Anatomy of learning

A rounded education builds on knowledge to foster character and creativity. But what does that mean in practice?

Nov 14, 2017 · 12 min read

By Peter Hyman @PeterHyman21

Talking Points is a technique devised by Neil Mercer and Lyn Dawes at the University of Cambridge as a way of encouraging what they call “exploratory talk”. You give an audience a series of statements (crucially, statements rather than questions elicit a stronger response as you have a gut reaction to them). In pairs, people go down the list at their own pace and start discussing the ones that they are provoked to talk about. So here goes: 10 talk points, some of which will hopefully spark a reaction.

  1. Judge a school not just by exams but by the beautiful work crafted by pupils and how interesting they are in a conversation.
  2. Empowering knowledge is more important than just knowledge of the powerful.
  3. Head, heart and hand must be in balance for a decent education.
  4. We must stop treating teachers like cogs in an exam wheel.
  5. Speaking should be given the same status as reading and writing.
  6. Headteachers should be the Head Teacher. And increasingly they’re not.
  7. There is no trade-off between knowledge and skills; we need powerful learners who develop both.
  8. Creativity in all its forms should be right at the heart of a school.
  9. Contrary to received wisdom you can teach character; you just have to be clever about it.
  10. If you want to develop school culture, make a drama teacher your first appointment.

These 10 statements provide a clue to the new direction that is needed in education and speak to a growing movement of people who want change, who are eager to move beyond the sterile polarisation between traditionalists and progressives for the soul of the education system.

School is, for too many young people, neither enjoyable and fulfilling in its own right, nor a powerful enough preparation for the exciting yet dangerous world they will enter. The high-stakes hoops and hurdles that must be navigated to pass exams are now so intense for both teachers and pupils that little else really matters. Policymakers and politicians think that the harder exams introduced this year raise expectations about what pupils can achieve, but they are in fact doing the reverse. They put a ceiling on the extraordinary learning that could happen if schools were freed from the imperative of teaching to the exams.

There needs to be a reckoning, a restatement of purpose and values; a rebalancing of what matters. We need a different kind of education, one that combines deep thinking (head); growth, character and dialogue (heart); and an ability to solve problems, generate ideas and engage in the world (hand). School should be, above all else, a place of learning in all its expansive complexity: learning how to think, learning how to live, learning how to create. That is what we are trying to achieve at School 21 — a school for four to 18-year-olds in Stratford, East London — because we believe that an education across all three domains of head, heart and hand is the route to a fulfilling life.

For the ancient Greeks, this triad was called the Trivium and was made up of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Each had its importance. Each needed the other. Knowledge is so much poorer without curiosity or application. Dialogue and debate is the route to honing arguments and finding greater truth, but lots of talk with no knowledge is merely hot air. Performance, the way of demonstrating learning, brings people along in support. So what might this kind of education look like in practice? What big changes would it require for how schools are run? And what would it mean for the role of the teacher?

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The head

This element is about thinking and knowing. It involves developing the toolkit of an agile learner so that pupils can think deeply, question the world around them, be curious and love scholarship. It is about the excitement of knowledge and what can be done with it as students stand on the shoulders of giants and learn about the most significant literature, scientific discoveries and events of the past. But it is so much more than that; it is about making that knowledge resonate. It is the percussion of knowledge, not the monotone of its disaggregated parts, that starts to create meaning.

This is where traditionalists oversimplify the purpose of education. If it were as clear-cut as cramming people with Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said” from the past, then the task of education would frankly be easy. But that is only ever part of the task. Knowledge is not power, it is potential power. You need to do something with it. We need to use the best of the past to shed light on the present and in turn help shape the future. Three bodies of knowledge are fundamental to this process: the canon from the past, the roots of people’s identities in the present and the great challenges of the future, whether they be artificial intelligence, genetics or migration. This in combination is the knowledge that empowers young people to change the world.

As individuals, we need to develop a lot of knowledge about a few things, moving from novice to expert, and also know a little about a lot so that we have cultural literacy, an idea made popular by E D Hirsch, and a passport to the professional world. It is also important to remember that most of the learning we do in life is neither academic nor school based. Young people all over the world are learning to animate, cook, knit, do magic, skateboard or play the guitar by watching people on YouTube. We prioritise a narrow conception of academic knowledge at our peril. It results in too many young people being cowed and dismissed by school.

