What follows is a ‘Guest Post’ by Mark Treadwell, a keynote speaker at our last annual conference.

Test scores in maths, science reading and writing have remained largely unchanged for almost 50 years despite billions, if not trillions of additional dollars being poured into education. Why is that? Robert Branson suggests that we have reached an upper limit of efficiency and effectiveness within our book based, text centric, learning system we have been journeying on since the Renaissance period.

We need to briefly reach back into our past to the Renaissance period to learn from that experience and then leverage this knowledge to reach into our future to fashion a world that can not only sustain itself but also one that can offer everyone the chance to apply their gifts and talents and play their very necessary role in the creation of solutions to the numerous challenges that we face every day.

The setting:

“Historians have long speculated why it was Europe, and not Asia, that launched the industrial revolution in the 18th century.  How could China, India in the near east – all homelands of great ancient empires – be so outclassed, technologically and economically, during the second half of the last millennium?  [1] Steven Carden

The invention of the printing press, coupled with the reformation and a raft of other societal changes initiated a tumultuous change which then spawned the Renaissance period. The pivot point for these changes was the invention of the printing press and the popularity of the printed book.  This was a big deal because fundamentally the printed book made learning dramatically more efficient and more effective.  Da Vinci no longer had to make house calls!

The capacity to transition to this new paradigm provided those countries that did so the ability to dominate the knowledge and creative economies of their time. For the very same reasons the current paradigm shift in learning from a text centric system to an internet (multimedia+ collaboration), based system offers the same rewards in the 21st century to those that will take the risk and change an education system that has remained primarily unchanged for the last 150+ years.  

This may seem an overstatement but consider the lesson from history that took place during the “tumultuous time” around the first paradigm shift in learning (where the centricity of learning shifted from oral language to become book based) resulting in the Renaissance.

In 1435 (the Ming Dynasty), China had a navy of over 1680 ships and was the dominant global technological giant. China had developed sophisticated writing, the application of stirrups to horses (it took Europe another 300 years to import what seems a very obvious idea), the invention of gunpowder, sophisticated pottery, complex social systems, spinning machines, banking systems and they even introduced flying money (and early innovation of the cashless society which we are presently reinventing).  They had no contemporary in the world at this point in time (see http://www.1421.tv/ or the book/video 1421 by Gavin Menzies)

But China made a series of political decisions that would see their status as the global power evaporate in less than 50 years. They believed that they were above the need for goods, services or knowledge from other countries.  In fact China developed a tributary system where they gave away more than they received.

“The voyages became institution in themselves, designed to display the splendour and power of the new Ming dynasty. . . . .  The Chinese would not establish their own permanent base is within the tributary states, but instead had to make “the whole world” into voluntary admirers of the one and only centre of civilisation. . . .  The lopsided logic of the tributary system required China to pay out more than China had received. . . . . Daniel Boorstin

By the middle of the Ming dynasty China was experiencing difficult economic times[2] (Bosworth) and political tensions erupted and there was a change in power with a new emperor coming to the helm and suddenly the Chinese retreated from their ocean going ventures.  The new emperor saw commerce and trading as a political anachronism and promptly started banning sailing and by 1500 it was a capital offence to set to sea without permission. 

“The end of China’s treasure fleets gives us a clue.  Seven of those fleets sailed from China between A.D. 1405 and 1433.  They were then suspended as a result of a typical aberration of local politics that could happen anywhere in the world: a power struggle between two factions at the Chinese court (the eunuchs and their opponents) . . .  The latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets, eventually dismantled the shipyards, and forbade ocean going shipping.”[3] Jared Diamond

By 1525 the entire ocean going fleet had been destroyed and their owners arrested.  China had begun their 500 year period of introspection, based on the mistaken belief that they did not need to learn from anyone else; an intellectual arrogance that was to be their undoing.

In contrast to China, Europeans had struggled through the 10th -14th centuries but just as China was retreating from their technological supremacy Europe, borrowing heavily from the Chinese technology storehouse, was beginning its ascendancy.  A small group of Portuguese explorers entered into Bombay Harbour after rounding the southern tip of Africa in 1498.  The attitude of the Portuguese to learning couldn’t have been more different to that of the new Chinese emperor.  Portugal realized that they had to borrow new technologies from the East in order to learn, firstly through imitation and then by innovation.  The Portuguese returned to Europe after five years of learning from the Chinese and the traders from the east.

From here Portugal went on to become one of the great European superpowers of the next two centuries leveraging the technologies they brought back from China but also adding to that mix the catalytic power of the newly invented printing press.  The printing press was the technology that would underpin the first paradigm shift in learning through its dramatic capacity to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of learning by making knowledge dramatically more portable and reducing the cost of access to that knowledge.

By leveraging this new paradigm in learning, Portugal became a superpower and by shunning learning from others China lost its capacity to learn from others and iterate their knowledge and understanding. In just 50 years the world’s powerbase shifted from East to West. Once again, 500 years later the world is standing on a second pivot point in history. The internet is seeing the centricity of learning on the move again from being text based to becoming multimedia within a collaborative and open learning environment. The centricity of learning is shifting and no longer is the capacity to be able to manipulate and interpret complex text essential to further learning. Using YouTube and the numerous multimedia tool sets within the internet learning can take place via video, podcasting, Skype, chat . . .  at minimal costs. What we are witnessing in 2010 is a complex set of changes that are underpinned by a similar, single reconceptualisation; a second paradigm shift in learning that is being propelled by the communication tools and the collaborative, multimedia format of the Internet.

The last paradigm shift and the ability to grasp its significance saw a small country become a global leader and a vastly technologically superior country, disappear from view. Where does Australia stand within this vast landscape of opportunity?

The question we must ask next is:

“Which governments are adapting their learning systems in order to adopt this dramatic efficiency in learning and using it to improve the capacity of their country via this internet based paradigm shift?”

This paradigm shift coupled with our new understanding of how the brain learns via its two distinct learning systems (rote and concept), prompts 5 key questions for governments, communities, schools, educators and learners (all of us).

  1. What is the purpose of school/learning?
  2. What competencies underpin effective learning?
  3. What virtues and dispositions do we collectively value in each other?
  4. How do we foster the desire for lifelong learning capacity in every citizen?
  5. What concepts do all learners need to understand and be able to apply creatively/innovatively?

The national goals for education in Australia are consistent with a country looking to leverage this second paradigm shift in learning and see Australia develop its people so that can enjoy a quality of life others countries can only dream of. The challenge then is whether the Australian national curriculum will be the vehicle to translate these goals into an architectural learning framework for schools to outwork those goals. The nature of that curriculum is probably the most significant education debate for the last 100 years and it needs to be debated by a well informed education community and an informed public using the collaborative tools that are powering this paradigm shift – the internet.

What is learnt and how that is learnt and applied in schools, businesses and communities throughout Australia will pave the way forward for Australia and define its future. If Australia’s future is be driven by an innovative and creative culture then than culture must be deeply embedded within its entire learning culture.

[1] Carden, Steven; New Zealand Unleashed; Random House; 2007 P136

[2] Bosworth, Michael; “The Rise and Fall of 15th Century Chinese Superpower” ; http://www.basicrps.com/chine/histoire/china.htm Accessed June 2009

[3]Diamond, Jared; Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies; W. W. Norton & Co 1997; P412