Natural Born Learners: Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness It, by Alex Beard, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99, 352 pages
By the end of this wide-ranging exploration of how we learn, there is a gratifying sense that the author is living out some of his most important conclusions. To create Natural Born Learners, a mixture of quest narrative, memoir and heavy research, Alex Beard (a fine quest name) has decided to keep his mind as open as possible.
This is both his modus operandi, and a clue about the nature of learning itself. In the field of learning, Beard, a former teacher, tracks down the foremost protagonists in the world, from teachers in experimental nursery schools to Andreas Schliecher, division head at the OECD.
The field is massive, and encompasses, for example, some utopian thinkers whose contributions a less patient mind (mine) would want to dismiss. But this is where Beard comes into his own. His attitude is enquiring and reflective (wryly-so).
He fascinated by the possibilities of Californian tech but not overawed; impressed by influential “Knowledge and Grit” programmes, but without buying their philosophies wholesale; compelled by Korea’s life-determining exam Suneung, but rightly concerned by it. Via the initially surprising reference to Natural Born Killers (1994), I thought of the Takami novel Battle Royale, popularised by the film of the same name. Competitive education as a fight to the death.
So Beard has reminded us that, in order to learn, there are a number of paths available to us. Collaborate, as they do in Finland. Take personal responsibility, as they do at King Solomon’s Academy in London. Craft, as they do at School 21 in Stratford. But which of these has the greatest merit?
Whether you are a teacher, a primary school student or a septuagenarian auto-didact, you can’t follow all of these examples all of the time. I wonder what Beard would think of the educationalist Dylan Wiliam’s nostrum that everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.
Learning is natural thing — that much is clear. Can computers accelerate it? Yes. But in this book, Beard shows that, despite the efforts of some fine, ambitious minds, real human learning cannot be entirely outsourced to technology. Human communication is still the most vital component, a conclusion which handily embraces a tenacious piece of technological innovation— the book. If you want to accelerate your own learning, try reading this one. It shows you a tantalising range of educational adventures. All you have to do is choose.