Challenge and change – the future of Opening Minds

Last night I spoke at an informal session held by academics concerned with the teaching of Geography at the Institute of Education. The first thing is to say that they were very welcoming, and the conversation was a very stimulating one (at least from my perspective). So stimulating, that I suspect this should be several posts, but it is all coming out in a rush.

Oh, and the cookies with Smarties baked into them were great…

I was there to do was to speak about Opening Minds as an initiative which challenged the traditional idea of subjects by

1) seeking to be responsive to the needs of learners entering into a ‘knowledge economy’, which demands we go beyond subject knowledge and basic skills, and foster, for example, creativity, problem solving, interpersonal skills, and ultimately the motivation and capability to learn throughout life

2) making knowledge more practical and relevant by breaking down the barriers between subjects and formulating projects which prioritise the development of competences in learners and integrate content from a range of subjects

We went back and forth on the advantages and disadvantages of Opening Minds as an approach, but, from my standpoint, what was encouraging about the discussion (apart from its quality) was that when I suggested three areas which warranted further exploration, I got unanimous agreement. Those areas were:

1. The context beyond the economy – Opening Minds began 8 years ago with a consideration of the implications of a perceived shift to a knowledge economy. However, the inexorable rise of issues such as sustainability and changing demography and the mission of the RSA both demand that we consider not just the economy but that we think about new community and national civic institutions to help us meet these challenges. Ultimately, this is a question of the role of education in creating the citizens we need for the future.

2. The issue of how schools are responding to narratives about the need for change – increasingly schools are piecing together initiatives to create an individual institutional and curricular response to the kind of narrative Opening Minds has articulated and their sense of local circumstances. That leaves us with two challenges. The first is to make sure the narrative is credible, keeps developing and is not dominated by any single perspective (a notable risk is that powerful economic interests come to dominate). The second is to understand how can we have variation between schools, but share the benefits of knowledge and experience and avoid repeating mistakes.

3. Knowledge – we have seen the argument develop between defenders of more traditional subject disciplines and those prioritising relevance, learner voice and skills development. How do we prepare young people with the non-cognitive skills, competences and dispositions that are so important while enabling them to, for example, specialise in physics or geography if they wish to? What does it mean to take knowledge and the perspectives/world views of different subjects seriously within an interdisciplinary project-based curriculum? How can we learn from and guide practitioners about that? Practically, can Opening Minds play a role in moving this debate on?

The great thing is that this conversation wasn’t the playground push and shove so typical of these kinds of debates, but was a real attempt at understanding how we move forward. It was great. I feel some seminars coming on…

– Ian McGimpsey


Filed under Future Schools Network, Opening Minds

6 responses to “Challenge and change – the future of Opening Minds

  1. Ian – I’m fascinated by your discussion at the Institute as the same challenges you are facing with Opening Minds and the Future Schools network run parallel to those that we are working towards at the BCSE. I hope that this will be the start of an ongoing dialogue between us – but here are a few reflections:

    1. Context and future role of education – I think we are in a different place to where we were 8 years ago where an institutional and initiative-focused response to major social challenges in education was the only model on the table. In the same way that Hargreaves describes in Education Epidemic, there are not enough peer to peer types of interventions or small, adaptable organisations in the system, with official ‘sponsorship’ – who could act as real delivery partners and become enablers of genuine change. There is also a major strategic disconnect between the current accountability structures and the kinds of innovations in the curriculum that Opening Minds represents and the emerging consensus about pedagogy and space in the design of future schools, through the work of people like Dr Kenn Fisher. Until this is more aligned, there will be a lot of professional resistance.

    2. Schools and narratives for change – in the early days of agendas like Extended Schools and the preceding work on out of hours learning, it was exactly because there was scope for local solutions that made its take up so rapid and led to its adoption across the system. In previous roles on both agendas, we created a robust evidence base, an expert team who got their hands dirty in the delivery as well as the planning of the agenda and invested heavily in no nonsense ways of finding solutions to problems as they arose. Real change happens not just with a strong policy narrative but also a view of how the book and pages are constructed and can be turned, with minimum effort.

    3. Knowledge – traditional vs learner voice and skills development – I think this is a debate that has just started. It may also be the axis upon which education policy is framed after the next election. I think every system needs a reason for being and British educational policy has yet to nail its colours to the mast on this topic. The new diplomas should have been more radical, 14-19 is often the poor cousin to 5-14 in the school policy debate and preparation of young people for an unknown future has to be a much higher priority. I was really taken with the debate you had about this in the new statesman with Edge and the Ken Robinson lecture. If only we had the kind of response to the climate change in the education sector – the challenge is certainly on the same scale.

  2. Thanks for the contribution, Ian.

    It is useful to reflect on Education Epidemic’s contribution. As I remember it, Hargreaves was arguing that we needed to stimulate speedy local innovation in schools so it could keep pace with social and economic change, unlike centrally driven initiatives. Amongst other things this was about a combination of explicit permisson; schools’ awareness of systemic priorities; resources; networks to share knowledge rapidly.

    We are currently doing some mapping of the degree of practitioner take up of initiatives which are responsive in some way to notions of a changing context for education. Indications are that the degree of spread is encouraging. However the sense of critical mass is limited, I think, because we lack a unifying narrative about why change is needed.

    That may be our emphasis now, but your challenge to make that narrative powerful with robust evidence and support for implementation is clearly an important one.

    I’m delighted you enjoyed the Ken Robinson lecture here. I agree that the debate about the appropriate role of knowledge could well be a defining one over the coming years. The outcome is by no means certain, and that is why the RSA have, with others in the sector, sought to, as you say, nail our colours to the mast by developing the Charter for Education in the 21st Century.

    Anyone can sign up to show their support by visiting

    I look forward to continuing the dialogue with you. If you want to drop me a line, you can at

  3. Pingback: We’re in the news! « RSA Education’s Weblog

  4. David Thacker

    You have my total support which will be put across as I perform my voluntary activities as chair of the following organisations;- Eart Riding College (FE), Kingsmill Special School, Burton Agnes Primary School, East Riding SACRE, (Vice-Chair) East Riding Forum. Was also Chair of a Major Regeneration Project in the area.

  5. Ian

    David – thank you for such an encouraging response.

    And please do spread news of the Charter on to the many people you work with!


  6. Damien Graham

    Dear Colleagues,

    I would be interested in finding out the different approaches to an Opening Minds Curriculum and the impact on learning. Are there any plans to disseminate good practice through learning networks?

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