How Does Whole Child Education Work?

We know that treating schools as if they were factories turning out workers to compete in the world economy does not work. It fails to connect with what is highest and best in the child. We know that standardization, excessive testing, and narrowing the focus of education to measurable intellectual performance does not work. It leaves out too much of what it means to be a complete, spirited, fulfilled human being. We know from sad experience that No Child Left Behind has driven creative teachers from the profession, which in turn can leave students bored and alienated from the learning process. Recent books by Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling Hammond, and Horace Lucido document this. But what does work?

Brain science tells us that the more faculties, the more parts of the child’s brain we can engage, the more likely material will be retained and truly internalized. Recent writing by developmental cognitive neuroscientist Adele Diamond and by neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford (Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head) explain why this is so, as does the work of Linda Lantieri, Director of the Inner Resilience Program, and others who write about social and emotional intelligence. But thinking about learning holistically is not new. It goes back at least as far as Socrates. Some of its most articulate modern exponents have been Alfred North Whitehead, Parker Palmer, Deborah Meier, and Douglas Sloan. In fact, in this stream many approaches, with varying emphases, provide a range of options, but they have in common a vision of the child as a window opening upon almost infinite possibilities.

Making Cider

Some of the most successful examples of whole child education are found today in after-school programs that are not bound by rigid curriculum frameworks and which get children out of the classroom. One in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, called “After School Arts and Nature” took kids who were so at-risk many had been thrown out of other after-school programs. Yet they were able to connect with learning through drama, drumming, dancing, projects in nature and the community, cooking, and other creative activities. Though the program ended when funding ran out, through it and similar experiences we learn that you can teach math through movement and music. You can teach social studies through community projects. You can teach English through drama, and so on. Engaging more of the child, it is often possible to reach even the most difficult ones.

A program that has had ongoing success is called Place-Based Education. Popularized in David Sobel’s Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, published by the Orion Society, the book details not only how this project-based, interdisciplinary approach works in practice but also a number of remarkable success stories. His more recent book, Children and Nature, as well as the work of Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods), refines and develops this approach and shows how linking curriculum to the real world helps students become clear-thinking problem solvers, good stewards, and active citizens.

Aren’t these the very qualities needed for businesses to be successful? In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, astute entrepreneur and commentator on American business, Daniel Pink, observes that this country has already exported much of its manufacturing base. He projects that many more left-brain, intellectual, or routine functions will be offshored or automated in the future. “If a $500 a month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your job, TurboTax will.” In order to remain strong, both American business and education will have to develop creativity, invention, design skills, and the ability to synthesize information from diverse disciplines—the very things that are being ignored by the narrow, drill- and-kill routines of numbers-driven public education.

“We’ve progressed from a society of farmers (AGRICULTURAL AGE) to a society of factory workers (INDUSTRIAL AGE) to a society of knowledge workers (INFORMATION AGE). And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers (CONCEPTUAL AGE).”

Daniel Pink

Other examples of successful whole-child approaches include the Surface Creek Vision Home and Community Program in Colorado. This rural program takes elements of home schooling and traditional instruction and combines them with active and imaginative use of community resources, creating a program that parents are very enthusiastic about. In Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Mary Goral, author of the recent book Transformational Teaching, has introduced Waldorf-inspired teaching to regular public schools. Both Waldorf and Montessori approaches are inherently holistic and hence have been adopted in some mainstream and many charter schools. Certain schools have instituted programs in social and emotional learning to correct the glaring omission in this area when only cognitive/intellectual approaches are allowed. These schools are supported by the Open Circle Program in Massachusetts and The Inner Resilience Program.

See also: Schools That Are Doing It

With thanks for support and encouragement from The Myrin Institute and Orion magazine.