Book review: Natural Born Learners by Alex Beard

An educational book that's audacious, sassy and unafraid of the big questions

Geoff Barton

Natural Born Learners – South Korean pupils in gym class

Natural Born Learners

Author: Alex Beard

Publisher: Orion

352pp, £19, hardback

ISBN: 9781474604710

Over the years, I’ve read so many educational books that if I piled them all up against the side of the Department for Education’s headquarters in Westminster, I could probably clamber to the top and gaze, light-headed, into Nick Gibb’s office on the seventh floor.

So many books, so many ideas, so many faded pages of good intentions.

In the UK, we’re never short of educational proclamations – on what to teach, how to teach it, how to organise our schools, colleges and classrooms, where knowledge sits in all of this, and whether skills should or shouldn’t feature.

It sometimes seems that we inhabit a Kafkaesque echo chamber, where strident voices compete for attention, declaring or lambasting the latest passing fad, with real children and teachers left somewhere on the forgotten margins in the real world.

For too long, education has been locked into a political cycle in which every incoming minister feels they have to leave their own imprint of policy reform or structural change before they get moved on, up or out. That’s why – as the veteran devourer of so many decades of educational books – I find Alex Beard’s Natural Born Learners so different, refreshing, invigorating. It may just be one of the most optimistic, thought-provoking and ambitious educational books of recent years.

Beard (pictured, below) is a former English teacher who kick-starts his book by reflecting on his early experience of teaching novels and poetry to dismissive classes in a London suburb. He once overheard teachers from a neighbouring school say: “That’s where we tell our kids that they’ll end up if they don’t behave.” It was a school with a deep-rooted sense of the “inevitability of failure”, just as so many of the UK’s schools once were.

Beard uses this gloomy starting point to explore how things might be different, embarking on a journey around the world’s best – or supposedly best – education systems and then describing what he sees. This is where his puppy-dog enthusiasm creates a book with a different tone.

First-hand insights

Natural Born Learners does what many edubooks have done before – it aspires to answer some big questions. What’s the reality beyond the rhetoric of Finnish schools? How worried should we be about robots replacing teachers? Is knowledge really power and, if so, how? Is learning to be nice more important than learning “stuff”?

But what’s different is that Beard hasn’t just read up the answers. Instead, in a demonstration of globetrotting gusto (for readers with children of a certain age, he’s more Alex Rider than Alex Beard), the author visits these places, talks to the people and gets under their collective skin.

Thus, he heads to Silicon Valley to glimpse first-hand futuristic classrooms in which computers make learning more personal for children, and the role of the teacher more powerfully human. He shows us what Finnish classrooms are really like. He interviews the turbocharged coaches of South Korea, showing how these educational superstars have done what robots couldn’t, by “designing learning experiences in which kids took control”.

This complete immersion in other cultures, told through conversations, description and third-person narratives, reveals what lies beneath the surface in each culture, often recounted in a breathless prose more associated with an airport thriller than an education book. For example, Beard writes: “Korean kids managed five-and-a-half hours’ sleep on average, but most I spoke to claimed three or four. The nation was sleep-deprived. The real reason kids did so well on Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment rankings], according to minister of education Ju-Ho Lee, was their indefatigable commitment to hard work and self-study. They succeeded in spite of schools. Parents spent $20 billion a year sending their kids to private tutoring centres to get them ahead in the race to the top.”

This onion-peeling methodology proves compelling and, ultimately, liberating. Instead of the old polarised narrative of “this system good; this system bad”, Beard gallops to a finale that serves up an educational manifesto that draws together the best elements of what he sees – true lifelong learning, early years prioritisation, knowledge plus creativity, judicious use of classroom technology and, most powerfully, a call to arms on why being a teacher in the 21st century is about to become the greatest, most important job on the planet.

If that sounds rhetorically grandiose, then you’ve got the flavour of the book. Natural Born Learners is audacious, sassy, unafraid of big questions about what our children deserve and what our culture needs from education. It’s a book that’s bold and exuberant.

But then, as one of the many quotations in the book reminds us: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” (Malcolm X).

Prepare we must. And Natural Born Learners may just help us to do so.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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