Changing the lens

Why we need to ask bigger, bolder and better questions about education

It's time for less dogma, fewer polarised, sterile arguments and the humility to realise how much we can learn from others.

Two hundred and sixty four million children in the world do not attend school. (Unicef) That number is increasing not decreasing. So the task in many countries, often scarred by famine, poverty, conflict or prejudice, is basic but hard: to train enough teachers; get children to come to school. Three examples of improving education in developing countries are the work Sir Michael Barber and his team have done in Pakistan, the new schools being set up in Africa e.g. in Sierra Leone, and the work of big foundations e.g Lemann trying to do similar work in Brazil.

Historically there are four main philosophies that provide the starting points for much of the current debate about the purpose of education: They appear in different guises in different settings:

1. To develop the potential of the child  

2. To pass on “the best that has been thought and said” in the past

3. To prepare young people for life and work

4. To build communities and overcome social disadvantage.

To achieve the first, many have wanted to balance skills and knowledge.

To achieve the second, many focus everything on knowledge acquisition

To achieve the third, schools provide real world experiences and problems to solve

To achieve the fourth many schools focus on the school’s context for both inspiration and networks of support to build up the social capital of families.

Each of these objectives is stifled to a greater or lesser extent by oppressive high stakes exams.

There are three broad categories of school and schooling in most Western countries: (i) tough inner city schools with multiple challenges of complex families (ii) schools that are getting by with an easier intake but still trying to juggle the tough accountability demands with a more rounded education (iii) schools with a selective intake and usually better facilities and provision that are educating those who disproportionately end up in top positions in society.

Some teachers, schools and educators are trying to break this mould in different ways of which the following are a few examples. (These are slightly artificial headings with some of the most interesting schools combining more than one of these elements.)

1. Real World Learning

Enquiry Question: What type of real world learning has the most impact on students?

Context and examples

There are many attempts to root students in the real world, provide internships and opportunities to solve real world problems.

High Tech High has created a chain of schools where almost all teaching is done through projects. Expeditionary Learning  schools and New Tech Network have different approaches but with a similar aim. Big Picture Learning starts from student passion and interests, provides internships for half the week and makes the curriculum back at school fit around the internships and the students interests. City as School does something similar, placing students in internships in New York. Edge Hotel School on Essex University campus is a functioning 4* Hotel run by University age students who have lessons in the morning and run the hotel in the afternoon. JCB academy is probably the most successful UTC with students solving client briefs from companies such as Rolls Royce. The Aldridge Academies  have built their school philosophy around practical real world learning. Collegi Montserrat in Spain, run by nuns, does extraordinary robotics and problem solving project based learning. Project H has a philosophy of hearts, heads and hammers and teaches students to change their community through design. Some schools and programmes are focused on making a difference to the community and the world. The students receive client briefs to work on. Many have tried to capture the skills that are most important in working in projects. PISA now measures collaborative problem solving. Others have tried to assess these competencies. The centre for high quality student work and the Buck Institute both showcase great exemplars.

Additional questions

1.  Do students learn enough core knowledge when they are working in the real world?

2. Which are the most effective pedagogies and approaches: design thinking, problem solving, internships?

3.  Is the purpose of school to ready people for work or is that forcing them to grow up too soon?.

4. What competencies are the most important and how do we measure them?

2. No Excuses: high expectations: behaviour, basics, college readiness

Enquiry question: What can we learn about work ethic and student outcomes from the best ‘No Excuses’ schools?

Context and examples

Founded in 1994 KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Programme) perhaps exemplify more than any others what was a new paradigm that many have followed in this country (Uncommon Schools are another good example from the States) in an attempt to turn around what they saw as entrenched low expectations and generations of failure in tough inner city areas. Schools, that at times have appeared like boot camps, have lived by a ‘whatever it takes’, ‘no excuses’ mantra which has meant tough discipline, silent corridors, longer schools days, extra time on literacy and numeracy and a relentless drive to get students into college. This began mostly with students of high school age. These schools have often succeeded in delivering extraordinary exam results. KIPP schools, and some in this country, have found the problems come later when the students enter college and are required to act more independently but do not have the tools to do so. In the UK, Outwood Grange schools and Harris Schools are examples of this  model. Whatever the West has done in this area, it is overshadowed by the extraordinary work ethic of young people in China, Singapore and Korea. The life of a South Korean student is all about long hours and high expectations, all with the driving purpose of getting into a top University.

