Book Review - A premise that wanders into nomad's land

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Overschooled but Undereducated: how the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents. By John Abbott with Heather MacTaggart. Published by Continuum, #163;16.99

The latest book from former headteacher John Abbott is meant as a call to arms, an impassioned plea to society's "Responsible subversives" to lead a revolution in how we educate adolescents. Many in schools will appreciate its messages, its moral tone, and its treasure trove of historical quotes about teaching. Yet, for all its grand aims, its conclusions too often appear obvious, vague or contradictory.

What is the current "crisis" in British education? Mr Abbott points to ministerial meddling; an obsession with target-setting; a distrust of teenagers among adults; and, worst of all, the way the school system treats pupils like battery chickens, spoon-feeding them with information to pass tests rather than letting them make discoveries for themselves. Few teachers would disagree with this analysis. These are concerns that headteachers and academics raise every week.

So what are his solutions? Let children learn through doing, he writes, giving them guidance from experts when they need it. Excellent. But how? Mr Abbott and his co-author Helen MacTaggart suggest that one answer will involve "cognitive apprenticeships", apprenticeships that take into account the latest findings about how the brain works. Which, again, sounds groovy - but apprenticeships in what? Pottery? Telesales? Here the book goes quiet - and hits a recurring contradiction.

On one hand, Mr Abbott argues that mankind must evolve and adapt fast to change, or risk ending up like those deer that stand still in the face of oncoming cars. On the other, he spends much of the book mourning the changes that have occurred over the past two centuries (including the Industrial Revolution, the Pill and the decline in church-going) and praising primitive cultures.

Why can't parents in Britain be more like the nomads in Iran's mountains or the Hadza people in Tanzania, he suggests, who get to spend time with their children and give them genuine responsibilities, such as herding the goats?

"The Hadza have something that the children of England are fast losing - they have the love and the affection of their parents," he writes.

He contrasts the skills of the nomads, who can detect minute changes in vegetation, with a report suggesting that 80 per cent of three-year-olds in Birmingham had televisions in their bedrooms. The latter statistic may be shocking, but knowledge of TV will be handier than an appreciation of vegetation for a child trying to forge alliances in the playground of a Birmingham primary. And if you're concerned about roadkill, it's best to avoid herding goats in the city centre.

Where the book succeeds is in providing what Mr Abbott rightly points out is often missing from teacher training courses: an accessible, potted history of Britain's school system. In this section he points out that it is not new for education to be in "crisis". From history he also finds some potential solutions for today, making a particularly powerful case to bring back five to 15 education, which elementary schools offered before 1944.

Ultimately, for all its references to Darwin, the book does not offer a clear way schools can adapt to face the changes of the present. "It's a very, very different from the world that many of us adults grew up in, and it's not particularly nice," Mr Abbott writes.

Instead he calls for the whole of Western society's attitudes to be changed - backwards. The "contemporary narrative" should be replaced with a sense of the common good, agreed codes of behaviour, and a touch of the ethos of the 10 commandments. That's a noble aspiration - but it's an even tougher challenge than improving education for teenagers.

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