Multi-dimensional Education

by John Colbeck


I suggest that much of our current practice in schools is narrowly mono-dimensional or two-dimensional in emphasis. Movement towards a more complete education requires engagement, I suggest, in at least nine dimensions, with increased emphasis on personal dimensions of emotions, feelings, "spirit", body and neighbour to balance a currently overwhelming emphasis on intellect, reading and writing. As persons, ends in ourselves, unavoidably subjects of doing words, we seem, surprisingly and misleadingly, to be trying to eliminate personal dimensions from the way we talk and write. "It can't be done" = "We can't do it." Trying to be "impersonal" in pursuit of "pure" reasoning amounts to a kind of intellectual and emotional suicide. It puts horses and carts before drivers—people. We teach that to children and research students!


Education can never be complete. The oceans of our ignorance are so vast—infinite, I think—that there will always be more to learn until the end of time (supposing that that idea makes sense).

I suggest that movement towards a complete education requires engagement in as many dimensions as possible.

To give a simple example, in reading, writing and arithmetic a pupil's activity is mainly restricted to two dimensions (note1) on flat paper. Much of the work is done alone, in silence, with minimal engagement of a pupil's body or of other people.

In drama, by contrast, there is engagement—movement—in all four dimensions of space-time. Sight, sound and movement of the pupil's own body and of other people are included in the activity. Emotions are felt, or at least portrayed by actors. An actor has to think and feel herself into another person's mind and body, by an exercise of imagination. That is surely a skill of empathy—feeling as if in, or as, another person—which might be valuable in personal, national and international relations? Dance and drama are dimensionally the richest educational activities.

Space-Time Dimensions

The number of dimensions which might be required for a complete education is large, possibly infinite. To keep the scope of my discussion to manageable proportions, I shall consider only nine dimensions of thinking and experience. I use the word "dimension" in an extended sense, as I will explain.

One-dimensional education would be linear, along a line. One might use a mono-rail train as a metaphor for this. Much of our thinking tends to be "one-track", mono-dimensional: "If A, then B". In practical affairs, A is usually followed by many consequences. If A, then B,C,D and many more, in many different directions and dimensions. Reasoning from one end to one means tends to be mono-directional, as well as misleadingly singular and linear. Practices lead, usually via mistakes, to theories; theories lead to revised practices and new mistakes; these lead to further revision of theories. Reasoning goes both ways (in many directions and dimensions), in evolving action-thought loops and spirals.

Conventional accounts of scientific progress have often been misleadingly "linear" in the past, implying steady, rational movement in one direction, forward. Actual progress has been very much less simple, more like zig-zags and spirals, with diversions down blind alleys, reversals and airy theorising which left the ground of experience.

Two-dimensional education is like a flat plate, or disc. A motor car has two dimensional freedom to move on a surface. Reading and writing are largely two dimensional activities (1), although imagination extends these, without apparent limit.

Three-dimensional freedom is richer, but still static. An aeroplane has freedom to move in a fixed atmosphere or "climate of opinion". An orthodox consensus and common sense are like that, limiting the scope of what can easily be thought.

We need to remember, with the history of ideas to remind us, that common sense has usually turned out to be about half mad, in retrospect. Currently, as we run now, common sense and consensus lead us to say that we want peace, while our actions suggest that we often prefer war (physical and economic war). We say that we care for children, but we devalue many of them—those who do not value as we do; we create criminals—and then lock them up. We advocate the brotherhood of man, but some of us are millionaires, while others starve. The richest and most highly educated nations do most to pollute our atmosphere, our rivers and our seas; they do most to threaten the continuation of life on this planet. Compared with other animals, human beings do most damage to our, and their environment. We "cull" them, when they overpopulate. We are the master-species, and narcissistic, but also one of the youngest and perhaps least wise. Narcissus was unwise.

A space-ship has, in principle, infinite freedom in space-time, unless space or time are finite. Finite, or bounded, space and time are hard to imagine. What would be beyond the boundaries? A complete education would have the freedom of a space-ship—no limits, except human ones. Orthodoxies narrow and ossify thinking. That includes orthodoxies which advocate "rationality and critical thinking". Their value, too, can be indoctrinated by a prevailing, narrow power structure.

