Education as a whole and in its parts

Creating a successful learning community

Our college mission is to ‘create a successful learning community’. While this only applies to our small part of the education system it’s not a bad aspiration for the whole system. So what would be the implications of applying this mission to education as a whole as well as in one of its parts?


The future will be built on the past and to create something worthwhile we need to understand where we’ve come from and acknowledge the insights, knowledge and skills which have been handed down to us. Every change we make is work in progress; provisional and contingent. But even small, gradual and incremental change to the parts can eventually lead to radical change to the whole; quantitative change can become qualitative change.

Our college will be a different place in 5 or 10 years’ time but it will be built on the college of today. For instance, radically increasing the number of students who are mentoring others, studying in learning circles or engaging in original research would change the nature of our institution. Equally significant changes will occur when all students are routinely engaging in ‘blended’ learning using mobile, connected devices. These things all exist today but they have not yet transformed the college.

What of the vision of creating a better system at a national or global level? System improvement requires system values and system leadership. These may be lacking at the moment but we cannot wait around for someone else to provide them. Everyone, students, professionals and politicians, can play a role in shaping the aims and values of one part of the system while also helping to create the machinery and relationships for the whole system to work better.

In developing a shared vision of what we could create, we need to avoid simply accepting existing models, whether organisational, economic, technological, or environmental. Instead, we need to imagine what kind of education would prepare for the kind of society we want. For instance: if we want a vibrant, democratic, participatory civil society how do we set about equipping all young people to exercise critical judgement and use democratic means to be active agents of social change?


What are our measures of success for both the parts and the whole? At the institutional level, success is generally defined in terms of the proportion of our students achieving particular outcomes or in terms of the judgements inspectors make about us. Success is established using quantitative snapshots eg: ‘80% positive student ratings, 91% progression to university, 86% Success Rates’ and qualitative measures seem too nebulous, eg: ‘increased independence and confidence’ or ‘improving the lives of people in East London’. By isolating the parts and judging them separately, we can miss the impact of the whole and end up looking for the weakest link and attributing blame. Employers or parents blame schools and colleges and vice versa, the tertiary sector blames secondary education which blames primary schools and we all rush headlong into a dead-end of mutual incomprehension.

If we take a lifelong view of education, we acknowledge that each stage and each part makes a vital contribution. Each stage and part would be seen as part of a whole; a local or national education system. Instead of blaming each other for system-failure the parts or stages could start to share system-responsibility.

For an educated person looking back at a life well lived, the success of their education is about the success of the whole as well as the contribution of the parts. Whether as a worker, citizen, friend, lover or family member, they flourished as a result of the whole education of a whole person, a complex multi-layered and multi-faceted process with all the spill-overs, contradictions and tensions that entails.

What if educators from all sectors came together regularly to discuss the best way to educate whole people; about language, science, history, society, music, thinking etc? Could we come out of our various silos, use our different forms of expertise and create a whole which is more successful at developing educated people? We would almost certainly need new measures of success if this sort of work was to be valued.

Maxine Greene wrote that: “World class achievement and benchmarks seem superficial, if not absurd, in a world filled with inequality, fear and uncertainty” and she argued that, amongst other things, we should “foster increasingly informed and involved encounters with art” and I would add “…with others”. Lev Vygotsky said: “Through others we become ourselves”


The process of educating a whole person involves a multitude of successive educational experiences, some carefully orchestrated, others unplanned. Along the way it is impossible to establish the point at which that person becomes educated; the precise moment of transition from quantity to quality. But we need some consensus about what the educated whole person looks like: knowledgeable, determined, skilled, questioning, critical, confident, what else?

For us to acquire knowledge it needs to be reduced to parts but we need to avoid seeing it as atomized or disconnected. Like Rabindranath Tagore we want an education “where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”

There is no such thing as education for its own sake, it is always for a purpose and our purpose is defined in relation to others. A successful learning community for young adults needs to recognise that the transition from childhood to citizenship, apprentice to worker, dependent child to autonomous adult is not a sudden one, it is built gradually through experience and requires making mistakes.

Our learning is accredited and valued in its parts, through qualifications, diplomas, profiles and reports and it is experienced in parts by the whole person. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood”. But to be part of a coherent education, these lessons must also be connected to the whole.


