On the eve of the 21st century, a seasoned British educator John Abbott challenged us with a perplexing Core Question and a Big Idea. In an incredibly rambling and thought-provoking speech in Sunderland, U.K., entitled, “”Battery Hens or Free Range Chickens,” he asked an unsettling question: “What Kind of Education – for What Kind of World?” Even though politicians in many nations were claiming that public education was a top priority, the system was in crisis, Abbott declared, because schools had ceased to be about learning and were not really preparing students for an uncertain future.
Why was public education mired in a protracted crisis? The essential answer, according to John Abbott , could be found in a rare nugget in David Perkins’ Smart Schools (1992): “Learning is a consequence of thinking.” In direct, unvarnished English fashion, he was saying that there could be no real learning without thinking and that the schools were failing today’s students, and particularly adolescents, on that score.
John Abbott’s amazing speech hit me like a flash of revelation. It wasn’t exactly a “Eureka” moment, but as close as I will ever come to such an experience. After three decades as an educator, spent in some outstanding schools, I couldn’t get that question out of my mind: What were we really teaching students — and why were most teachers seemingly content to “instruct” in ‘egg-crate’ classrooms and resigned to “going with the flow”?
Public education is driven, as you well know, by the Bureaucratic Education State, and not only encrusted with competing ideologies, but overflowing with meaningless edu-babble. In such a strange world, a metaphor is worth far more than a thousand words. This potent metaphor will always be John Abbott’s greatest legacy. Public education, he proclaimed, in Britain and elsewhere, was “floundering for lack of really clear thinking.” Then came the pearl of distilled wisdom: “By default we will end up in a world of battery hens. Such hens hardly know how to stand on their own feet when their wire cages are removed…Those reassuring cages that now support us won’t be around in twenty years time… the survivors will surely be free range chickens.”
Since the advent of modern educational psychology, Jean Piaget and John Dewey, have successfully focused most educators on “the child” and the early years in child development. We needed to be reminded that the schools also seek to educate adolescents. It was John Abbott who issued the wake-up call. ” Adolescence is currently seen as a ‘problem’ in Western society,” he said, and the schools were falling short in what he termed ” intellectual weaning” or providing the independence needed to become critically aware and independent in outlook. Touche!
The historic tensions in public education — is education about content or about process? — continue to bedevil us. It absorbs far too much of our air time and psychic energy. Neither of these polarities is good enough and it’s time to lay it to rest. That explains the rock star popularity of Sir Ken Robinson and the lesser known, but more profound writings of Kieran Egan, best expressed in The Future of Education (2008). Sir Ken is big on “creativity” but I’m puzzled by the contradictions in his message. Pursuing “inventive education” which respects the intrinsic value of “core knowledge” would be far more constructive than trying to re-invent John Dewey for the 21st century.
Today John Abbott’s educational philosophy is being promoted by The 21st Century Learning Institute. What started out as an exciting breakthrough has produced mixed results, including the 2008 book, Overschooled but Undereducated. Abbott has attracted a loyal following, but his prescriptions now sound much more consistent with those of the educational psychologists than the thoughtful educationists. Today’s schools have taken the “factory model” too far, but the ingenious ideas of Abbott seem to have been appropriated by futurists without his grounding in our own educational tradition. “Tomorrow has been abolished and Today will be re-enacted as if Yesterday had never been…” That chilling message is not new; it was sprayed on the walls of a Cambridge college more than half a century ago.
Rome, it is said, was not built in a day. Over the next two years, let’s try to move the yardsticks in education closer to a system capable of educating more “free-range chickens” and fewer automatons, in the teaching profession as well as the millennial generation.