The characteristics of optimal education systems within a sustainable postcapitalist paradigm. Part two.

Multiple intelligences

First of all, we must accept that is no single form of intelligence, just as there is no single way of learning or teaching. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson states,

“The problem in conventional assumptions of intelligence is that there is a single measure. People are thought to be more or less intelligent on a single scale based on the ideas of IQ and academic ability…There are four related points to emphasise

We all have many forms of intellectual capacity and abilities, not just one

We all have these different intellectual capacities to differing extents

For many people some modes are more important than others

High abilities in one area do not entail high abilities in others”


Howard Gardener, Professor in cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, felt that the development of the IQ test to determine intelligence was too narrow and in his research into types of intelligence originally identified seven distinct forms of intelligence; musical intelligence; bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence; logical-mathematical intelligence; linguistic intelligence; spatial intelligence; interpersonal intelligence; intrapersonal intelligence. Further types of intelligence have been suggested by others since, including naturalist intelligence and existential intelligence (Gardener 2006). Gardener says this of his work,

“Ever since I chose a career in scholarship, I have thought of myself primarily as a psychologist…For reasons that I don’t fully understand, the theory of multiple intelligences spoke immediately to educators – loudly and clearly. Many educators saw an evident relation between the theory, as they understood it, and educational practices that they embraced (my emphasis). In a sense, I had presented educators with a Rorschach inkblot, and they were trying to decipher it.”[ii]

So what implications does this have for a holistic, functional, effective and compassionate education system? There must be an extremely broad choice of academic, arts, and vocational subjects to cater to these multiple intelligences. Subjects previously thought of as peripheral or not appropriate as a school subject such as dance or Tai Chi (both involving bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence) must become optional subjects of a broad curriculum with very little that is compulsory. Play and emotional intelligence must be valued equally with more traditional forms of knowledge, such as analytical skills and abstract reasoning.

What is creativity and why is it important?

“Creativity is not a special ability confined to special people and it can be taught” [iii]. This deceptively simple statement by Sir Ken Robinson from his seminal work, Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative, is of absolutely crucial importance for any education system that is an intrinsic piece of a Sustainable paradigm jigsaw. If the human race is to both live in balance on planet Earth and seek to step off world and into the cosmos we have no option but to find creative solutions to the issues we face.

So what exactly is Creativity? Robinson defines it thus, “imaginative processes with outcomes that have value”. [iv] It is simultaneously a skill, a way of thinking and an emotional reaction. But what separates day-dreaming from Creativity, is discernment and action. Creativity involves a value-judgement on the concept / thought / plan / imagining in question; creativity requires good judgement but it also requires action. Robinson states,

“There are many misconceptions about creativity. Creativity is not a separate faculty that some people have and others do not. It is a function of intelligence: it takes many forms, it draws from many capacities and we all have different creative capabilities. Creativity is possible in any activity (my emphasis) in which human intelligence is actively engaged. The distinctive feature of human intelligence is imagination and the power of symbolic thought. Our lives are shaped by the ideas we have and beliefs we hold. New ways of thinking can transform us (my emphasis). To promote creativity, it is essential to understand the main elements and phases of the process including;

the importance of the medium

the need to be in control of the medium

the need to play and take risks

the need for critical judgement“[v]

Critical judgement and getting out of one’s comfort zone are essential for creativity to flow, but perhaps the most crucial part is working with the correct medium. Pablo Picasso was creative at painting pictures, not with silver jewellery making, not with novel writing and not with singing. His extreme creativity was largely confined to one medium. Maya Angelou on the other hand had a broader range of medium including; memoirs; poetry writing; lecturing; civil rights action. As far as I am aware neither was a great squash player, Muay-Thai boxer or calligrapher; those were not their mediums. Edmund De Waal, a potter, explains his medium in the memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes thus,

“How objects get handled, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question. I have made many, many thousands of pots. I am very bad at names, I mumble and fudge, but I am good on pots. I can remember the weight and the balance of a pot, and how its surface works with its volume. I can read how an edge makes tension or loses it. I can feel if it has been made at speed or with diligence. If it has warmth. I can see how it works with the objects that sit nearby. How it displaces a small part of the world around it.”[vi]

For many of us to hear someone talk about pots in such a way may sound odd but to another potter it would sound completely understandable and natural. Edmund De Waal feels Intrinsic motivation for making pots, i.e. motivation which comes from deep within himself. Each human’s individual genetic makeup combined with their experience leads them to at least one medium that they not only have some natural aptitude for but fills their heart with joy, that they are intrinsically motivated by; to be engaged in this activity is not a chore but a pleasure, a necessity even. Motivation may not always be intrinsic, coming from inside the person, but might be extrinsic motivation – motivation for some external reward, such as praise from the teacher or a certificate or to avoid punishment. Capel and Gervis say this about motivation

“Research has found that a person intrinsically motivated in an activity or task is more likely to persist and continue with that activity rather than a person extrinsically motivated. This can be illustrated by some (intrinsically motivated) pupils succeeding at / in a subject despite the quality of the teacher, whereas others (extrinsically motivated) pupils succeed because of good teaching. Therefore, intrinsic motivation is to be encouraged in learning. A teacher’s job would certainly be easier if all pupils were to be motivated intrinsically.”[vii]

