Do we need a learning revolution, or rather accelerated evolution?

Reflections on Alex Beard’s new book, “Natural Born Learners”
John Morgan, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
John Morgan, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Education has been a topic of critical discussion since antiquity. In his book “Natural Born Learners,Alex Beard, a former teacher who now serves as a senior director at Teach for All, traces education back to Socrates and Plato in his attempt to convince readers of the need for fundamental change. This book is an account of Beard’s lifelong search for ideas and innovation, inspiring us to reimagine schools and reform our global education systems.

Beard has traveled extensively on his quest, speaking with the most brilliant thinkers on the subject of learning and with the world’s most gifted and motivated educators. Returning home, he is convinced that we are on the cusp of a revolution in how we learn.

This book is an account of Beard’s lifelong search for ideas and innovation, inspiring us to reimagine schools and reform our global education systems.

Beard identifies three key features of this revolution:

Upgrading ourselves, not our technology: The new scientific understanding of brain development in the early years of life should inspire us to rethink how we approach learning and education. Beard argues that we need to regain trust in the unparalleled human capacity to learn, rather than blindly relying on technology. Instead, we should employ technology selectively and wisely. In Beard’s view, technology will be best able to advance learning when used in a human context.

Promoting creativity and purpose: Children need to develop new skills for the 21st century. Beard is not the first to point out that schools must undergo fundamental changes if they are to teach these skills effectively to the next generations. But rarely has a teacher so convincingly shown that critical thinking and creativity must be at the core of the curriculum of the future.

Rediscovering the ethical and human dimensions of learning: Much to Beard’s dismay, schools are increasingly taking a market-based approach, focusing on efficiency and competition. He calls for a radical shift in our education systems, replacing competition with cooperation and focusing greater attention on well-being and social and emotional development.

This book is a persuasive call to action for anyone who cares about education. But I fear that the issue is not as simple as Beard suggests. Two themes in Beard’s book have left me with some doubts, and would have benefited from further critical reflection:

First, Beard seems convinced that almost everything we have done and continue to do in our education systems is wrong: “We’ve learned the wrong lessons” is his central thesis. But is that true?

The answer to the rhetorical question he poses – “Why haven’t schools changed over the last decades and centuries?” – is not as straightforward as it might seem. Centuries ago, the Protestant Reformation prompted the introduction of compulsory education for boys and girls, first in regions that are now part of Germany, and later in other parts of Europe and in the United States. The universal education system established by Frederick the Great in 18th-century Prussia, which provided schooling for the masses, was probably the most successful and widely imitated political program ever implemented. And current education systems, as old-fashioned and change-resistant as they may be, have produced the most peaceful, collaborative, intelligent, and productive generations in all of human history.

Perhaps educators and the education system have been so successful in part because of their resistance to revolutionary change.

This incredible success may be precisely what prevents us from drastically changing the way we educate our children. My father was a teacher – and he used to say, “If I had followed all the recommendations I received from experts during my 40 years in the classroom, I would have damaged a lot of young lives.”

There have been numerous attempts over the past few decades to bring about revolutionary changes in how we learn – and many of them have proved to be misguided. Indeed, perhaps educators and the education system have been so successful in part because of their resistance to revolutionary change.  If we really want to change education for coming generations, it may well be that what our education systems need is “accelerated evolution,” rather than the revolution championed by Beard.

Second, even the most thoughtful author may succumb to the temptation to oversimplify and uncritically embrace a popular view. When Beard writes that “Maternal-care nurses at the Perry Preschool Program in 1960s Michigan added more in one hour to the life chances of the tots they visited than their elementary and high school teachers later managed in weeks of classes,” this is not only oversimplifying, it is wrong.

If we pit preschool, primary and secondary education against one another, we do harm to education and to those who dedicate themselves every day to educating children and youth.

No one (including the author of this review) seriously disputes the crucial importance of early childhood education and care. However, education is a lifelong process, and the effects of even the best early childhood programs fade out if they are not sustained by long-term, high-quality educational and psychosocial support. If we pit preschool, primary and secondary education against one another, we do harm to education and to those who dedicate themselves every day to educating children and youth.

To be clear, this is not Beard’s intention! On the contrary: Beard’s book displays a contagious optimism and passion for learning.

He ends with an afterword titled “A Learning Revolution,” in which he points out that the future of learning rests with us: “We can and must make a shared decision about what we want for our kids. If we can do that as families, schools or communities, then we can change what our systems are aiming for and how they’re pursuing it. If we are to continue to progress, we have to work together, open up knowledge to all, believe that we have the collective intelligence – and solidarity – to solve the problems of the world. Tackling a challenge this complex requires our collective leadership. (…) What’s stopping us?”

There is not much to add. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the science of learning, is passionate about teaching, and advocates for quality education.

Natural Born Learners – Our Incredible Capacity To Learn and How We Can Harness It, by Alex Beard, Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion Publishing Group, London 2018

Weekly newsletter