“The business of the school is to make good human beings” through “Fixing the general character and direction of the school curriculum”

The business of the school is to make good human beings

Fixing the general character and direction of the school curriculum


This is the 5th in our series of posts on the contribution of the Hadow Report of 1931 to the history of Primary education in Britain and elsewhere, which we are considering as part of our ongoing collaboration with Prof Yoko Yamasaki of Mukogawa University, Osaka.

In this post we highlight paragraphs from the conclusions and recommendations of Hadow that relate to the Primary school curriculum and how it’s organised by “subjects”, “topics” and “themes”.



The curriculum is to consist of:

  • Language, as the expression of thought and the instrument of human intercourse
  • constructive work which at once stimulates the intelligence and gives an insight into the significance of the great historic crafts,
  • the appreciation of beauty and the creation of beauty in simple forms,
  • the enlargement of the individual’s horizon by contact with other minds through literature and the discovery that life has a past and future as well as a present,
  • some knowledge of the simpler facts of the material world

These things, it will be agreed, lie at the basis of an intelligent participation in the life of society, and are to be regarded, therefore, as fixing the general character and direction of the school curriculum.

LearningWhat is important is not that a high standard of attainment should be reached in any one of them, but that interest should be quickened, habits of thoroughness and honesty in work established, and the foundations on which knowledge may later be built securely laid. The production of juvenile authors, mathematicians and scientists is neither to be anticipated nor to be desired.

It is reasonable, however, to expect that in the primary school children should learn, within the limits of their experience –

  • to use the noble instrument of their native language with clearness and dignity, a matter in which English education has hitherto been noticeably inferior to that of France;
  • that they should acquire simple kinds of manual skill and take pleasure in using them;
  • that they should admire what is admirable in form and design;
  • that they should read good books with zest and enjoyment;
  • that they should learn that the behaviour of the physical universe is not arbitrary or capricious, but governed by principles, some at least of which it is possible for them to grasp.

Such a curriculum includes several different elements. Each of these elements, language and speech, manual work, art, history and geography, mathematics, science and the study of nature, obviously opens unlimited vistas.

Each is the sphere of a different specialism and each is often described as a separate subject. For certain purposes, and in certain connections, the description is just. The technique of learning or of teaching one of them is different from that which is required for another, and in an Addendum to this Report we discuss in some detail the important and difficult problems suggested by this different parts of the curriculum; but divergent streams spring from a common source in human experience, and methods appropriate to children of an age when they can follow specialised interests along the lines of logical development are not necessarily best suited to a stage when curiosity is strong but the capacity for logical analysis and consecutive reasoning is still relatively weak.

Subjects are not independent entities, but divisions within the general field of knowledge, whose boundaries move, and should move, backwards and forwards. They are artificial, in the sense that the classification which they represent is not an end in itself, but the means by which some measure of order and system is introduced into the complex world of intellectual interests.

At one stage of education it is important to emphasise the characteristics peculiar to each as a separate discipline, at another the common experience which underlies them all. Both these aspects of the truth are vital, and neither must be sacrificed; but they are not equally relevant at all periods of life. In the secondary school, which is designed for children over eleven, that which may more properly be emphasised is the first, not the second. In dealing with children of the age when they attend the primary school, the more important aspect is the second, not the first.

We agree, therefore . . . with the large number of witnesses – the majority, indeed, of those coming before us – who pleaded that the pursuit of primary school studies in the form of distinct and separate ‘subjects’ was not the method best calculated to meet the needs of young children.

We think that the time has now come to consider these conventional categories with a view to relating the curriculum more closely to the natural movement of the children’s minds.

In making this statement, we wish to guard, at the outset, against possible misapprehensions. We are far from desiring to remove the backbone of intellectual discipline from the work of the school, or to imply that, even within the primary school, the same method of presentation is equally suitable for pupils of different ages, or to lend countenance to the suggestion that teachers should follow any stereotyped system or rely on any single device, however attractive. There are obviously certain parts of the curriculum – for example, reading, writing and arithmetic – which are the tools of education, and a reasonable proficiency in which requires regular practice. As children advance in years, they approach more nearly to the stage when different branches of knowledge become the subject of special study.

Teachers must be guided by their own insight and experience, and must use the methods which they are conscious they can use best. With these qualifications, however, we are with the majority of our witnesses strongly of the opinion that primary education would gain greatly in realism and power of inspiration if an attempt were more generally made to think of the curriculum less in terms of departments of knowledge to be taught, and more in terms of activities to be fostered and interests to be broadened. Hitherto the general tendency has been to take for granted the existence of certain traditional ‘subjects’ and to present them to the pupils as lessons to be mastered. There is, as we have said, a place for that method, but it is neither the only method, nor the method most likely to be fruitful between the ages of seven and eleven.

