WHY are young Brazilian street-traders, with little or no schooling, so good at counting money? And how can primitive Polynesians carry out complex navigational computations?
The importance of such activities to those concerned is
obviously part of the answer.
But Dr Ken Richardson, a specialist in human development and learning, believes the fact that these skills have been learned in "natural" social contexts is also significant.
Dr Richardson argues that it is the lack of relevance in the traditional school curriculum that causes so many children to feel they do not have the "cerebral wherewithal" to be mathematicians, scientists or linguists.
"You can fit pieces into a jigsaw more easily and quickly when you know what the total picture is," he told a seminar at the Institute of Education, London University, last week. "You can plot a route on a map more easily when you understand where you're going, and why you want to go there. Indeed, without such a goal and purpose, the activity becomes practically a nonsense."
He believes that schools should rip up the present curriculum and embrace a radical form of community education. The best way to make schoolwork more engaging is to invite local shopkeepers and business people to present pupils with real-life problems.
"The newsagent may have a delivery organisation problem, the builder a design problem, the steelworks a marketing problem, the farmer all kinds of botanical and zoological problems," he said. "Within such real-life problems all the aims and objectives of any acceptable curriculum - the development of skills of literacy and numeracy, of literature and scientific research, of mathematics, local and national history, geography, physics, biolog, design, commerce, and so on - could be worked out."
Like Dr Roland Meighan, author of The Next Learning System, he has concluded that the "squirrel and nuts" theory that underpins the national curriculum - whereby pupils bury countless chunks of information in their memories in case it might be useful some day - is obsolete.
Dr Richardson, honorary senior research fellow at the Open University, says that his approach to schooling would help to develop economic understanding and a sense of civic identity and responsibility.
He acknowledges existing industry-school links but says that such activities "arise only as a novel 'extra' on the far fringe of the curriculum". He also insists that his approach would not devalue teachers. Teachers would have the more professionally challenging task of matching employers' problems to the children's learning level, he says. They would also have to identify curriculum objectives within each problem.
Dr Richardson accepts that his proposals will be resisted but says that the school system's high wastage rate makes reform essential. "Most young people who leave school as failures don't just see themselves as having failed to learn what schools have wanted them to learn, but as having no 'brains'."
But the truth is that school subjects encourage a very narrow kind of cognitive power which is of limited use, he says.
"Much research has shown that high school and university students have difficulty applying their knowledge to practical problems only slightly different from the form in which they have been encountered in the curriculum. And a clear relationship between individual proficiency in school learning and later proficiency in university andor the world of work has always been difficult to establish."