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Learning for success

Learning for success 01
Learning for success 01

After a couple of years teaching English in a South London state school, Alex Beard felt something was missing. The children were naturally talented, smart and witty, but they were all behind where they should have been in their education. Beard – who as a child won a scholarship to a top British boys' boarding school before studying at Cambridge University – felt they weren't being helped to fulfil their potential. Standing in front of his class of 30 pupils, the whole set-up seemed very old-fashioned. It struck Beard that this was an industrial model of education designed for a different era, when the goal was simply to get children into school and produce obedient factory workers. It wasn't taking into account the new things we know about the way the human brain learns or the new technology that can support that. And worse it wasn't designed to produce the kind of thinking we need for the future – a world that is changing fast, with jobs being automated and global challenges such as climate change that need innovative, collaborative solutions.


Beard left teaching to study for a master's degree in education and leadership at the Institute of Education, then joined Teach For All – a network of independent organisations working to give educational opportunities to children around the world. Along the way he's explored some of the most exciting educational practices taking place – from Silicon Valley to Shanghai – which he writes about in his book, Natural Born Learners.

Here he describes his findings:

Learning for success 02
Learning for success 02

What should children be learning in schools today?
What we understand about the way the brain develops is that in order to be a critical or creative thinker you first need to be steeped in the knowledge of a particular field. You have to have gone through the difficult steps of learning how maths works or learning how to read and write; there don't seem to be any shortcuts to that. So that core knowledge is always going to be part of it.

Then we need to ask how we can make more room for children to continue to develop their ability to be creative and think critically – which means you can't just rote learn and memorise a bunch of content. Creativity comes partly from content, but also from being given freedom and space to play, to fail, to experiment and to explore.

The last thing that is missing is a sense of communal wellbeing. In education systems worldwide the driving principle is one of competition. It's a race to the top. That value is serving some people well, but if we want to have education systems that better prepare children for a world that is increasingly globalising, running out of space, threatened by climate change, then we need to do a better job of ensuring our schools are built on an ethic of collaboration, mutual care and solidarity.

You travelled to more than 20 countries looking for the best teaching practices, what impressed you the most?
I saw some schools that are very good at developing strong content knowledge. They teach in very intensive ways, give lots of time to practicing core knowledge and are very good at that sort of “mastery” learning.

Then, if you want to develop more creative skills, you have to give children the time and space to practice that and you see that happening a lot in Finnish classrooms, where they are often left to their own devices. I went to a Finnish primary school, where a class of seven- and eight-year-olds had been set the task of shooting a short film. The teacher gave them some instructions and they ran off into the woodlands while she remained in the playground. To me it seemed a bit dangerous – and it wouldn't work in every location – but that is freedom and it has to be unstructured.

The best example of learning to collaborate was at High Tech High – an amazing network of schools in San Diego – where I saw a class of 16-year-olds engaged in a project. They spent half the day in more traditional classes, the other half doing this term-long project to do with climate change. The children had broken themselves up into three groups: one was looking at ways to make biodegradable artificial seed pods; another was building drones, completely from scratch; and the other was planning the filming of a documentary.

They were going to end the project by taking a five-day hike into the Californian wilderness; fly the drones over the national park to survey the degradation of plant species; use their biodegradable seed pods to replenish the ones that were missing; while the documentary crew filmed it and put it on YouTube to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Learning for success 03
Learning for success 03

How much is down to good teachers?
Teaching is the single most important factor in children's learning and I think we need to find a different way to talk about teaching in order to inspire the next generation of teachers.

We should be talking about a profession where you need to understand the latest neuroscience of learning, use the latest technology to outsource some of the teaching, use group psychology to understand the dynamics of a group of children and get the most out of them, while also being a subject expert. To me that sounds like the most compelling profession of the 21st century. That's my dream for what teaching could be and could become.

In your book you say that if humans are to succeed, learning must be the cause of our generation – are there any signs of that happening?
There are stories from the recent past. Seventy years ago, four-out-of-five South Koreans were illiterate and the country was reliant on foreign aid. Today it is the world's 11th largest economy, one of the top hi-tech countries in the world with companies such as Samsung and Hyundai, and has the highest proportion of university graduates to population of any country in the world. That's the power of education – in two generations it completely transformed a country from an agrarian economy to a hi-tech economy.

You give the example of South Korea, but isn't it harder to reinvigorate education in already developed countries?
Yes, it's hard, and this is why I felt this book was so important, because out there in the world there are teachers, school leaders, policymakers and thinkers who are already doing this stuff – whose classrooms you can go into and see what the education of the future should look like.

So we have these proof-points but what we don't yet have is a national-level sense of urgency, this sense among everybody that education is what we should invest most in, that we should all take really seriously and we should all value, love and support. We don't have people in power emerging with bold new visions for what the education system should be.

I want people to understand how deeply complex and important it is to get all children learning and how far we all have to engage in thinking about what an education looks like in the 21st century for us to thrive in societies and for our children to succeed.

What advice would you give to parents?
You're a natural at this. Love your children. Give them room to play. Read to them. And then help them find the thing that they love or want to do because that then will be the thing that will help them to learn about what it means to get better at something and find out who they want to be in the long term.