To Use Their Minds Well: Great Hearts

“The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well.” That’s the first common principle of the Coalition of Essential Schools; it’s what Ted Sizer tried to teach us. Schools that teach young people to use their minds well start with good goals. They have what Larry Rosenstock at High Tech High calls a common intellectual mission; big founding ideals that shape structure, schedule, staffing, and systems and create a coherence in learner experience (see pictures).

Karla Phillips, Foundation for Excellence in Education, Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, and I visited two school networks in Phoenix last week that teach young people to use their minds well, Great Hearts and BASIS. They exhibit a high degree of academic coherence, they are networks of small and focused learning communities rather than large comprehensive schools. They are decidedly low tech and high touch. They are innovative primarily because they have retained the lessons about good schools that the rest of us forgot. Today we’ll recap Great Hearts, an Arizona network of 19 schools that is also expanding into San Antonio and Dallas. In a few days we’ll summarize our visit to BASIS.


Socratic. Daniel Scoggin launched Great Hearts Academies ten years ago with unwavering commitment to classical, liberal arts education. Serving over 9,500 students in 19 Arizona campuses, Great Hearts’ goal is to graduate “great-hearted” young men and women who possess a sense of destiny and purpose that is directed to the service of the greater good. By engaging in an intense and formative dialogue with the great books and ideas of western culture and by conversing with peers and teachers who also seek the truth, students come to understand more fully what it means to be a human being.

The Phoenix-based network leader seeks to restore classical liberal arts education for modern times. “We need big-picture thinkers and philosophers to lead in this era of hyper-specialization and self-interest,” he says. Elementary schools follow the Core Knowledge curriculum with an extra dose of Socratic dialogue.

There are no electives in the 700 student secondary school. All the graduates go to college, most of them selective. Critics argue that’s possible only because Great Hearts target middle income communities, although the schools in Phoenix serve the entire Metro area, including low-income communities.

The high school day starts with Humane Letters, a two-hour Socratic seminar where students read great books and the founding documents. They ask, what does it mean to be human? What is justice? Students apply two rules: textual evidence and reason in the common pursuit of truth. Students form habits of real conversation, and not a debate, winner-takes-all approach. Seniors write a thesis and defend their work in front of a panel and their peers.

High-minded culture is valued over pop culture at Great Hearts–the study of the arts, spirit, law, and philosophy. “Character is not an outcome – it is a state of being first,” said Scoggin (in a 2013 interview). “Character arises from forming habits of heart.” Elementary students at Great Hearts focus on “comportment.”


Raphael’s painting School of Athens (1510) adorns all Great Hearts schools–placing the Aristotle-Socrates dialectic center-stage. There’s no BYOD here, Scoggins thinks, “Kids need a place away from technology to relax and think big thoughts.” Veritas Prep principal Douglas Minson said kids in other schools don’t learn to be with each other when they’re texting all the time.

Scoggins uses unusual language to describe aims: the lifelong pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. He says the main goal of the program is to form virtuous young men and women, citing the classical meaning of virtue that encompasses, the mind, heart, and body. The academies also have robust and competitive athletic programs, unusual for charter schools.

Singapore. Great Hearts elementary schools use Singapore math with a dose of manipulatives. Middle grade math teachers introduce math concepts before procedures.

About age cohorts in rows Minson says it’s “Ordered joy.” Students appear unusually obedient but do seem to enjoy and appreciate their classical education when queried.

Archway Classical Academy principal William Haley said they are open to innovation.

They are currently planning a small break from tradition–a grade 4-5 adaptive learning pilot with Reasoning Mind.

Ancient and American history is taught in every elementary grade using Susan Wise Bauer history books.

On Wednesday students leave at lunch time and teachers have time to work and learn together.

Elementary teachers work in a six person grade level team with a lead teacher and a teaching assistant in every classroom. Art and music is a regular part of every week. Penmanship starts in first grade, cursive in second.

Great Hearts provides a robust array of extracurriculars from Chess Club to most major sports.

Families are lining up in Phoenix with two or three applicants for every seat. “Families want a school that stands for something,” said Scoggins, “They long for a classical, whole-person focus.”

Students using desktops as whiteboards

Symphony. Great Hearts Veritas Prep and Archway Classical Academy are co-located just south of Camelback Mountain and east of downtown Phoenix in a renovated Motorola plant.

Every high school student participates in dramatic arts and music. The Phoenix Symphony performs monthly in the theater.

Great Hearts students do a lot of text-focused writing in every class. “The senior thesis is the first opportunity to make a truth claim,” said Minson. Thesis topics, like truth and certainty, are explored in writing and presented to a community panel.

National Academic Officer Robert Jackson came from Kings College in Manhattan. Many of the teachers are graduates of great book programs at St. Johns College.

Support. Two new Great Hearts Academies will open in the fall including one in Dallas.

The State of Arizona only provides $6,500 per student to the charter network leaving a philanthropic gap of about $1,500. The network has received some growth capital from Charter School Growth Fund and the Kern Family Foundation. Parent donors have generously supported new campuses.

While intentionally low tech, Great Hearts is a great example of a network of school communities animated by big ideas, powerful relationships, and great teaching.

For more on charter networks, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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