Why Schooling is a Major Contributor to the [Socio-Economic-Ecological] Crisis – and What Can be Done About it. By Ian Cunningham


In this essay I will use as my starting point the ‘Manifesto for Change’ elaborated by Robinson et al, 2009. Each of the nine points in this manifesto summarise exceedingly well the basis of the global crisis explored in their paper [SEE ENDNOTE].

Others have commented on a range of aspects of the socio-economic-ecological crisis affecting the planet – and all species on it. Here I will explore schooling and possible antidotes to the effects of current practices. Note that I am concerned about an alternative to current institutional schooling. Education is a broader concept, as is learning. Indeed one mistake official bodies make is to conflate learning and schooling as though they are synonyms for education.

All available research on learning shows that most of what we learn that is of value in our work, and lives in general, is outside school. The best summary of all the evidence suggests that, for instance, schooling in all its modes (and I will include here college, university and formal training courses) contributes at most 10-20% of what makes a good professional person effective. (See Burgoyne and Reynolds, 1997; Cunningham et al., 2004; Eraut, 1998; Eraut et al., 1998; McCall et al, 1988; Wenger, 1998.) Most of the useful learning that we gain comes from what tends to be dismissed (by officialdom) as informal learning, such as from peers, family, travel, reading, etc, etc. In our own research we have identified over 80 useful learning modes outside schooling. Some of these are summarised in Cunningham et al, 2004.

In what follows I will take just two examples of the nine ‘questionable assumptions’ challenged in the Manifesto for Change and make comments about their validity as applied to schooling. I will add some notes about alternatives that do work.


‘Separation of the individual from the social nexus and from nature, and the corresponding affirmation of individualism, individual success and self-interest (by contrast with ideals of community, co-operation and social responsibility).’ (Robinson, et al., p.3)

We become our selves through our relationship with others. We need to be in productive relationships with other human beings. Hence the notion of co-operation and community is central to how we develop. We know from the extensive researches of Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009; Marmot, 2004, and others that the greater the social distance within a society the greater are the problems of health, crime and psycho-social distress. An individualistic society where there are large differences in income and social status is bound to contribute to the social crises we face.

My argument is that schooling plays a major role in this and if we do not change the nature of current schooling practices there is no chance of addressing these social ills. As an example – in England seven year olds in school are assessed by what many educationalists recognise as a crude methodology. Parents eagerly discuss these ratings (SATs) and children quickly learn where they stand in the class. From then on children absorb the notion that some people are valued more than others and that if you have low SATs scores you are less likely to do well in school – and life.

A learning centre

We run a learning centre in Brighton for 11-16 year olds who have chosen not to be in school. The reasons for this choice vary – some have been home educated prior to joining us; some have been bullied in school; some have found the classroom an impossible environment; some have been rejected by school. In the latter category is Tina. She came to us at 14 having had a range of difficult experiences in local schools. One of the things we do is to ask new students about themselves. In Tina’s case one thing we asked was about what she was good at. She replied “Nothing” – and she meant it. It was not false humility; she really believed that she was useless at everything. The messages that she had gained throughout her schooling were that she had no abilities of any value.

In working with her she has come to recognise that she will never succeed with high-level academic qualifications. However she makes a real contribution to our learning community. She is prepared to ask the difficult questions; she has a strong moral sense; she has learned to challenge others appropriately (she didn’t when she first came to us); she has developed her dancing and dramatic skills and become a good singer. And so on. She has developed the capability to work with others and to work independently – and these are qualities that employers say many young people coming out of school lack.

The role of the learning community has been crucial in supporting Tina’s development. Within the community each person is allowed to develop their own voice and to pursue their own learning. However they have to work with others to achieve their own learning. For instance resources in the learning centre have to be shared and students and staff together work out how the resources are used. There is no formal imposed content curriculum – the students negotiate with adults and their peers what they want to do during a typical week. As an example students meet in small groups (a maximum of six students with one staff member) on a Monday morning to consider what they want to do in the coming week. Students are assisted to write their own timetables and to negotiate with adults and with peers on what they want to do.