A fourth dimension, time, is present when movement occurs in any dimension; it changes our focus of attention away from static, states of affairs to a focus on dynamic movement and change. "The cat is on the mat" is a statement of affairs, like a black and white snapshot of a possibly momentary situation. Who wants to know? A wise mouse is more interested in possible dynamic developments of the situation in time: where will the cat go next? Is it poised to pounce, or asleep? The direction in which we are going is more important, for policy, than where we are. We have no absolute frame of reference to tell us where we are. Like other animals, we are better at detecting movement.


The four dimensions listed so far might be called the physical dimensions of our world. Within a realistic and scientific (but still human) perspective, as we now see things, space-time dimensions seem to be largely independent of human beings. Relativity puts a large question-mark under that realist assumption. Relativity reminds us that "What we see depends on where we are, on who we are and on how we think we are moving." There is no "absolute" frame of reference, least of all in "absolute relativism"—"All frames of reference are equally valid." Relativity suggests that truths depend on a chosen frame of reference—on what we take to be fixed points. This does not lead to absolute relativism the unlivable, and inconsistent idea that all beliefs, values and frames of reference are equally valid: living requires values to motivate action and beliefs to guide us. We imagine, create, choose or accept our values, beliefs and frames of reference. They make us what we become. We are responsible, answerable to ourselves and others for them and their effects—adults more so than children. Loops and spirals again!

Some perspectives are very much better, more com-prehensive and comprehensible, than others. For laying out a level playing field, a stationary, "flat earth" perspective is best. For wider, still earth-bound navigation, we need an approximately spherical "model" (and very accurate clocks). For travel to the moon or planets, we need to be aware that we are spinning, with a surface speed of 1000 mph, and hurtling around our sun, one of many, at 6000 mph (taking our sun as stationary, which it is not.) For quantum teleportation to another star, at the speed of light, the perspective required is not yet clear. People are beginning to work on it. Einstein wondered how we would "see", travelling on a light beam.

We cannot see without a perspective or frame of reference. Even time itself is dependent on our frame of reference. The faster I move, the slower my clock will run. And I have no way of telling how fast I am moving in absolute terms, only relative to a chosen frame of reference.(note 2)

We have only "now, here"—a kind of existential "nowhere"—a vanishingly small point in space-time—to look from. But we can, as Galileo did, imagine ourselves somewhere else, say outside our solar system. We can adopt more than one perspective, to see more nearly completely, all round, in more dimensions.

Truths are true "only" relative to a (human, subjective or inter-subjective) frame of reference in space-time. That does not devalue truths: we need them, to live by.

The word "only" above ("only now, here") is not derogatory. We cannot get outside our bodies, our "selves", except in imagination. Imaginations are still in our minds—extra-sensory perceptions—very real and powerful, too. Children seem to live in a "now, here", almost non-dimensional world of the immediate moment more than adults do. They are nearer to the starting points of thinking.

Human and Personal Dimensions

To the four dimensions of space-time, I want to add at least five personal dimensions of human experience. I name these, following the secular wisdom of the first and second commandments in Judaeo-Christian Old and New Testaments, heart (emotion), mind (intellect), soul (spirit), strength (body, action) and neighbour (other people) (Mark 12: 29-31, Deuteronomy 6: 5, among others).(note 3)

Several months after first submitting this paper, I now want to rewrite it in the light of subsequent events: helpful comments of a referee, reading Jim Garrison's (1997) inspirational (for me) book Dewey and Eros, reading Steve Bramall's and John White's (2000) IMPACT booklet Will the new National Curriculum live up to its aims?

There is space-time only to include a few paragraphs by way of a preface to this section, written last to be read first.