Additional questions

What can we learn about high expectations from these schools?

How do we create a similar work ethic even if we don’t want to implement the same often punitive behaviour policies?

How do we think about the goals of education for the child - do we agree that getting to University is the most compelling driver?

What more can we do to ensure every child is literate and numerate given that a third don’t get a level 4 at GCSE?

3. Knowledge, mastery and memory

Enquiry question: What is our view of ‘knowledge” and how do we best teach it?

Context and examples

Some of the schools that are maximising for a knowledge rich curriculum are also the ones who believe in the no excuses model in section 2.  In many of the Far East countries this has been the main model of education, even though many of these countries are now looking to add competencies to their approach. They are in theory way ahead in terms of the level of maths and science competence. In the UK a vociferous group of advocates on social media, backed up by Ministers such as Nick Gibb, are drawing on 3 current stimuli:

(i) Neuro-science. The advances in neuro-science have convinced many that the purpose of education can be reduced to the improvement in long term memory. Daniel Willingham is the pin-up boy of this view and many teachers have been inspired to implement memory techniques into their lessons in order to retain more factual material: e.g. spaced learning, interleaving. Rosenshine has condensed a lot of the findings. Deans of Impact have also done a good summary.

(ii) Ed Hirsch - Cultural Literacy. The idea of cultural capital or cultural literacy is a familiar one and has been popularised by Hirsch who says that students need to have the basic factual knowledge to be able to read the New York Times and understand it. Few would disagree. How you achieve it is more difficult.

(iii) Matthew Arnold, the 19th century cultural critic, poet and school inspector, declared that the aim of education is to pass on to the next generation ‘the best that has been thought and said’. The idea of a canon, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, is at the heart of a knowledge-rich curriculum.

Many grammar schools focus on knowledge acquisition. In the non-selective sector the Inspiration Trust are big advocates of subject discipline knowledge curriculum. Maths mastery based on Singapore Maths is another example of an approach in this area that is taken up by many schools including our own.

Additional questions

1. What is the balance between knowledge acquisition and knowledge application?

2. How do we believe knowledge and skills best work together?

3. Does knowledge acquisition and application work in different ways in different subjects?

4. What is our view of the importance of discrete subject disciplines versus interdisciplinary learning?

4. Using Technology to enhance learning

Enquiry question: With so much technology around us, what do we prioritise in terms of what will make the most impact on learning?

Context and examples

There are many ways in which people are trying to harness technology to improve what goes on in schools. In terms of the classroom there is much evidence that technology introduced without thought, the right training, or a view of how it works with pedagogy results in learning going backwards not forwards. Many are trying to implement technology more thoughtfully.

(i) Paradigm shift: Some have used technology to try to make a paradigm shift in

how we see the agency of students. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall (now School

in the cloud) experiment is a big and thought-provoking example.

(ii) On-line courses and learning ( Open University’s Open Learn being a great

example) Moocs are popular for all ages.

(ii) To train teachers - Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, is moving

into this space

(iii) To improve assessment and make it more agile and effective: Comparative

Judgement from the organisation no more marking is a good example

(iv) To introduce blended learning - including experiments with “flipped


(v)   To make students tech savvy there have been increasing attempts to build

up technical skills in technology most notably coding schools such as 42

in France and USA

(vi) To support distinct pedagogies: e.g. video technology to support oracy

(vii) To support subject specialisms: e.g. maths graph software

(viii) To support work-flow: e.g. google classroom, on-line learning platforms

Additional questions

1.    Is personalisation through technology a worthwhile goal?

2.    What are the really thorny problems that technology could solve?

3.    What is the training challenge for teachers?

5. Character education: developing personal qualities, building communities

Enquiry question: how do we give the development of personal qualities the status it deserves?