Three of the girls play wind instruments and they have worked with Alison (a staff member) to form, with her, a wind quartet. Alison has arranged music for the quartet. All four need to agree when they will play together – and therefore agree with others in the community as to when they will have the music room. They also need to work together so that the quartet can create the lovely music that it produces.

This latter is a simple example of the need for students to be able to learn on their own (to be good on their own instruments) and to work together. Learning needs to balance the independent element and the interdependent element. The problem in schooling is that it encourages a different balance – that between dependence on others and counter-dependence (for example when a son says; “I am not influenced by my father – I just do the opposite of what he says”).

Schools tend to value the dependent learner – the one who is quiet in class, does what teacher tells them, doesn’t question the work that they are set, does all their homework on time – and so on. Some young people rebel (exhibit counter-dependent behaviour) – they mistake this for independence, when usually they are not actually doing things of value for themselves but merely getting into trouble.

Working with schools

We get asked to assist schools where they have students that they label as problems. The process we use both in schools and with young people out of school is Self Managed Learning. In this process the aim is to develop independence and inter-dependence – and in doing so help young people to be able to lead good lives. At the start we get the students to join a learning group of six students and one adult (as learning assistant). Once the group has agreed its rules for working and how it will operate we ask the students to answer five questions, namely:

· Where have I been – what has been my experience of life up to now?

· Where am I now – what kind of person am I, what do I care about, what interests me, what am I good at, etc?

· Where do I want to get to – what kind of life might I want to lead, what kind of work might I want to do, what goals for learning should I set myself now?

· How will I get to where I want to be – how will I learn what I want to learn?

· How will I know if I have arrived – how will I measure my progress and my development?

In answering that first question we often unearth major reasons why particular individuals are having difficulty in school. For instance in a group of 14 year olds in a local school, Rochelle talked of her family experiences to date. Her parents split up when she was very young. Her mother had gained custody but her father had kidnapped the children at one point. The family feuding had culminated in the father smashing up the family home in the preceding week and beating up her sister. The school was getting annoyed with her because she was not doing her homework – but had no idea why there was a problem. For Rochelle doing her school work was not high on her agenda, given her home circumstances. And this story could be repeated a hundredfold in local schools – none of whom seem organized to understand the real problems that many of their student face.

One reason that Rochelle was in the Self Managed Learning programme was that her year head had identified that Rochelle was mixing with what the year head labelled ‘a bad crowd’. Rochelle had been reasonably successful (by the school’s standards) in her first two years in the school but had been perceived to go down hill as a result of the changes in her friendship group. Interestingly the year head was aware enough of the influence of a peer group but seemed unable to act on the issue.

We know from our research that the peer group is usually the greatest influence on young people, especially teenagers. Adults such as teachers and parents are generally less of an influence, even though they may not recognize this. Schools promote an individualistic culture where, for instance, learners helping each other with their assessed work is punished (as cheating). However this can be undermined as students create their own subcultures inside school – and these generally dominate in terms of the behaviour of students.

In Rochelle’s case the learning group (of six students) was able to discuss the ways in which each person might want to develop (using the five questions indicated above). This led on to considering what might be difficulties for each person in achieving their life goals. In Rochelle’s case she realised that she wanted to work towards a professional career (her interests led towards the law). One piece of work the students did was for each to write out what the school would say about them now and what they would like the school to say about them when they left at 16.

Rochelle summed up her current situation very well – citing, for example, her difficult behaviour and the bad influence of her new friends. In writing what she hoped the school would say about her in two years time she suggested that she would still occasionally be difficult but that her behaviour had improved and that she had changed her friendship group. The others in her learning group agreed that what she was looking to change was the right thing to do and they pledged to assist her.

This is an example of how we look to balance independent and inter-dependent learning. Each young person needs to be assisted to develop ideas about what life they want to lead and how they will achieve this. However the role of the group is crucial in being initially a test bed for these ideas and later both a support and a challenge for the person.

An example of this latter dimension is of the role of the group for 13 year-old John, who was in a learning group in another school. He had been having a difficult time and was in and out of exclusion from school. He committed to some significant life changes. One of these was to give up smoking. At the penultimate meeting of the group, Mike (another group member) started to sniff at John and alleged that he had been smoking. John denied this saying that he had just been with others who had been smoking. The group members decided to search John’s bag and his pockets to see if they could find any cigarettes. John agreed to this. Having failed to find any incriminating evidence they decided to accept John’s assertions.

