A for adapt, B for begin now, C for change

8th January 2010 at 00:00

There is much talk today of building schools for the future, or at least for the 21st century. But the missing element in most of the high-flown rhetoric is exactly what the core purposes of school should be.

Twentieth-century schools were founded on the knowledge and skills contained in a small number of subjects. In the first decade of this century, with the huge emphasis on literacy and numeracy, there was a strange throwback to the 19th century. In future we need a radical rethink - and neither the Rose reforms for the primary curriculum nor the welcome introduction of personal learning and thinking skills at secondary go anywhere near far enough.

Schools must now focus on the kinds of mind habits that young people will need in order to learn, throughout their lives, whatever will matter to them. In short, we need specifically to teach pupils how to adapt and thrive. Here Charles Darwin has much to offer us. His core conclusion in On the Origin of Species, written almost exactly 150 years ago, was that "it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

Darwin was studying the slow evolution of non-sentient species over many thousands of years. But he speculates about how, in the future, research from the field of psychology might shed light on our own evolution.

How can a school teach adaptability? For a book I wrote recently, I imagined how Darwin might have answered that question, among others. The argument goes like this. Change is changing. It is accelerating to such an extent that relying on our knowledge and experience may not be enough. To survive as a species we have to teach our young people not only to think like homo sapiens but also to learn the habits of "homo adaptus". Teaching the development of adaptive expertise must become a core purpose of schools.

Where once smart people knew a lot of stuff, and being confident about our knowledge was a virtue, we may need to get better at unlearning things and at dealing more effectively with uncertainty. Where in the past we assumed that most problems could be solved by logic, we may want to cultivate different ways of exploring complexity and using our intuitions.

Once the debate was about nature or nurture; today's discussion is about just how we ensure that our young people go through life with a "growth mindset", able to believe that, through their efforts and with the support of more expert others, they can be successful. When Homer Simpson says: "Every time I learn something it pushes some old stuff out of my brain" he is expressing a widely held belief that our heads can only hold so much "stuff". With the benefit of contemporary psychology we know it is mindset, not "stuff", that really counts.

The way we interact with others needs to evolve, too, as we simply cannot afford to be so selfishly individualistic. Managing relationships is a key attribute and we will need to have a much more imaginative range of methods for working with our fellow human beings. Intelligent collaboration will be the name of the game, if we are to tackle such problems as climate change. Certainly more useful and precise methods than those currently covered by the phrase "group work" in schools will be required.

Adaptive intelligence will have to be part of the new thinking in schools, which in practice for teachers will mean exploring ways of collaborating, empathising, inquiring, experimenting, facilitating, intuiting, noticing, pretending scepticism, reframing, scenario-creating, synthesising and unlearning.

Revolution? With a small "r" perhaps. Evolution is the thing we all need to focus on in schools.

Professor Bill Lucas, Co-director of the Centre for Real-World Learning, University of Winchester.

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