THE BLOG

Embracing The Benefits Of Holistic Education

01/05/2016 11:51 EST | Updated 01/05/2017 05:12 EST

"The world only spins forward," wrote Tony Kushner. Schools, on the other hand, too often only spin. Or they get stuck altogether. When they do, blame does not always lie tidily with teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, or the government, and certainly not with "kids these days." We look for answers, but fail to step back to the philosophical.

Holistic Education is a framework -- both a prevention and a cure -- for schools and school systems that spin or get stuck. Because it's 2016, we need to use the evidence we have to address real areas of need in both private and public schools, and make certain things a 'given'.

Here are a few suggestions.

Firstly, we need to dissolve divisions between subjects. Because it's 2016, scientific research has allowed us to see more of the butterfly effect: interconnectedness and interdependence in the world. Yet we still sit teens in 75-minute periods that separate physics and English, social studies and history, math and music, geography and economics, even physical education and biology.

We separate so we can measure more easily, but out of an intention to improve educational accountability, we put the curriculum before the person and end up with an epidemic of anxiety and alienation. How many kids love school?

Secondly, we need to educate the whole child. Because it's 2016, science also continues to reveal how mind and body interact. But we still treat kids as a 'brain on a stick', sitting them in classrooms as we attempt to cater exclusively to the intellect. Gandhi said the mind, body, and spirit (the head, hands, and heart) comprise an "indivisible whole," and that it's a "gross fallacy" to think these three can be developed independently of one another. We commit this gross fallacy in schools every day.

Schools at every level all over the world are dedicating more and more of their days to fitting square pegs into round holes and preparing staff and students for standardized tests. Kids are taught both implicitly and explicitly to accumulate, compete, compare, and be successful by seeking fulfillment as good little cogs in an economic wheel. Only 18% of teachers in the United States say the tests they are asked to administer are useful, writes Prof. Jack Miller, in his 2010 book Whole Child Education.

Thirdly, we need to prioritize compassion and care. Kids in school are implicitly taught to see themselves as a number. The higher the grade, the more important they feel; the grade evaluates their worth and, from their perspective, shows how much someone recognizes and cares about them. They're punished for being different, taking risks, questioning the teacher, or giving the 'wrong' answer. As early as preschool, they watch the teacher congratulate the fastest reader. Everyone wants to become that kid, but that kid wants to be seen for what he or she is: a whole person, and more than an accomplishment or an academic average.

Kids in school are told of their "potential," then live their lives wondering if they've reached it. They are required to choose what they want to be when they grow up by the age of 17, or risk feeling like a failure.

Where is the kindness? What are we doing? Why do we cling to this educational model when, by now, we know better? Because it's 2016, why don't we scrap the curriculum and adapt teaching and learning to cater to students' individual needs, while making the school a beloved community that puts personal and collective flourishing, intrigue, and engagement first?

Holistic Education, to provide more context, is balance, inclusion, and connection throughout the school. It is, as Ramon Gallegos Nava writes, "educating individuals to live responsibly in an emergent, sustainable culture," and the avoidance of "erroneous educational decisions that could negatively affect the lives of our children and young people."

Balance is emphasized between the individual and the group, content and process, knowledge and imagination, the rational and the intuitive, the quantitative and the qualitative, as well as in teaching strategies (transmissive, transactional, and transformative).

Inclusion is emphasized in making room for students' questions and learning to negotiate difference with compassion at the centre.

Connection is emphasized in six forms: between linear and intuitive thinking, mind and body, areas of knowledge, self and community, the self and the Earth, and the personal and the transpersonal (the contemplative).

In Holistic Education, the Whole Teacher personifies patience, presence, caring, love, and humility. The teacher becomes an attentive presence in students' lives, working diligently for their overall well-being, in collaboration with the home.

Holistic Education uses everything the world has to offer (literature, music, movement, drama, math, science, and so on) to approach complex problems. It dissolves narrow 75-minute blocks in the name of integrated, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary learning. Love for the mystery and beauty of life is at the curriculum's core.

By and large, elementary schools do these things better than high schools, so when students hit the Grade 9 rotary, they get walloped with the message that the world is fragmented into discrete subject blocks, that their worth will be measured out of 100, that personal growth means surviving a tightly prescribed academic onslaught, and that the 'real world' will be neatly organized for them into simple subdivisions with success criteria neatly attached. This is not how real learning happens. Ms. Frizzle of the Magic School Bus said it best: "take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!" Why can't that be the paradigm in high schools, too?

Equinox Holistic Alternative School in Toronto is a very successful example of elementary education. In a hypothetical holistic secondary school, the music, history, English, drama, and international languages teachers collaborate as kids investigate and marvel at Don Giovanni. Or the science, English, and art departments collaborate for a project on photosynthesis. Or a question like 'How can we end poverty?' is written on the board, and we meet and exceed the curriculum in the areas of politics, economics, English, geography, civics, history, and more.

It's time to demand more of our education system, and there is a way. Holistic Education provides a framework for any school for balance, inclusion, and connection across the curriculum. We should put our knowledge of science, educational psychology, and economics to good use and really go about the business of cultivating inspired, empowered students with a hunger for continual exploration and discovery, a sense of collective responsibility, and an excitement about life. Then schools will spin forward with the world.

I would like to express deep thanks to Isis Lunsky, Lauren Bialystok, and Jack Miller for their guidance on this article.

Follow me on Twitter: @MishaAbarbanel