One inference we may draw from this is that unmotivated or barely-extrinsically motivated students in large classrooms with indifferent teachers are extremely unlikely to learn anything in the duration of the lesson. The evidence suggests that if we are to present all children with the opportunity to find their medium(s) (finding that/those subject(s) that intrinsically motivate them), then we must have an extremely broad curriculum, small classes and evidence based pedagogy delivered by caring, competent and compassionate professional teachers who enjoy an appropriate work-life balance. All people – yes every single human being – must be allowed to find their medium(s). This would create a generation of humans contributing positively in some way to society at large, in activities that are engaging, fun and consciousness-stimulating. Only then will Homo sapiens thrive together in the world.

How do individuals learn?

In The Learning Curve: Lessons in Country Performance in Education Brian Stecher (Associate Director at RAND Education) states,

“We use jargon that seems to explain student behaviour, but we really don’t understand the way the students learn and the complex mix of inputs (my emphasis) – family, community and learning – that lead to skills and temperaments. If you compare research in education to research in health care, you see a dramatic difference in our knowledge of cause and effect.”


How humans learn is complex and it changes over time. The influential educational psychologist Jean Piaget believed that children’s interaction with the environment is what creates learning, he also believed that curiosity is what drives the child to learn. Piaget identified 4 stages of childhood behavioural development and a brief overview is sufficient for the purposes of this work. Stage 2, the preoperational stage starts around age 2 lasts until about age 7 and coincides with a fast growth phase children go through from about age 3-7. He termed this second phase preoperational and it is characterised by forming ideas based on their perception and only being able to deal with one variable at a time and overgeneralisation based on limited experience. Around age 7 the third stage, concrete operational, coincides with a slowing in physical growth until puberty and is categorised by ideas based on reasoning but with thinking limited to familiar objects and events. The fourth stage, formal operational, starts around 11 or 12 years of age and often coincides with the onset of puberty. The main change is that children are now able to apply their reasoning to abstract and hypothetical situations rather than those which are merely familiar. [ix]

On a biological level we also understand a great deal about how students build skills and it is by creating myelin in their brain. Journalist and Writer Daniel Coyle says this of his work The Talent Code,

“This book is about a simple idea…talent hotbeds…have tapped into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted practice build skill…they have entered a zone of accelerated learning that…can be accessed by those who know how (my emphasis). In short, they’ve cracked the talent code.” [x]

The neurological mechanism in question is myelin and this is how all skills are built in the brain, be they poetry, martial arts, driving, language learning, football, tennis, ballet, salsa dancing, yoga, guitar playing, sword fighting, computer programming or identifying wild flowers. All skills: every single one without exception. The zone of accelerated learning referred to, Coyle terms Deep Practice. It is structured and precise, both quantitatively and qualitatively different from regular practice, building significantly more myelin around the targeted nerves in the brain. How exactly does deep practice work? And now that we know this, can we construct a system of learning and inculcation around it?

Coyle spells out the dynamics of deep practice in some detail in his work but for our purposes the most pertinent three points of how it works are; chunk it up; repeat it; learn to feel it. First, analyse the whole picture, then break down the skill / task into manageable chunks that can be practised individually and then fitted together again later. Second, repeat the action many times in a mindful and conscious manner, sometimes one chunk at a time and on other occasions two or more chunks together. Third, notice your mistakes, play with them, speed it up, slow it down, try it in a different manner, intuitively feel what you are doing, train your body-mind / muscle-memory; being in the moment. Coyle makes the following observation on the nature of deep practise.

“With conventional practice more is always better…Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective – but only if you’re in the same sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively honing and building circuits (my emphasis). What’s more there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice a human being can do in a day…most world class experts…practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue…Deep practice tends to leave people exhausted: they can’t maintain it for more than an hour or two at a sitting”.[xi]

Although Coyle does not make an explicit link between deep practise and the flow state, the descriptions of both have many similarities and it may simply be that deep practise is a synonym for the flow state when it is applied to the building of skill. To become passably good at doing something over an extended period, regular practise is sufficient, but to learn a skill to a reasonable level very quickly, or to attain genius level over a long period of time requires deep practice. When deep practice is the norm students will be studying for no more than five hours a day maximum, but frequently perhaps only three to four and a half hours daily, in sessions, between breaks, no longer than about a hundred minutes. For teachers to facilitate deep practice in classrooms on a daily basis will also require smaller class sizes than presently exist; 8-16 median and modal class size must be the norm in a holistic education system that aims to deliver deep practice as the norm.