This provides an example of how individuals may need support – and sometimes challenges to their behaviour. The rule we have is that you support the person while sometimes challenging what they do. The separation of who the person is from what they do is crucial. Because the group cared about John as a person they challenged suspected behavioural transgressions. In the process of challenging they demonstrated a significant level of support for him. And the overall role of the group demonstrated how it was important to develop a peer group that could act for good rather than ill.


Schooling emphasizes a range of structures such as classrooms, an imposed content curriculum, an imposed timetable and imposed rules. While some schools attempt to leaven the influence of such structures, the general process is one which creates a context for promoting individualism and self-interested behaviour. A counter to this has been the growth of democratic schools in many countries. There is increased interest from parents in the UK in such approaches, though officialdom tends to frown on democratic schools, as evidenced by the Government’s attempt to close Summerhill School in Suffolk.

The argument made by many supporters of democratic schools is that they better prepare young people for playing an active role in democratic society, since young people have to learn to make a democratic community work effectively. Another reason for support for democratic schools is exemplified by the need to counteract the second of the questionable assumptions from the ‘Manifesto for Change’, namely:

‘The separation of knowledge specialism in science, philosophy and humanities, leading to the fragmentation of knowledge (as opposed to a more interdisciplinary, co-operative and integrated approach).’ (Robinson et al., p. 3)

Addressing this questionable assumption

I remember in my first degree in chemistry asking my professor of physical chemistry – ‘what actually is an electron?’. (My question was prompted by the complex maths that we were asked to grapple with while never actually dealing with the oddities thrown up by quantum theory). The professor pretty much told me to shut up as he indicated that my question was about philosophy (and therefore not legitimate in a chemistry lecture).

Later doing a masters degree in occupational psychology we had a lecture within which was given a purely psychological explanation of some recent research. I suggested an alternative explanation for the same data and was pretty much told to shut up as my explanation was sociological and therefore not legitimate. And I could go on with other examples of the separation problems in education. What is clear is that this fragmentation has serious consequences.

In schooling (including higher education) the separation of subjects means that learners are encouraged to think in fragmentary ways. This means that we may never solve ecological problems as young people are discouraged from thinking systemically and holistically. Schooling’s hidden curriculum is that learning has to be compartmentalised if you are to succeed academically. This learning has more impact than the actual subject learning as it is hidden from the learner. For the learner it is part of the way things are and is not therefore available for challenge.

Even where teachers recognise the problem they seem to feel powerless to act to change things. One headteacher said to me that he would ideally love to get rid of all his science teachers because of the way science was being taught in his school. Yet he could not realistically do it – even though he was the head.

Modes of learning

Ideally learning needs to start with what I have called the ‘P MODE’. P stands for:

· PERSONS – we need to understand the person if we are to assist their learning. Each person is different and they have different needs.

· PATTERNS – each person will have patterns of behaviour and of thinking

· PROCESSES – each person has their own processes of working and living

· PROBLEMS – one way of thinking of learning is as a solution to a problem. For example if you can’t speak French and you need to then you have a problem and the solution is to learn French. Or if you need to write well to progress in life and work then the solution is to learn to write well. And so on.

Note that in the latter example, problems come before solutions. In our approach, the P MODE comes before the S MODE

The S MODE stands for:

· SOLUTIONS – to respond to the person and their problems there may be a need to look for solutions

· SUBJECTS – subject knowledge may help to meet the ‘P’ needs

· SKILLS – may be needed to progress

· SPECIALISATIONS – may contribute

as may

· SYSTEMS – such as IT systems.

Schooling too often starts with ‘S’ – young people have imposed on them Subject knowledge and Solutions to Problems that they have not yet formulated. Or the Solution distorts the way the Problem is addressed.

As a chemist, presented with the problem of mental health my training (schooling) would have oriented me to create a pill. Later, from working in the field of psychotherapy, my solution to the same problem would be to talk to the person. As far as I can gather chemists and psychotherapists don’t talk to each other yet they are dealing with the same problems. Schooling is predominantly in the ‘S Mode’ and distorts how we deal with the ‘P Mode’.

