minister, the Cook Islands). Abbott observes that there is no country in the Western World where 5-18 year olds spend more than 20% of their time in a classroom. It's not the case that the brain gets turned off when the learner leaves the classroom!

Abbott says that key discoveries about the formation and development of the human brain should lead us to completely rethink the system of educating young people. With only 40% of the human brain formed at birth and 45% of intelligence developmental, Abbott argues for greater support during the early years to develop the skills to learn. He adds that learners should actually need less instead of more support once they reach further and higher education, but the situation at present is that the ratio of tutors to students gets greater as you progress through the education system. Abbott says that the opposite should happen - by progressively giving less support as the learner gets older, you encourage students to take on more responsibility for their own learning. He adds that lifelong learning should be considered as beginning at age 4 or 5 and that we should lose the assumption that we need to cram learning in while at school because it is so unpleasant.

Abbott says that in this country we encourage subject specialists, but for the future we need to create people who can transfer their skills to other areas. Encouraging creativity also plays a key role in developing 'the lively mind', he says. Abbott quotes Sir Richard Livingstone when he says that "a test of successful education is the appetite to know and the capacity to learn". He continues by saying that it is a fundemental mistake to think that everything that is learned has to be taught - learning and schooling are not synonymous: "The place people get inspired is on the street corner, or through a chance meeting with someone with an enthusiasm for a particular subject."

In concluding his speech, Abbott identifies five key issues which are crucial to re-assessing the way education is structured:

  • Learning is moderated through biological processes
  • More study is needed into how learning takes place when there is no classroom
  • Be critical of the way we construct knowledge
  • Be aware of the impact of new technologies
  • Consider the impact of home and communities on learning

John Abbott is the author of 'The Child is the Father of the Man', among other publications, and is President of the 21st Century Learning Initiative. Details of their work are available at


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