Friday, June 19, 2009

Holistic Education - An Introduction

The highest function of education is to bring about an integrated individual who is capable of dealing with life as a whole.
-J. Krishnamurti

Purpose of Holistic Education

The purpose of holistic education is to prepare students to meet the challenges of living as well as academics. Holistic education believes it is important for young people to learn:

  • About themselves.
  • About healthy relationships and pro-social behavior.
  • Social development.
  • Emotional development.
  • Resilience.
  • To see beauty, have awe, experience transcendence, and appreciate some sense of "truths."

Consider your life's greatest challenges. What did you need to know to overcome the obstacles you faced? Consider your greatest successes. What did you need to know in order to achieve those successes? Then ask yourself, how many of those things that I needed to know did I learn in school?

For thousands of years before schools there were social groups which taught people about the great adventure of being human; its trials and tribulations, its challenges, and its enormous possibilities for human goodness and even greatness. These groups were extended families, communities or tribes or clans, and religions. For the most part, these groups have disappeared or become compartmentalized in people's lives.

Now, it is predominantly popular culture (the media, music) and schools from which young people can learn about what it means to be human. But culture has it own agenda (not the welfare of children), and schools were not designed to replace extended families, communities, and religions. They were designed to prepare people for the world of work; to give them the skill sets that would help them up the ladder of material success.

Why Holistic Education?

Parents, in increasing numbers, are seeking alternatives to mainstream education. Few could criticize the commitment to academic excellence that most schools and teachers have and work hard to actualize. But more and more parents realize that just learning academics is not enough, and they see young people in their communities suffering from a lack of needed learning, and society suffering as well.

Parents worry about the negative social influence they see affecting their children. Parents see themselves having less impact on their children's behavior, relationships, and attitudes than the media and marketing which directly targets children. As a result children's senses of themselves and self-images are under pressure. This pressure is expressed in:

  • Increased competitiveness in many aspects of a child's social life, such as sports, out-of-school activities, and of course, school.
  • Obsessive concern for their "look," from their body shape to their clothes.
  • Violence in many forms, from the physical to the psychological and emotional.

Parents are also worried about negative learning attitudes they see developing in their children. Parents saw their children as infants eager to learn, and this eagerness dissipated as these same children's schooling increased. Learning becomes a necessary chore, driven by rewards and punishments, and too often devoid of direct meaning in their children's lives.

Many parents also look at our current society in which social problems seem to be getting worse; in which those considered successful are too often greedy, corrupt, and brutal; in which families and communities seem increasingly dysfunctional; and they ask, "Why aren't we as humans learning what we need to know in order to live good and meaningful lives?"

It doesn't appear that we will learn such things from learning more mathematics, literature, or history. Parents see the need for their children to learn these other things as well as academics, and they look for schools that give time, attention, energy, and resources, to such learning. Parents generally do not come to holistic education from philosophical musings, but from a perceived need for their children that they feel is not currently met.

What do children need to learn?

Children need to develop academic capacities as these are required to live in the modern world. But much more than this is needed, and adults looking at what was required in order to meet the many challenges of their lives and the successes they have had can attest to this. The essential learning that we all need should begin in childhood.

Children need to begin to learn about themselves. The value of "knowing thyself" is so undisputed as to be a cliché, but conveying to children that they are worth knowing about seems fundamental to healthy self-respect and self-esteem.

Children also need to learn about relationships. Relationships are the greatest source of human happiness and misery, yet most children only have the relationships they see in their immediate surroundings (e.g., family, friends, etc.) and on the media (which are usually caricatures and unreal) to learn from. Sociology and child development psychology repeatedly affirms that learning about relationships is acquired and not inherent, and yet the institutions created for children's learning have little to no time nor resources given to helping children learn how to have healthy, productive relationships.

Learning about relationships is sometimes seen as part of social development, which includes pro-social behavior and social "literacy" (i.e., learning to see social influence). As our societies become increasingly pluralist, complex, and fraught, social development becomes more difficult as well as more necessary.

Over the last decade research has demonstrated that emotional development, or what has become known as "emotional literacy," is of fundamental importance. Learning emotional literacy has been shown to be crucial for intellectual development, social development, aesthetic development, and health.

Studies have shown that resilience is not an inherent quality, but one that is learned. Resilience is fundamental to overcoming difficulties, facing challenges, and long-term success in any field. Children must learn resilience.

Finally, children must learn that seeing beauty, having awe, experiencing transcendence, and appreciating those timeless "truths" which have inspired and sustained individuals and cultures are a natural part of life. The mundane and material (while important) have assumed too great a place in modern life, leaving a hunger for meaning that is often difficult to satisfy.