I am, so I think (reversing Descartes), beginning to see what I have been doing in this section. I have suggested, in effect, that as persons, ends in ourselves (the only such ends, I think), subjects of doing words, we have a misleading tendency to eliminate personal, subjective dimensions from our language. Examples: "The bunsen was lit" = "I lit it"; "Reason requires" = "My, or our, current reasoning requires". "What is the meaning of life?" = "What are our meanings in living?" Life is not a person, it cannot "mean" = veut dire, anything without persons (pace theological perspectives, but even there, it would be "God", represented as a male (why?)person, who put the meaning in); "The economy demands" = "Our economy demands" = "We, creators of economies, demand." "In "the" last analysis" = "In my last analysis." In eliminating our selves, persons, we commit a kind of intellectual suicide, and avoid personal responsibility for our arrangements.

We are ends in ourselves because we imagine, choose, create, accept and embody (yes, all five) our values, ends, ideals and words and they make us what we become. In the words with which Jim Garrison begins and ends his (1997) book "We become what we love." More prosaically put, our (partly) chosen values motivate us, and our (partly) chosen beliefs guide us, in our actions and behaviour. Our loves make us what we become.

They, our most highly valued (worth-shipped) goods or gods (partly) create/make us what we are, in the dynamic action-process of becoming different, every moment. We are creators and creatures. With every breath we take we change, and are changed by, our world. We cannot get outside ourselves to judge ourselves, or others, or life, "objectively". We can, however, with the help of others, re-conceived and seen as our other selves, become less narrowly personal, less narrowly subjective.

To adopt and extend the horse and cart metaphor used by Bramall and White in their means-ends, singular-thinking booklet, we tend, in our language, not only to put carts before horses; we also put horses before drivers—our selves, persons, ends in ourselves. We are "in the cart", letting go the reins of our own, personal responsibility! No wonder our chosen and (partly) created motivating horses (words, values, aims, knowledge, ideas, things, money) often run away with us, if we let them.

Humpty Dumpty would have something to say to us "Who (not which) is to be master?" Words, or us? Must we have, or see ourselves as, "masters"? I think neither, and both. If we value ourselves equally with others, we are friends and masters of ourselves, not slaves or servants of people or things.

I suggest that our current attitudes in education are narrowly, almost mono-dimensionally, oriented towards "mind" or intellectual knowledge and understanding. Scant space-time or priority is given to development of feelings and emotions, soul or spirit, or to body and action. In England, these are barely, if at all, represented in examinations, assessment tests or league tables used to measure schools" success. Only recently, and encouragingly, in PSE (Personal and Social Education), has the importance of my fifth, social or "neighbour" dimension begun to be explicitly recognised as needing special, separate attention.

Insistence on a "Literacy hour" ignores the prior need for children to learn to talk—particularly for children for whom the language of school is a second language. For the latter at least, an "oracy" hour—learning how to talk and listen—is a prior need.

You cannot learn to read or write until you can talk. You cannot learn to talk until you can think. You cannot (reverse reasoning again) learn to think much until you can talk. In some homes, but by no means in all, learning to talk has happened before children come to school. Even then, children's skill and fluency in the art of talking is sadly in need of organized development, teaching and training. In Eng-land (narrow land) oral elements in examinations are limited to foreign languages.

It is true that much informal learning occurs out of school lessons. People learn to read and write, and to do philosophy, via graffiti in lavatories: "God is dead: Nietzsche", "Nietzsche is dead: God". Arguably, much "real" education goes on in the street, the supermarket and on television. There are strong arguments, for and against deschooling. My point is the simple one that what we include in lessons, tests and other organized school activities sends a powerful, if subliminal message to children about what we value most—about what, in the unexpectedly philosophical words of the Spice girls, "We really, really want!" What we take for granted in action is often more powerfully influential, and indoctrinatory, than what we say in words. Actions preach louder than words and "body language" is often more influential than words written or spoken by teachers. "Body learning" in dance and drama involve the whole child. The low priority we give to those activities and music shows our low valuing of the multi-dimensional, or whole, person-child.

In a typical, chopped-up school curriculum in England, a thirty to forty period week might include five periods of games and PE, one or two of PSE and/or Religious Education. The rest, the only parts assessed in examinations, assessment tests and league tables, consist of intellectual, academic subjects, examined in two-dimensional tests on paper. The exact proportions vary in different types of school.