In the same way that our individual identity is defined in relation to society, the value of each individual’s learning is also defined by society. The confident, thoughtful, critical individual may only be a tiny part of their society but they becomes an active and influential citizen when they start to think and act in relation to the whole of their society.

Our schools and colleges need to model the good society by fostering the kind of social relationships we want to encourage, based on: equality, community cohesion, reciprocity, service; ‘doing things for others’. Valuing this would certainly require new measures of success.

We can create egalitarian islands within an unequal community, not to protect our students from injustice or deny them the reality of the world as it is but to equip them with the practice of more egalitarian social relationships and the ability to enjoy both “popular” and “high” culture without elitism, snobbery or exclusivity.

Young people are an underused and undervalued resource. We need to build on their need to be active, useful and valued; to make a difference and show solidarity with others. If we made service learning the norm in our college and went from 400 people volunteering regularly to all 3,000 community members doing so, quantity would become quality and the college would become a qualitatively different place; making a significant additional contribution to the local community and economy.

“Education is a social process” and “We only think when we are confronted with a problem.” John Dewey.

Addressing the whole and the parts

In order to describe and create the successful learning community we need both to see the world big and see the world small; to think holistically and systemically, eg: ‘What’s the big picture, the whole story?’ as well as reductively, eg: ‘What’s my own understanding, my own area of expertise, my own role?’ We need to value both the whole and the parts. The parts acquire new meaning in relation to the whole. The whole emerges from the parts and has different characteristics. It itself acquires new meaning as part of a bigger whole. We need to make connections across the system and in everything we and learn to translate between levels, eg: ‘How can I contribute to the success of the system? What does national policy change mean for me?’

We need to acknowledge tensions and contradictions and explore them and we shouldn’t edit out ideology, conflicts of interest or differences in outlook. The relationship between the parts and the whole is dialectical. As Lev Vygotsky said, “Development is precisely the struggle of opposites”.

The successful learning community will be constantly questioning and changing. We need to recognise and promote change, growth and transformation; in ourselves, in other people, in society and in our organisations. We each do this by working within our zone of influence where we can be most effective. We need to promote a sense of agency, and urgency within our organisations and among our students and remind ourselves that change is possible.

The challenges faced by each of us in our part of the whole can often be overwhelming and the changes we can effect on the part, let alone the whole, can seem pitifully minor. But thinking through the relationship between parts and wholes and the process of change gives us a perspective from which to face the future with hope and confidence on the basis that education really can help to create a better world.

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” Hannah Arendt.

Based on a speech given at the University of East London in March 2010.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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5 Responses to Education as a whole and in its parts

  1. ksnider4444 says:

    Your article is very informative about keeping the community involved with a successful education. I agree that each student has a value and society adjusts to each individuals learning. This was an interesting read.


  2. ksnider4444 says:

    Reblogged this on kt_loves_math and commented:
    Favorite Educational Blog #4


  3. Joan says:

    Really interesting piece. My partner and I were at the ENO on Saturday night for a performance of John Adams’ new opera ‘The Gospel According To The Other Mary’. What was a great night out was made even better by being asked to fill in an online survey about the performance by a PhD musicology student. His interest was in understanding what the audience were bringing to the night in terms of their knowledge of the Passion and also of the music of John Adams. I found it fascinating to try and unpick some of the educational processes that had led me to the ‘baggage’ that I brought to that particular opera – everything from primary school lives of saints as told by Sister Mary Cyril to a PhD in the politics of the Catholic Church (and a PhD supervisor who made me read a lot of Raymond Williams) to a musical education much enhanced by my teenage son’s involvement in classical and jazz music. It did, of course, make me aware too of all the things that are going in to making an education for my three children. All – of course – practically impossible to measure!


    • Thanks Joan, I’m exploring the ‘whole/parts’ and ‘levels’ dialectic without any proper theoretical grounding and it’s all very tentative so it’s great to get such considered feedback.
      Sadly, I read the Guardian review of this ENO production just in time to miss it! A pity as I love John Adams’ work and really enjoyed ‘Dr Atomic’ and ‘Nixon in China’ in particular. I also think ‘Short ride in a fast machine’ is one of the most exciting pieces of contemporary music there is and was pleased to see it included in the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’ project for children…and I also love Bach’s Passions of course!


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