In our learning centre we try to avoid these issues. Tim came to us at aged 12 with a passion for the TV series Dr Who. Through this interest he started to write his own scripts for a Dr Who series. This also prompted an interest in visual representation and he worked on a Mac to develop videos and comics. He decided that he needed to know more of the science underpinning Dr Who and this led into serious explorations in a range of sciences. For instance he wanted to explore the reason for the Doctor’s altruism and that led to the two of us discussing philosophical issues around altruism as well as ideas from Darwinism, genetics and evolutionary psychology.

Tim started in the P Mode with his Personal interest and this linked to his own Patterns of thinking. One of his Problems was to write better scripts hence needing better scientific knowledge. He also developed his ability in English through his writing. Given the time-travel dimension of Dr Who he developed his historical knowledge (again so that he could write better scripts). The learning mode here is ‘P’ before ‘S’.

Two errors can occur in learning.

Firstly starting with ‘S’ before ‘P’ leads to motivational problems, as many young people find it difficult to see the relevance of learning subject knowledge abstracted from their needs to live and work in society. Also ‘S’ mode thinking creates anti-ecological and anti-systemic thinking.

The other error is for learners to start in ‘P’ and stay there. They do need assistance to see how to use what is available in the ‘S’ mode, hence a role for adults. However our role is first to understand the person before assisting them to make the link to the ‘S’ mode, such as via subject knowledge and skills.

The curriculum

The standard educational (schooling) model for thinking about the curriculum has become a list of subjects and skills to learn (‘S’ Mode). However the choice of content is a purely subjective one. There is no objective basis for the school curriculum – the content is created by adults who live in a different world from young people.

When adults say that they were young once and can therefore understand the needs of young people, Margaret Mead (see Howard, 1984) famously responded something along the following lines: “Yes you were young once but you have not been young in the world that young people are young in. You were young in another world totally different from that of today.” To add to that it is clear that adults are not in a strong position to predict the world that young people will inhabit when they are adults.

The alternative to a content/subject curriculum is a process curriculum. Here the emphasis is on a systemic, holistic model where, through the process of learning, young people are prepared to deal with whatever the future may hold. Sometimes this emphasis is labelled ‘learning to learn’ though I would argue that it is bigger than this. We talk of Self Managed Learning (see Cunningham et al, 2000, and www.selfmanagedlearning.org) as we emphasize the need for people to be self managing – though our model of self managing is one of balancing independent and inter-dependent thought and action.

An example of a real situation

The global financial crisis of 2008/9 is an interesting example of how the two questionable assumptions (individualism and knowledge fragmentation) have played out in a real situation. The best analysis of the roots of the crisis is in Tett, 2009. As a social anthropologist working as a journalist for the Financial Times she had access to the facts and an anthropological approach which exposed the lack of systemic thinking amongst the bankers and others who precipitated the crisis.

She commented:

‘…regulators, bankers, politicians, investors and journalists have all failed to employ truly holistic thought…a ‘silo’ mentality has come to rule inside banks…with shockingly little wider vision or oversight.’ (p. 298-299).

The dimension of self interest amongst the culprits (for example, excessive bonuses based on dubious criteria) has also been extensively explored. What is often missing from these analyses is the role of schooling in creating this mindset. If schooling rewards self-interested behaviour, and gives no credence to behaviour that has a social dimension, it is clear that this links to the way in which these and other organisational actors play out their roles.

The teams that created the toxic financial instruments not only did not connect to wider societal issues they did not connect to other operations within the banks. They betrayed the kind of arrogance exposed some time ago by Argyris (see, for example, Argyris, 1990). What he showed is that people who have been successful academically, such as via elite business schools, can develop a mindset where their mistakes are reframed as the mistakes of others. An example was his research on young management consultants who made inappropriate recommendations to clients and then blamed the clients when things went wrong.

Argyris’ demonstration of the need for double loop learning has largely fallen on deaf ears, as did Bateson’s earlier (1972) exposition of the value of second order learning. Schooling is committed to single loop/first order learning where the ability to step back and analyse one’s own learning, and the values and beliefs that underpin it, is discounted – and even discouraged.