I call these human factors "dimensions of personal experience" because, like space-time dimensions, they seem to be unavoidable aspects of any human experience or activity. "Personal" is strictly redundant there: all described experience, and all statements, are personal. Only persons talk.

It would not make sense to ask "Which would you rather do without, heart, mind, soul, body or other people?" I cannot do without any one of them, although it is possible, and all too common, to emphasise one narrowly, at the expense of others. There are activities which are almost mindless, but never quite.

Other activities are almost, but never quite, exclusively intellectual: solving crossword and mathematical puzzles come near to that, but emotion is not totally absent in moving us to attend to, and engage in, the activity. However still I keep my body in the armchair, it has to be there, functioning, to keep my brain supplied with energy.

If my body is unhealthy, my thinking will be affected, and vice versa: it is bad thinking to neglect my body. Excessive thinking can drive me mad. Excessive physical exercise can wear my body out. An adult hermit can do without human company, but he needed a mother and father to conceive and give him birth and he needs other elements of lifekind on which to feed.

As I once wrote in a piece of philosophical verse. "I cannot say "I" without you, To say it to." More prosaically, we all came into the world without words. All our words came from other people, along with the values and beliefs implied in them, starting from age about three. Learning to talk is, arguably, the most important stage in education. It cannot be left to happen by chance.

All parts of lifekind are parts of each other, in some degree, in evolution from common ancestors in the primordial soup, in the economy of eating, absorbing, incorporating and recycling each other. Our closest cousins are those of our own species. We are the youngest major species. Animals and trees are our cousin-ancestors, sharing elements of our DNA.

It is possible to live or function without an arm, a leg or an eye. It is possible to function apart from my immediate family and friends, but not completely without any other members of our species or of lifekind. We are (can be seen in part as) each other.

Consequences For Educating

If my analysis of the situation is anywhere near right then, to educate more complete human beings, we need to adopt more balanced (ratio-nal) emphases in our curricula by giving greater emphasis to the dimensions of emotion and feeling (heart), spirit (whatever that is; it needs defining), body (action) and neighbour. We need to value more widely and deeply, in more dimensions.

It does not follow that every individual should be given exactly the same, wide-ranging smorgasbord (Danish, open mixed sandwich) of an education. It does, however suggest that everyone should be offered equal opportunity—opportunities, open doors, of equal value to them—to participate in as many dimensions as possible. For some boys, for instance, football is at present almost the only school activity they enjoy and value.

Two different things are suggested by that: first, that other activities need to be made more attractive, value-able; forced feeding is like intellectual rape; we inseminate children's mind-wombs with our values and beliefs, under compulsion; it is anti-educational; it puts children off; it narrows the range of values rather than increasing it; it causes children to devalue learning and to devalue adults who inflict it on them; second, it should be possible to offer such boys a higher proportion (ratio) of physical activity in a flexible curriculum. Less academic pursuits might lessen their aversion to forced feeding.

Problems of control lead to a lot of "Be quiet, sit still, get on with your (reading and writing) work." A more positive approach would be to give more time than now to teaching children how to talk and move (dance, drama, physical education, discussion, pupils explaining a point) as well as teaching them to do sitting still kinds of work. Philosophy with Children is a promising move towards children learning to talk—and towards teachers learning to educate themselves by listening to children!

With some help, children can sometimes teach each other, achieving a one to one pupil-teacher ratio! They often understand each other better than adults do, because they are more nearly equal to each other in heart, mind, body and language than they are to adults. It is often said that "You don't really understand things until you teach them." We learn in teaching. It may seem to take longer but, if com-prehension (with-grasping) is achieved, it may be quicker.

We could divide time more equally, if we valued children equally with our selves, between teacher's talking, activity and movement (100% in a lecture), and children talking, moving and doing. We could get children's bodies into learning activities in many more ways as aids to developing their imagination, feelings and emotions—their motiv-ation.

Without emotion, we would not want to learn, to move, to use reasoning or to discuss, let alone to educate others. Valuing includes emotional commitment, with reasons which are motivating values.

We, and our children, need to learn to value, and to be valued, more widely, more deeply, in more dimensions, if we are to move in more value-profitable directions. Children might learn to learn—to enjoy and value learning, in activities which they value, and so be motivated (even, is it too much to hope?) inspired to continue learning on their own.