Ensuring that young people are developing this depth and breadth of knowledge requires some signature policies. First and foremost, schools should offer a secure grounding in the basics of literacy and numeracy; all else flows from this. High-quality subject disciplines are also key, and pupils should be taught the different ways of thinking of the scientist, historian, mathematician and philosopher. Inter-disciplinary work that involves one or two subjects coming together in powerful combinations, such as in STEM projects, are another essential policy. And young people should have opportunities to undertake research on areas they are passionate about. Finally, bespoke courses that bring together knowledge in interesting ways, such as a course on big ideas and great texts, which we are developing at School 21, are important.

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The heart

Life is hard for many young people, particularly those whose family dynamics mean they have encountered major upheaval, trauma or abandonment at an early age. For some it requires huge willpower to wrestle free from the shackles of family upbringing; for others it can be equally painful making sense of the multiple layers of identity involving gender, sexuality, race, place, class and body image. Piled on top of those challenges today are the cancer of social media, the smothering embrace of peer pressure and the increasingly addictive task of consuming overwhelming amounts of media.

As young people grapple with these challenges, they rely on their mental strength and emotional resilience. The roots of that strength and resilience are embedded in the story we tell ourselves as individuals. We all have an internal monologue, or what American executive coach Tracy Goss calls a “winning strategy”. That winning strategy is really a coping mechanism. It is our modus operandi, the way we confront difficult situations. Do we respond by avoiding them or do we lash out and blame others? The task for us as educators (and parents) in these formative years is to help young people construct a narrative that allows them to make sense of who they are, to construct a view of the present and the future that is not hobbled by damage from the past. The charity Youth at Risk, which does great work with the hardest-to-reach young people, calls this ‘the stand’. It is a statement of who the person is; not their goals, but the essence of what they are about and what people can expect of them.

This is difficult territory. There are some who believe that this is too complex and too risky for schools to get tangled up in. Others, in a blinkered way, say it is a distraction from the real task of cramming people with knowledge. Our experience is that it is essential work, particularly in an area of high deprivation. Self-knowledge, developed in a profound and layered way is surely as valuable a residue from years of schooling as is the traditional subject knowledge we spend so much time on.

We build out from the individual to the community. Teachers of the ‘heart’ are skilled at building what performers call ‘an ensemble’. One way to achieve this is to nurture what Cambridge educationalist Robin Alexander has labelled the “dialogic classroom”, which centres on high-quality, skilfully structured talk. Perhaps the biggest single change that would enhance social mobility and transform the dynamism of schools is taking talk seriously. At School 21 we have attempted to elevate speaking to the same status as reading and writing. In partnership with academics at Cambridge University, we have developed a framework focused on the four interlocking elements of oracy: physical (how you use your body and voice), cognitive (how you make an argument, question, analyse, respond and listen), linguistic (how you use a range of vocabulary, idiom and expression) and social/emotional (how you respond to others and read an audience). The oracy framework shows quite how sophisticated talk can be when you analyse it and break it down into its constituent parts.

In our experience, high-quality talk unlocks so much in school. It deepens learning and understanding in the classroom, helps students resolve conflicts and gives them the confidence to articulate their ideas. Armed with the ability to communicate skilfully, young people can develop powerful learning. Signature practices and changes to the way we run schools can help develop an education for the heart. They include making assemblies interactive and filled with talk, so that students wrestle with big ideas and moral questions; enabling all students to give a speech without notes from an early age; creating small coaching groups (tutor groups) where teachers and students build deep relationships; one-to-one coaching where students develop their ‘stand’ or personal story; and training all staff in sophisticated oracy techniques, with many opportunities to use them in a range of contexts, such as giving tours, vivas, pitching ideas and Socratic seminars.