People learn to think and work in silos. It is not an inborn feature of humans. Clark’s (2002) in-depth study provides ample evidence on this. Furthermore anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer bands comment on how such bands behave in a more ecological way (see, for example, Brody, 2001; Clastres, 1989; Gall, 2002; Gowdy, 1998; Lee and Daly, 2004). Hunter-gatherer people do not fragment the world as supposedly developed people do.

All humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands for over 90% of human history. It is therefore only relatively recently that we have moved away from this more holistic life-style. As evolutionary psychologists (for example Nicholson, 2002) argue, our brains and general make up are still what they describe as ‘stone age’. And in this mode we were able to keep our thinking connected to action. The abstract-thinking analysts in the banks disconnected their models from the reality of Mr and Mrs Smith and their sub-prime mortgage.

Indigenous peoples on islands in the way of the tsunami that hit South East Asia were able to survive because they could read the many signs from animal and bird behaviour that there was an on-coming disaster. They survived when others, such as tourists not used to holistic awareness, did not.


In this essay I have only taken the first two of the ‘questionable assumptions’ identified by Robinson et al, 2009. However other items on their list could also relate to issues in schooling. What I have wanted to demonstrate is that we have to address what goes on in formal institutional educational settings. If we fail to make changes in such settings then other worthy efforts may fail. Schooling has a significant impact on how people approach global crises and how they address them.


The nine questionable assumptions have been spelled out by Robinson et al., 2009, as follows:

‘There is strong evidence that a fundamental paradigm has been a major contributor to the current impasse. Questionable assumptions underlying this paradigm are:

1. The separation of the individual from the social nexus and from nature, and the corresponding affirmation of individualism, individual success and self-interest (by contrast with the ideals of community, co-operation and social responsibility).

2. The separation of knowledge specialism in the sciences, philosophy and humanities, leading to the fragmentation of knowledge (as opposed to a more interdisciplinary, co-operative and integrated approach).

3. The adversarial separation of reason from feeling and practical living, leading to the belief that science is a process devoid of feeling and intuition (which cries out for a new approach to knowledge which takes account of the full range of human experience).

4. The prioritising of economic growth, material gain and quantitative profit as ultimate ends in themselves linked to a narrow model of laissez-faire capitalism (by contrast with an economics enlightened by a moral commitment to compassion and social justice).

5. The deterministic and reductionist view of living beings as machines leading to the view that consciousness is an illusion (by contrast with the recognition of the distinctive nature of life and mind and their central place in our world).

6. Nature and living beings as resources to be treated as objects for exploitation and consumption (rather than as a spiritual community of all beings).

7. Science as the only path to reality, and empirical evidence as the sole criterion of truth (by contrast with a more embracing epistemology which recognises that there are many paths to truth).

8. Matters of value, goodness, love, quality and beauty as merely subjective, and therefore subordinate to the physical sciences (rather than as embedded in the fabric of life and the cosmos).

9. Science and scientific evidence as requiring or implying a world devoid of spiritual depth and spiritual knowledge (by contrast with a science which is seen once again as a part of the perennial search for wisdom). (pp 3-4)


Argyris, C. (1990) Overcoming Organizational Defences. Facilitating organizational learning, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Brody, H. (2001) The other side of Eden, Faber and Faber, London.

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Robinson, O., Clarke J., and Lorimer, D. (2009) ‘Crisis as Opportunity: Seizing the Moment for a New Renaissance’, Network Review, Summer, pp. 3-5.

Tett, G. (2009) Fool’s Gold, Little, Brown, London.

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About Ian Cunningham

Ian Cunningham BSc, MA, PhD, FIoD, FRSA, Chartered FCIPD, FCMI is Visiting Professor at Middlesex University; chair of Strategic Developments International Ltd and chair of the Centre for Self Managed Learning. Previous positions have included Chief Executive of Roffey Park Institute; Senior Research Fellow in International Leadership at Ashridge Management College; Visiting Professor in Education Management in the Graduate School of Education, University of Utah; Visiting Fellow in Innovation in Education at the University of Sussex. He has published seven books and over one hundred articles and papers in areas such as education, learning, leadership, strategic management, organisational change and social change.

This article was published in Lorimer, D. and Robinson, O. (2010) The New Renaissance, Floris Books, Edinburgh