In a series of seminars organised by the Tapestry Learning partnership, Professor Perkins warned that if young people's education was to meet the challenges of the 21st century, they would have to understand the context and application of subjects better than many do now. "A lot of research shows that youngsters do not understand very well the ideas throughout subject matters," he said.
"Assessments of the state of the world show that understanding is becoming ever more important in a complicated society. Globalisation and other forces are upping the ante as to what is called for to participate as a worker or professional, where you have to understand the perspectives of people of other cultures and affinities."
To cultivate this kind of understanding, children had to be taught to think about what they knew, not just to know it. "There is a tendency in education to focus on the knowing of a subject," he said. "But learning for understanding is a lot more like learning to skate than learning about skating."
Professor Perkins said education tended to be infected with a malady he called "about-itis". Children learned about things such as 1066, fractions or physics, accumulating knowledge about a topic without fitting the information into the contexts of explanations, predictions or applications.
Keir Bloomer, chairman of the Tapestry Learning partnership and chief executive of Clackmannan-shire Council, told delegates that motivation and enjoyment were linked to the successful delivery of the curriculum for excellence.
The young people who came out of school with qualifications and moved into work, further education or employment did not enjoy it any more than those who joined the NEET (not in education, employment or training) group, he said. "But they have had the Calvinistic vision of education which takes you through to the end. We have to be very wary of the instrumental view of education put forward just now by government."