Understanding the dynamics of deep practice raises many important philosophical questions about education. Is it morally or practically acceptable to have an education system that is not explicitly aiming to deliver deep practice as the norm? If our education system is not explicitly aiming for deep practise then what are its goals? Is there any moral argument to compel students into formal education if we are not aiming at deep practice as the norm?  No, it is not. To create unquestioning consumerist drones. No, there isn’t.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Deep practice is the most effective path to a skilful and wise populace, which begs the question, what do we need to facilitate it? Czech psychologist Lev Vygotsky identified what he calls the Zone of Proximal Development. He describes it thus, “it is the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” [xii]

The most effective place for a student to learn is on the edge of their capacity in what interests them, either naturally or through some stimulated scenario, in a specific targeted manner with a teacher / mentor or giving guidance. A learner-centred approach is required, which will often involve problem solving as part of a task-based-learning strategy.

Research on class size seems to suggest that it is rarely the single most important factor on whether pupils perform well at school and yet it seems obvious that, all other factors remaining equal, as a general rule more learning will take place in smaller classes. Research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), an independent grant making charity that performs meta-analysis on research to assess interventions in education, suggests that small class sizes may be beneficial in some cases, but only when the class size is reduced to less than 20 and teachers are able to implement more effective pedagogical approaches as a result.

“Intuitively, it seems obvious that reducing the number of pupils in a class will improve the quality of teaching and learning, for example by increasing the amount of high quality feedback or one to one attention learners receive. However, overall the evidence does not show particularly large or clear effects, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15 (my emphasis). Overall the evidence does not show particularly large or clear effects, until class size is reduced to under 20. The key issue appears to be whether the reduction is large enough to permit the teacher to change their teaching approach when working with a smaller class and whether, as a result, the pupils change their learning behaviours (my emphasis). If no change occurs then, perhaps unsurprisingly, learning is unlikely to improve.”[xiii]

My own extensive experience teaching English as a foreign language in Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Spain and the UK, and more limited experience as a Spanish and French teacher in the UK have demonstrated to me that a class size of 16 or less is far easier to teach and students learn more. There tends to be less disruption and evidence-based learning strategies are easier to implement. It is easier to give students individual attention and learning by students is far more effective, because it is far easier for the teacher to facilitate the Zone of Proximal Development for a smaller group of students. It is also easier for them to enter the flow state and for deep practise to occur and skill to be built. The numbers 16, 12 & 8 are useful numbers of students for teachers as they allow students to be split into pairs, small groups or two teams for different purposes depending on the task. Grouping students can be an incredibly important part of the teacher’s class planning and be a powerful tool to facilitate peer teaching. At higher skill level groups of 8 or smaller might often be the norm.

Research from the EEF further shows that an increase in targeted and effective feedback is one of the most effective educational interventions. Of course being able to deliver effective feedback is to a certain degree dependent on class size; giving effective feedback in a class of 25-35 teenagers is far harder than in a class of 8-16 teenagers. Moreover, giving quality feedback is often time consuming, even for a well-trained, dedicated and experienced professional teacher, thus a maximum class size of 16 would be a reasonable expectation for professional teachers to mark and give individualised and personal feedback to each and every student within a reasonable working week. The EEF say this about feedback,

“Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals. It should aim to (and be capable of) producing improvement in students’ learning. Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome. It can be about the learning activity itself, about the process of activity, about the student’s management of their learning or self-regulation or (the least effective) about them as individuals.”[xiv]

The feedback the teacher gets from student work / assessment is too often undervalued, even more so outside the educational community. When giving meaningful feedback, the teacher can also recalibrate his/her teaching and deviate from the original lesson plan to allow for more positive student outcomes. Thus it is unlikely to be a small class size per se that allows for consistent and regular deep practice to occur as the norm, rather it is the other aspects of education, such as giving effective feedback, that a quality dedicated education professional might deliver facilitated by a small class size. Small class size must be part of a holistic approach to education that addresses multiple issues simultaneously.

Smaller class sizes require more resources and more teachers. In the societies we live in today – primarily based on neo-liberal capitalist economics that accepts a thriving arms trade – this is a big issue. However, in a society of more conscious humans who are living in peace, radiating loving compassion and utilising a resource based economy of some sort, smart design and C2C systems it would be simplicity itself. When this happens after a few years everyday people will wonder why it was not implemented sooner.


Capel et al (Ed) (2009) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience Routledge

Coyle, D (2010) The Talent Code Arrow

De Waal, E (2011) The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance Vintage Books

Economist Intelligence Unit (2012) The Learning Curve: Lessons in Country Performance in Education Pearson

Gardener, H (2006) Multiple Intelligences Basic Books

Lave, J (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives) Cambridge University Press

Mooney, C (2013) Theories of Childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky Redleaf Press

Robinson, K (2001) Out of our minds: Learning to be creative Capstone

Vygotsky, L (1978) Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes Harvard University Press

[i] Robinson. P 106-7

[ii]  Gardener P. 53

[iii] Op Cit. Robinson P. 114

[iv] Ibid P. 118

[v] Ibid P. 111

[vi] De Waal. P. 16

[vii]  Capel and Gervis quoted in Capel et al P. 125

[viii] The Learning Curve P.17

[ix] Mooney P. 81

[x] Coyle P. 5

[xi] Ibid P. 88-89

[xii] Vygotsky P. 86



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