Changing the lens

What is a big education? Building a curriculum of head, heart and hand

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

With curriculum reform higher up the agenda, it is time to provide a more expansive vision for what education can deliver. We need to rethink what we teach (this blog) as well as how we teach it (a future blog).

Our education system and curriculum needs to be rebalanced. It needs to become bigger and more rounded.

The slide above is an attempt to summarise the components of what a big education might look like. We have found it useful to divide this into three components: head (academics), heart (character) and hand (problem-solving and creativity).

For too many children in too many schools the curriculum is imprisoned in the top left hand corner which I have circled in red. The exam system and accountability framework reinforces this.

Instead we need head, heart and hand to be in balance. Our curriculum needs to be seen as a three-legged stool. There is something compelling, satisfying and challenging about things that comes in threes: the trilogy, a triad. It obviously occurs in different forms in religion, philosophy, spirituality, history, science. For head, heart and hand we could also talk about the interaction of past, present and future. Using the best of the past, to make sense of the present, so that you can shape the future. Mind, body and soul is a different slant as is the Greeks' idea of the Trivium: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. In history we are used to analysing the causes of an event through political, social and economic lenses. The best definition of teaching I have come across is the interaction between the teacher, the student and the text. The big point here is that those who confine themselves to the "head", and believe the job of education is to be rooted in the red box in the above slide, are lopping off two legs of the stool; they are missing the extraordinary interplay of head, heart and hand. They are denying young people the education they deserve.


The top left hand box represents an important foundation of a big education: the passing on from one generation to the next of what Matthew Arnold called the "best that has been thought and said." Another angle on this was made popular by E D Hirsch whose book on "Cultural Literacy" rightly stressed the important of broad cultural knowledge which would allow someone to access the conversations in the New York Times. Few would dispute the Arnoldian or Hirschian impulses. But it is partial. It does not do justice to notions of knowledge. Knowledge is not power. The application of knowledge is power.

For those of use who believe in the importance of knowledge, the Arnoldian vision is only a third of what is necessary. The other two blocks in the head column make the case for other important ways of seeing knowledge. Let's start with big ideas and concepts. The latest GCSE reforms have meant doubling or tripling the amount of content in GCSE and A level exams. If you are taking three sciences at GCSE you are expected to learn more than 1000 pages of dense content in 2 years. What is being left out is a chance to gain an understanding of the big ideas and concepts - there is no wood, only trees. Yet surely we want young people to enter into what Michael Oakeshott called "the great conversation of mankind" - to understand the big ideas not just the disaggregated facts: to be able to think like a mathematician, historian, philosopher, scientist.

More than that, we believe that it is not ambitious enough to be able to read the New York Times, or to have been exposed to Shakespeare. The job of education is not for young people to accept the world they are entering into but to shape it. To shape it means to question it. To gain knowledge and apply it. The director of Richard II at the Almeida theatre, a production I saw this week, has not just accepted Shakespeare's words on the page, but interpreted them, thought about them, applied them to the here and now - made them come alive in a fresh way to shed light on our world today. That director is shaping the world, not accepting it. And that is what we want from our young people. The other blind spot for many is being wedded to the silos of single subjects. Subject disciplines matter but so do their combination. Inter-disciplinarity has always been important - just take the Renaissance studios of Leonardo da Vinci and the extraordinary combinations of anatomy, architecture, engineering, mathematics and art that he worked on together. It is when disciplines rub up against each other that some of the most fruitful new thinking, fresh insights and bold scientific discoveries are being forged. Take the way neuro-science and computer science combine in artificial intelligence. At schools we need teacher and pupils to be able to make these connections and think about problem-solving in a far more holistic way.


Heart means more than having a sense of values or having good pastoral services though both are important. Heart is about developing character, helping people find their identity, developing the qualities that will be needed to thrive. It is about doing that intentionally and explicitly and devoting proper curriculum time to it.