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The hand

When we talk of the ‘hand’ we think of creativity and problem solving, but also of doing and making. The world is filled with roles and jobs that require a subtle blend of expertise and entrepreneurialism. Creativity should not be given as treats to pupils, as so often is the case: a day off timetable here, time off for good behaviour there, after days of grinding through the drudgery of the ‘real’ stuff. It needs to be woven into the fabric of the school. Creativity is a way of being and a way of thinking. It is what, historically, Britain has excelled at. In breathlessly sprinting to catch up with countries we perceive to be superior, we risk losing the essence of what they see in us: the ingenuity that powers both our Nobel Prize-winning track record and our dominance of Hollywood.

For an education that is whole we need to develop our sense of discernment, aesthetics, capacity to make music and design products. We need the widest possible opportunities to feel that sense of ‘flow’, made famous by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

One way to do this is to give young people the chance to create work of value to the world, to lift learning out of the exercise book. There is an important principle, forgotten by many who champion traditional teaching: if you lift the lid, the artificial ceiling imposed by short lessons and rigid teaching methods, and give students the chance to do something meaningful, then they will achieve things you never thought possible. To give a few examples: our Year 9s have used their knowledge of maths to successfully campaign against a concrete factory that was going to be built on the Olympic site. Year 7s used science knowledge to produce fact files that are now being used by residents to save local habitats.

Again, there are some signature policies that would help develop an education for the hand. Holding an exhibition of beautiful work every term that is open to the community and experts, where students have to justify the work they have done, is one example. Another is to get all students to compile a portfolio of their best work and judge them on it using a viva. Giving students the chance to work in real-world projects outside school is a powerful way of reinventing the often superficial work experience and giving students the chance to balance head, heart and hand. Equally, schools could engineer interdisciplinary work so that students understand how subject disciplines can enhance each other, or use design thinking methodologies so that students build the skills to solve problems to a client brief.

An expansive education such as I have described is hard to deliver. It requires a different kind of teacher. The head, heart and hand methodology requires time and trust if it is to work. Extra time for teachers to collaborate and plan, and trust in teachers to develop the kind of intellectual, layered, reflective practice that is so necessary.

A new lease of life for teachers

At School 21 we look for teachers with four attributes that are crucial to our philosophy. First, teachers with a mission and a strong sense of values. Second, craftsmen and women who think deeply about their work and wrestle with the evidence, the ideas and the complexity of teaching. Third, multipliers: people who are not only passionate about their own learning but are motivated by helping others grow and develop. And fourth, pioneers: teachers willing to expand their repertoire and find new links between head, heart and hand.

Just as we want our pupils to be powerful learners, we want and expect the same from teachers. Teachers need a diverse repertoire, they need to be subject specialists, coaches, project designers and experts in how pupils learn and how memory is increased. The evidence suggests many teachers stop improving after a few years and find a teaching method that they stick to. Yet what we need is a repertoire of strategies to make learning more powerful. At School 21 teachers in the primary phase, for example, wrestle with several pedagogies: maths mastery, phonics, story-telling, oracy techniques and real-world learning. This is demanding and requires lots of training, practice and reflection.

This kind of rounded education undoubtedly helps students to develop the resilience, agility, knowledge and thinking to perform better under the current exam system. But for it to really have impact, it requires the assessment regime to be pared back and be less high stakes so that headteachers and schools feel free to promote a more expansive education. We need more accreditation and support for a fuller portfolio of student successes.

There are strong signs that Ofsted is moving in the direction of measuring head, heart and hand equally, which would have a hugely positive impact. But, to see this kind of innovation on a large scale, we need government backing and money for new models of schooling that promote different approaches to learning and the curriculum. And if we are serious about social mobility, we need to create a national plan to develop speaking skills in every classroom and school in the land.

If these changes were set into motion, a more rounded education would be unlocked to the benefit of all society. The education of head, heart and hand is about setting up three interlocking conversations. A conversation that asks people to wrestle with big ideas. A conversation about what it is to be human. And a conversation that asks what is your highest form of contribution. These three conversations represent an education that has a fighting chance of not only being enjoyable, but of preparing young people for a life of learning, growing and making the world a better place than it is today.

Peter Hyman is co-founder and headteacher of School 21

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication…


Written by


The mission of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is to enrich society through ideas and action.

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.


Written by


The mission of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is to enrich society through ideas and action.

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.

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