Context and examples

There is a huge spectrum of schools and educationalists engaging with well-being, mental health and character development. There are several schools that are intentionally trying to develop character. Angela Duckworth author of Grit has worked with KIPP and has developed a scorecard to measure 7 key qualities. Her work and that of others have drawn on psychologist Martin Seligman’s research into happiness. Flourish is his key book. Of our own schools, School 21 has focused a lot on the power of oracy, creating Voice 21, while Surrey Square has created a powerful values based school.  There is also much to learn from the approaches of Youth at Risk and The Kings School in Warrington which does a lot of character development through leadership programmes and outward bound challenges that stretch students. This values based approach also leads schools to work intensively with the community to improve outcomes. The Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut has built its school around effective character development using a range of techniques including mindfulness.

Additional questions

1. What are the key elements of well-being, character development, personal qualities, that we want to go big on?

2. What is the best toolkit for character development?

2. How are teachers best trained? Does it need specialist teachers?

3. How much curriculum time should be given over to it?

6. Schools focusing on an area of specialism

Enquiry question: what can we learn about motivation and excellence from Specialist schools?

Context and examples

There are a growing number of schools aimed at a segment of the school population. These are often sixth form schools or schools catering to those from 14 upwards. UTCs and Studio schools were designed for this purpose though have had mixed success. In big cities there is often a range of specialisms e.g. in London - there are specialist colleges for almost every subject.

(i) Subject schools and creative schools worth looking at include:

Kings Maths Academy

Thomas Jefferson Science Technology college

ELAM  and BRIT school

(ii) Schools focusing on key skills

There are coding schools such as the micro schools in California and 42 in Paris and the States

Studio, Liverpool focuses on skills for the gaming industry

Additional questions:

1. Should every school have a specialism?

2. Do specialist schools narrow options too soon for students?

3. What are the pros and cons of only mixing with students with a similar interest?

4. What can mainstream schools learn from the approaches of specialist schools?

7. Alternatives to “traditional school”

Enquiry question: How do we use alternatives to traditional school to challenge our assumptions about what’s possible?

Context and examples

There is sometimes more innovation going on out of the mainstream because people are less constrained by exam pressures. Some PRUs are doing great work. Bridge is a good example. Big Picture Learning was originally set up for those disaffected by or thrown out from mainstream settings. At Lumiar schools, in some of the poorest parts of Brazil, students get the chance to design more of their learning. One in 50 children on the Isle of Wight are home schooled and the numbers across the UK are growing.

Additional questions

What can we learn from those dealing with some of the hardest to reach young people?

What can be learn from the home schooling movement - why is it growing in appeal? What are its design features?

Who is the current system most letting down?

Who are we most letting down in our schools?

8. Student agency, creativity and independence

Enquiry question: How does a school put student agency and creativity at the heart of its practice?

Context and examples

Many schools in different ways have tried to give students more control over their learning so they don’t leave their agency and initiative at the schools gates. School of one in New York gives students a printed timetable every day that is personalised to their needs and based on what they have achieved or found difficult the previous day. Sudbury valley  schools give students autonomy over the pace and content of their learning. The Kunskapsskolan schools allow students to proceed at their own pace and choose their pathway.  

Others are working to give students as much freedom as possible to play, tinker, create, design. The NUVU school is a pioneering school based on design thinking where students from mainstream schools spend a year or a term there and then return to their original school. Quest to Learn in New York is connected to the gaming industry and the Institute for Play.


1.  How do we ensure students take the initiative and shape their own learning?

2.  What is the balance between independence and interdependent - is learning individual or social?

3.  What is our view of creativity and what curriculum and pedagogies will enhance it.

Big Questions:

How radical are we compared to what is going on around the world?

Are we innovating in the right way in the right areas or are we barking up the wrong trees?

How does each one of us personally define the purpose of education?

What is the role for student agency in our model?

What are the fundamental knowledge and skills we care most deeply about?

Should schools try to embrace several of these trends or try to do one or two really well?

Is it possible to run a school that maximises for all 4 of the key philosophies? If not which do we care most about?

Is teaching very different in each of these 8 examples or are the core skills of the teacher the same?

If we believe in an education of head, heart and hand which of these examples delivers best?

What is missing from the above list and where else can we learn from?

This brief overview of some of the trends in education across the world reinforced for me how narrow our current debate is, how talk of a knowledge-rich curriculum is only a partial answer, how closed thinking is cutting off many fruitful avenues for us to pursue. This needs to change if we are not to be left behind.

© Peter Hyman, 2019