School 21 serves a diverse community, one with many opportunities but also a lot of challenges not least gang culture, knife crime, and all the pressures of growing up in inner London. Young people have a lot of pressure at home, at school, on the streets. Our job is to help them with it - to build up their confidence and the skills to thrive. We want them to have a sense of purpose and values, to know who they are, what they stand for, be able to resist the crowd and stake out their own pathway. This needs to be taught in a sophisticated way and with intentionality. At its heart we want them to become powerful learners. Understanding yourself is about finding your passion, and your way of making sense of it. At School 21 we provide coaching time with small groups of just 12-15 for 3 or 4 lessons a week. In a carefully constructed curriculum we use literature, drama, philosophy for children to allow students to grapple with who they are and how they make sense of the world. We are very 'meta', believing that examining and reflecting on the processes of learning, the reasons for setbacks, being explicit about why something worked or not, allows for quicker growth and deeper understanding.

If we first have an understanding of ourself, we can then work hard at building up others. If every young person was trained in coaching techniques, able to make friends and keep them, skilled at working in teams - even with annoying people; able to listen and empathise with others, then we will also create a generation who are more likely to build strong communities and lead organisations that empower others. These things can be taught and practiced. If they are made explicit and intentional in schools students enjoy getting better at them.

Understanding the world is about finding time for students to engage with the big issues that are going on around them and finding space to make a sense of them. This can be done though courses such as a Great Texts course that we have just created so that students can wrestle with the big ideas of today through some of the great writings of the past. It can also be done through problem solving projects where students. At School 21 this has meant young people engaging with the environment, the uses and abuses of technology, sleep patterns in the young, homelessness in Newham.


For some, developing creativity and problem solving is an add on, a nice to have, something to squeeze into the curriculum once the 'head' has been done. For us it is crucial, central to the curriculum and should be in proper balance with head and heart. It is after all what the world needs.

So it is unfathomable that under our current exam system and incentive structures for the Ebacc and GCSE point scores that English literature is deemed more important than music - knowing about 19th century etiquette manuals of aristocrats (Gove specifically made this compulsory) is given more weight that learning a musical instrument. Latin is deemed more important than Art. The downgrading of creativity and the arts is well-known but that does not make it any less short-sighted. When Britain's great strength in the world comes from its extraordinary actors, designers, architects, musicians, engineers, inventors why is it that we are making it harder and harder for people to study these subjects. A big education is one in which young people get a sense of beauty, the arts, discernment. This has a more profound effect on the rest of someone's life than almost anything else that can be done in school.

A big education is one where everyone has the chance to be an apprentice - in the widest sense of that word. To enter into a master/apprentice relationship with someone who can teach a skill or craft to a very high level - from music to masonry, mechanics to cookery, coding to designing - learning how to create and craft something of genuine value and worth to the world.

If we want young people to shape the world rather than just accept it as it is, then we need to give them real opportunities to make a difference - problems to solve, working in organisations on projects, setting up social enterprises, learning how to be an active and engaged citizen. Like anything, practice at doing this creates knowledge, understanding and the potential for it to become a future habit.

The exciting part is where head, heart and hand come together. At their intersection is a curriculum that is multi-layered - that brings together rich subject knowledge, problems to be solved and the opportunity for students to grow as individuals and teams as they go abut achieving it.

For those children now entering Reception classes aged 4, the early learning goals provide the beginnings of a rounded education (communication and language, physical development, personal, social and emotional development, literacy, mathematics, understanding of the world, expressive arts and design.) Though teachers know this breadth needs to continue, the system then decides this expansive education has no place for the rest of a child's schooling. Hopefully there are now signs that this has to change. People are seeing the limits of the exam factory and the limits of an education stuck in the top corner of the grid. There is a growing movement of people who believe that we need to go back to offering not as ninth of an education but and expansive education that combines the head, the heart and the hand.

© Peter Hyman, 2019