At Them or With Them? The ‘Know How’ World of Learning

The premise is simple, we need to reconsider how we deliver the curriculum: at them or with them.

Think back a few years to the time when you were a child. What was it about you then, that made you the person you are today? Are you the person you wanted to become, did you live up to your own expectations and if not, what stopped you? What I know about myself is that when I was 10 years old, I was full all those thoughts and ideas I had collected in my small head, and completely open to all the possibilities of my imagination and I think, if I remember rightly, that by the time I was twelve, nobody understood me or realised that I was probably the most intelligent and creative person in the world!

But what are the qualities we recognise in our pupils that make them feel confident, that help them establish their own thought processes, model the behaviours they need to develop expertise and find an affinity for the skills that will make them happy and successful human beings? Young people are easy to teach with when they are confident, curious and engaged and have impulse and drive, not only when they are supported and encouraged in their learning but when they understand the knowledge they are acquiring in context of the world they are experiencing.

I work with some big organisations, developing Corporate Social Responsibility through our Ambition UK programme. We work together to understand what the skills and capacities we need to help young people to acquire. What I hear time and time again from these employers, is that often highly qualified school leavers and graduates enter employment with all of the exam results expected of them but none of the real-world skills they actually need to survive and succeed in a competitive ever-changing working environment.

Successful companies, the people who work in them and those who lead them rise to the top because they are problem-solvers, innovators, risk-takers, independent thinkers, creative solution finders and most importantly because they know that failure and getting it wrong are intrinsically powerful steps in the path to success.

This is the difference between what I call the ‘know what’ culture in education and the ‘know how’. The ‘know what’ is the old paradigm, the place where young people sit obediently in rows and absorb as much information as they can to compete for the highest marks that will get them the qualifications they need to lead them through the doors of the next totemic learning edifice. They are easy to teach, respectful and hard-working, they are the passive consumers of learning. All well and good. But the problem is that ask them to plan for and cope with change, take risks outside their knowledge and expertise, understand the values of partnership or evaluate alternative solutions creatively and all but the few are high and dry on a desert island of ‘know what’.

But in the ‘know how’ world, young people are no longer passive consumers but active creators of their learning. They know what they need to learn when they need to learn it. They research and evaluate information as they uncover it, they acquire the behaviours in the disciplines about which they are passionate. They know how to let the play of the imagination morph into new thinking and doing. They are equipped for life of work and meaningful participation in their society.

There is an established piece of knowledge peddled around the educational conference circuit that says that 60% of all the jobs that young people in school today will do have not yet been invented and more importantly, they are going to have to invent those jobs. Take for example the ‘apps’ industry. Four years ago, no-one had heard of an iPhone, far less an ‘app’. Today it’s a billion dollar industry, much of which is run by people under 25 with small start-ups or even from computers in their homes. Revenue streams for this sort of software development is often through ‘micro-payments’ across the internet. We are growing up in a completely different world in which young people no longer learn some knowledge, get some qualifications and enter a job for the rest of their lives. They are actually going to have to develop a set of complex skills, which they will have to constantly reinvent for the rest of their lives. All this confirms what Peter Drucker, the famous management

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guru, said 50 years ago, ‘what we have learned is that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change’.

But how do teachers achieve this? Already struggling under the burden of bureaucracy, poor discipline, kids facing huge disadvantage, pushy parents and now, who knows what demands under the aegis of the Curriculum Review.

Well, it’s a challenge but I guarantee, if teachers are prepared to go for it, the rewards will be manifold, not only will our students be more engaged and happy but teaching will once again be what it can be – inspiring, challenging, intellectually rigorous and yes, dare I say it, fun!

And there are people who are doing something about it. Some stellar examples across the UK have proved that it is possible to meet these challenges of change. The RSA Opening Minds curriculum and Academies Programme, the BBC Digital Curriculum Service, the school improvement initiatives developed through Creative Partnerships, the Futurelab Learning Spaces work with Building Schools for the Future to name a few examples I’ve been involved with. What they all have in common, is that they accepted from the outset that young people are facing a world that is changing so fast, no amount of facts and information (know what) can really prepare them for it, only the skills and capacities (know how) they develop by processing and facts and information will keep them up to speed with the rate of change they will experience.

Looking at the outcomes from these programmes, testing them against the needs of successful businesses, organisations and people over the last 10 years and evaluating my experiences in the schools and colleges I work with, I’ve distilled the experience profile of successful learners down to 4 key characteristics. In other words, what does a learner need to experience in order to be become a productive, participating, passionate, problem-solving person, equipped for life:

  • Creator – given a chance to put the products of their imaginative capacities into action; what Sir Ken Robinson calls being in your ‘element’. This conflates theories of multiple literacies and learning styles and says that a learner who is able to take an abstracted concept and apply it tangibly, undergoes a physical response to the experience – the embodiment of learning. Remember how you feel when you have a ‘Eureka’ moment.
  • Innovator – innovation is the ability to think about and do things in new ways. It’s the natural response to creative embodiment. It’s what artists, inventors, designers, scientists, pioneers in any field do all the time – their natural state. The most successful organisations in the world are those willing to innovate. In organisations by focusing on developing new approaches to the challenges you face, you will be more effective in your current operations and better prepared in the future.
  • Collaboration is a skill that recognises the power of working together. And this really is your best tool in working with learners. Having something at stake in their learning (that doesn’t mean gaining a qualification) gives students a way of contextualising, seeing what they learn in terms of the world at large. As a teacher you will automatically develop new and unexpected ideas with your students by recognising collectively that collaborating, bringing different behaviours and disciplines together, reaches deeper into the ‘know how’ world of learning. And in the workplace whether you come together with another organisation or simply broker strategic alliances within your own business, you will not only increase your effectiveness as a successful employee but also create huge potential to develop something new. And this is of course the secret of the entrepreneur.
  • Leadership is about personal mastery. It’s the quality that first looks at the self and recognises the range of qualities that you require to be the best you can. This isn’t based on competitive point scoring (the road to qualifications) but on understanding where your strengths and weaknesses lie, where you can best support and be supported. Most of all leadership relies on the capacity to learn and so is in effect the most important of all the characteristics of a successful person.

Becoming an effective learner helps individuals lead themselves. What all the CEOs and organisational leaders I meet say unanimously is that they never stop learning.

So by encouraging your learners to take a creative approach to the curriculum, lifting them out of the torpor of passivity and stimulating their creative energies, continually thinking about and doing things in new ways, you are valuing their ability to learn and see themselves as their own most valuable resource. Only if each student can own and excel in their areas of expertise, can they contribute wholeheartedly to the workplace.

As I’ve said I do understand the challenge for teachers. It’s hard enough to do the job without re-drawing the parameters of learning. But I really truly believe that unless we do reshape the model of learning and the expectations we have of working with learners, we’re leaving a generation behind, to paddle in the shallows of life, never really enabled to be what they can be.

And my final word in all of this is that we want a world populated by happy, passionate people who are able to redefine themselves continually and capably in order to meet the demands of the future. We will be doing ourselves and young people today a disservice if we don’t give them the chance to be what they can be.