If a young person leaves school not wanting to open another book, not valuing or wanting to associate in main-stream society as an adult, education has failed, however much knowledge has been acquired. One of the reasons we fail is that every current generation of adults tries to educate children in its own values. Since adults in charge of this process are, inevitably, top people, the values they attempt to transmit (under compulsion) are, unavoidably, the values of top people, powerfully influenced by experts who are top academics or politicians with perspectives which are dimensionally narrow and "top-down".

It is in the nature of responsible authorities to behave like this, with good intentions. They can, it seems, do no other? They must act as they value? Yes, but they could value more widely.

For a large proportion of our population, possibly a majority, this may be disastrous. We fail them but we say, from "above", that they fail. Who is responsible for this? In authenticity, adults must surely say "guilty" or "responsible". With impersonal inauthenticity and pharisaical "morality" we tend to say "Not guilty" and find escape-goats elsewhere. I think the responsibility buck stops with us. Escape-goats wander back into town.

In the words of Jesus—still, I think, the greatest secular philosopher in European history—we "Lay upon them heavy burdens, grievous to be borne" (Matthew 23, 4). We then wring our hands about the "immorality" of what is, in effect, our own "sub-culture". That "sub"-culture is a reflection, as in a mirror, of our own "high" and "moral" "supra" (top) culture. Judgments of "high" and "low" in this context are boomerangs. Everything works together for the good of the middle classes—because the middle classes arrange everything in accordance with their common sense consensus of values. Those values are not universal—universe-wide. Energetic dynamos are promoted to "top" positions. They then go into action, dynamo-style, and make everyone below them work harder; busy-ness escalates. The "horses" are out of hand. Is it value-profitable? Does valuing increase?


For Jesus, I think the "pearl of great price" for which everything else should be given up or subordinated, was "spirit" "God (the supreme power or value) is spirit" John 4, 24. Spirit is one of my dimensions but, although I think it is the most important dimension, I have not so far discussed it. The topic is vast, all-embracing, and I can do it only rough justice by ending with it in terms which are inevitably too simple and banal. I take the meaning of "spirit" to be something like that in which we say "That's the right spirit, or attitude." Integration of all other dimensions into a whole.

In this perspective, still a secular one for me, the most important thing about an action is not the action itself, but the spirit in which it is undertaken. If we get the spirit right, Jesus seems to say, everything else will fall into place ("be added unto you"). I may do the same "good" bodily action, say visiting a lonely old lady, in several different spirits or attitudes: moral duty and "do-gooding"; charitable, top-down "helping the afflicted"; to ease my conscience as one of the "winners" in life; in several other "spirits".

In each of those attitudes, as in much of what passes for morality, I think there is a spirit of mauvaise foi—I am not doing what I really really want to do ("ought" almost always implies "don't want to"). I am not doing, nor becoming, what I love. I am internally divided, in conflict.

Unless I am a very good actor, the recipient of my help is likely to feel uncomfortable, inferior, perhaps pitied, devalued. A good actor "becomes" the person he acts.

Both I and the old lady are likely to feel better about it, even enjoy a laugh together about it, if I can go in a spirit of equal friendship. I am not above her, trying to pull her out of her hole from above on my higher, firm ground, but alongside her, in a "joint" hole, or a similarly deep but different one, as an equal, a friend. We may be able to help each other out, together, if each of us can identify the kinds of hole we are in. It is a narcissistic mistake to think I am not in one, that "I am all right, Jack".

The "spirit" needed is that of loving and seeing my neighbour as (as if she were) my self and vice versa, seeing my self as my neighbour, enemy, farthest, strangest, most "foreign" stranger—to enter into another life, into all dimensions of another person's perspective, as my own—to become her, in imagination. It is an ancient idea, as old as Confucius "Imagine that my heart was yours" and vice versa, but still new and revolutionary, little understood. Lovers probably come nearest to understanding the reciprocal "two-way" (spiritual) intercourse, "two in one" spirit of it.