What is required, at least, so far as much of the curriculum is concerned, is to substitute for it methods which take as the starting-point of the work of the primary school the experience, the curiosity, and the awakening powers and interests of the children themselves.

Whether such an approach to the problem is to be described by some special name, such as the ‘project’ method, is of minor importance. The essential point is that the curriculum should not be loaded with inert ideas and crude blocks of fact, which are devoid of significance till related to some interest in the minds of the pupils. It must be vivid, realistic, a stream in motion, not a stagnant pool.

Nor are we concerned to elaborate in detail the precise procedure to be deduced from these premises. If the point of view for which we plead is generally accepted, teachers will find little difficulty in translating it into practice. The fundamental idea of starting from a centre of interest and exploring in turn the different avenues which diverge from it is involved, after all, in all intellectual activity which is not merely formal or imitative, and if its educational significance is sometimes overlooked, the reason is not that it is novel, but that it is too familiar.

What is needed in education, as elsewhere, is a little cold realism, or in other words, the art that overcomes art. A boy is interested in steam engines; let him start from his interests, make a rough model of an engine, discover something about the historical process of its invention and improvement, read a little about the changes in the life of society which have been produced by it, make a map of the transport system of his own town and country, learn something about the lives of famous engineers, and study in outline the part which steam plays in linking together different parts of the world.

A girl has heard her parents discuss the price of food: let her learn something about the countries from which it comes, the processes by which it is conveyed, the crafts concerned in its production and preparation, what agriculture is and the changes through which it has passed and is passing, the life of the rural population in her own country and elsewhere.

Children visit a place of historical interest, a church, a castle, the site of a British or Roman camp; let their work before and after the visit be planned round it, and the pupils be told of its place in history, paint such features of it as they can, make a map of the surrounding region, and act where possible some of the famous scenes associated with it, making the dresses and scenery for themselves.

Such methods of giving concreteness and reality to the work of the school are already often practised and need no lengthy explanation. They will naturally vary from place to place, and from town to country. In the latter, indeed, they should be specially easy and profitable.

We do not share the view sometimes advanced that a special curriculum should be devised for rural schools; it is even less desirable that the education of the country should be urbanised.

The business of the school is to make good human beings, not countrymen or townsmen; nor is it irrelevant to point out that a large number of country children will later live and work in towns. What is necessary is that the curriculum of the school should make every use of the environment of the pupils. It will use one sort of material in a colliery or textile district, and another in an agricultural village, where nature supplies living specimens for children to observe, where plants, birds and animals, the configuration of the country and its geological characteristics, can be studied at first hand, where the weather is not merely an unavoidable inconvenience but a significant phenomenon, and where gardening and the keeping of animals can be carried on without difficulty.

What is important in each case is that, while the indispensable foundations are thoroughly mastered, the work of the school should be related to the experience and interest of the children. Education must be regarded not as a routine designed to facilitate the assimilation of dead matter, but as a group of activities by which powers are exercised, and curiosity aroused, satisfied, and again aroused.

This touches closely the ethical element in education which we must keep constantly in the front of our minds and in the very forefront of our teaching. There is a danger lest the technical aspects of teaching may be allowed to obscure the profound moral influences which the schools will have in the future life of the pupils.

At the moment, we are thinking of the character of the occupations that the pupils will follow in after years, of the training that these occupations will give them and also what they will fail to give, and of how far the schools may compensate for the defects in this training. When the smith ‘sitting by the anvil’, and the potter at his wheel, and ‘every carpenter and workmaster’ had to be diligent ‘to finish his work’, and set his mind ‘to polish it perfectly’; when every craftsman had to see a job through from its beginning to its end, and did not share it with a hundred others – the problems of school training, and of home training also, must, we imagine, have been simpler than they are today.

High seriousness of purpose, sustained effort, persistence and will power, were virtues that were born of necessity; they were thrust upon the workman by the very nature of his work. Conditions have changed, and we cannot escape the consequences of the change. The question is how far what was formerly achieved through the character of man’s work can now be achieved through the spirit of the work alone; and how far the schools can help to bring forth the fruits of the spirit. This is the problem that faces the schools today, a problem that wore a different aspect yesterday. We dare not hope that it will be more than partially solved; but in some measure, we trust, school training may succeed in making up for what must remain under conditions of work today inevitable deficiencies in the later industrial training of the pupils.

[3D Eye italics]

To be continued . . .


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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