That is, I suggest, the imaginative, multi-dimensional perspective, or spirit, above and beyond ethics. It would make morality redundant because I would not want to harm my neighbour if I loved her. It would be harming my self. "He that loseth his narrow self-life-identity-master-ego shall find it" again, more abundantly, in and as other people, conditionally, non-judgmentally loving and loved.

I cannot end better than with Jim Garrison's "We become what we love." Let us love more—more widely, more deeply, more multi-dimensionally.

* * *


Although I have not quoted them verbatim, my account owes much to many other people. I must mention the following in particular, at risk of omitting the names of many other people who have influenced and inspired me.

Karin Murris, Roger Sutcliffe and many others engaged in philosophy with children have demonstrated the possibilities and advantages of children talking and thinking in a spirit of community exploration.

Contributors to the volume Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child, (Best, 1996) particularly Terry McLaughlin and Roger Prentice. I found the latter's nine "domains" interestingly similar to my nine dimensions.

Sheryle Bergmann-Drewe. Her book Creative Dance: Enriching Understanding (1996) and subsequent discussion with her were a major source of inspiration for the "multi-dimensional" theme, particularly the emphasis on "talking" with our bodies and actions.

Jeff Lewis, and his paper Spiritual Education As the Cultivation of Qualities of Heart and Mind. A Reply to Blake and Carr (Due to appear in The Oxford Review of Education, March 2000). He makes a strong case for the importance of spiritual education and for a holistic approach as central to it.

In my secular approach to the sayings of Jesus as those of a philosopher in the tradition of the Cynics and Socrates, I received powerful reinforcement in Burton Mack's (1993) book The Lost Gospel; the Book of Q and Christian Origins. Summarising the themes in Q1, Mack writes "These themes point to a way of life that historians recognise as a pattern of behaviour highly recommended by popular philosophers during the hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods. Q1 enjoins a practical ethic of the times widely known as Cynic." (p. 114)

Jane McKie and Vilia Velikova who made helpful comments on earlier versions.


note 1

Language itself contains, perhaps, if imagination and emotion are sufficiently stirred, all the dimensions of which we are aware or which we can imagine. My point is simply that the activity of the pupils is both sedentary and moving hand and pen, or eye, only over flat paper. (Back)

note 2

According to relativity theory, the speed of light is believed to be constant, in vacuo, in any frame of reference, but the speed changes in a medium such as glass or water. It is not 100% clear whether the "absolute" constancy of "c" is an empirical fact, or an assumption on which the theory is constructed. A bit of both, probably. I think Einstein would call it an assumption or hypothesis, like most of science, supported by all observations so far. It is certainly not a directly observable fact, and the theory of relativity is still relatively new. It presents many puzzles. (Back)

note 3

The wording of the first commandment is slightly different ("mind" is omitted) in Deuteronomy 6: 5, when compared with the new testament version. The second commandment does not occur explicitly in the Old Testament (so far as I can find) but Jesus seems to have thought that it "fulfilled", in a positive sense, the many negative commandments about "thy neighbour" in the ten commandments. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22: 40). He is very frequently presented by the gospel writers as referring back to, and then modifying, teachings from the Old Testament. It is not altogether possible to distinguish what Jesus historically said from what the Gospel writers wrote. With Socrates we have a similar problem, vis a vis Plato. (Back)


BRAMALL, Steve and WHITE, John (2000); Will the National Curriculum live up to its aims? Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB), London.

BERGMANN-DREWE, Sheryle (1996); Creative Dance: enriching Understanding.Alberta, Detselig Enterprises

BEST, Ron, (1996)(Ed); Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child, London, Cassell.

LEWIS, Jeff (Forthcoming, 2000); Spiritual Education as the Cultivation of Qualities of Heart and Mind, Oxford Review of Education

MACK, Burton (1993); The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, Shaftesbury, Element Books

GARRISON, James (1997); Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching, Teachers College Press, New York and London.

McLAUGHLIN, Terence (1996); Education of the Whole Child? in Best, Ron, op. cit.

PRENTICE, Roger (1996); The Spirit of Education: a model for the twenty-first century in Best, Ron, op. cit.

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