Helping Children Learn What They Need to Learn

One of the tools that holistic education uses to help children learn what they need to learn is 'meaningfulness'. People of all ages find it difficult to learn things which are not meaningful to them, and conversely, they find that it requires much less effort to learn things that are meaningful. This means that a holistic school will respect and work with the meaning structures that a child comes with rather than begin from a perspective of what "should" be meaningful to a child. Events and dynamics (fear, conflict, friendships, etc.) are part of every child's life and they are interested in these things. These can be the starting point for learning any of the academic skills that every child needs to master.

Another tool that holistic education uses to help children learn is flexible pacing. Not all children learn at the same speed, and no child learns at the same speed all the time. Learning is an inherently creative act, and it requires a system that can move with the individual meaning making of each child. When lessons are too slow, a child gets bored, and when it is too fast, the child gets lost and then loses interest in the subject. If children are seen and treated as individuals, there is no need to have groups move at some arbitrarily determined learning pace.

What About Other Pressing Issues?

Many people today feel that there are concerns which are so pressing that these concerns must be solved before any others (like developing alternative forms of education) are addressed. Such people will say that one can not discuss philosophy with someone starving - feed the person first, and then one can give time and energy to philosophy.

Holistic education has seen the situation a bit differently, and thinks this metaphor is inadequate. Let us assume that a person is starving unnecessarily because that person has some fundamentally mistaken notions. Perhaps one needs to feed the person initially, but no amount of just feeding the person will help; simply giving them food will only mean they end up starving again later. Holistic education has long maintained that mis-education or inadequate education lies at the roots of our modern problems, and a different kind of education has a real chance of solving them.

For the way that holistic education has seen and responded to some of today's pressing concerns see:

Values in Holistic Education (PDF) - details the primary values that most schools claiming to be holistic would embrace.

Socially Responsible Education (PDF) - discusses the implications of being responsible to society, versus being responsible for society. Forbes considers the underlying values of different social groups, and what it means to help students navigate the "turbulent waters" of competing social entities.

Freedom and Education (PDF) - discusses freedom in its deepest and most time honored form, and what the implications are for education if such freedom is valued.

Education as a Religious Activity: Krishnamurti's Insights into Education (PDF) - summarizes the implications of Krishnamurti’s work in education for 1) the intentions of education, 2) the physical nature and places for education, 3) the nature of the students and staff, and 4) the activities of an education center.

Other Pressing Concerns (series of web articles) - includes
1) A Response to Ecological Concerns, and
2) A Response to Social and Familial Dysfunction.

What Holistic Education Claims About Itself: An Analysis of Holistic Schools' Literature (PDF) - research report summarizing a study completed in 2004 of 72 schools and programs with holistic characteristics for K-12 education.


For Further Reading...

For more serious inquiry into Holistic Education, we also recommend Krishnamurti's book Education and the Significance of Life (1953), as well as Scott H. Forbes's book entitled, Holistic Education: An Analysis of Its Ideas and Nature (2003). More readings can also be found in Holistic Education: A Bibliography.

What is Holistic Education?

by Ron Miller

* * * * *

Throughout the two hundred year history of public schooling, a widely scattered group of critics have pointed out that the education of young human beings should involve much more than simply molding them into future workers or citizens. The Swiss humanitarian Johann Pestalozzi, the American transcendentalists Thoreau, Emerson, and Alcott, many of those in the “progressive” education movement, and pioneers such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, among others, all insisted that education should be understood as the art of cultivating the moral, emotional, physical, psychological, artistic, and spiritual—as well as intellectual—dimensions of the developing child. During the 1970s, an emerging body of literature in science, philosophy, and cultural history provided an overarching concept to describe this way of understanding education—a perspective often termed “holism.” A holistic way of thinking seeks to encompass and integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience rather than defining human possibilities narrowly. Every child is more than a future employee; every person’s intelligence and abilities are far more complex than his or her scores on standardized tests.

Holistic education is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from young people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is done not through an academic “curriculum” that condenses the world into instructional packages, but through direct engagement with the environment. Holistic education nurtures a sense of wonder. Montessori, for example, spoke of “cosmic” education—help the young person feel a part of the wholeness of the universe, and learning will naturally be enchanted and inviting. There is no one best way to accomplish this goal, there are many paths of learning and the holistic educator values them all; what is appropriate for some children, in some situations, in some historical and social contexts, may not be best for others. The art of holistic education lies in its responsiveness to the diverse learning styles and needs of evolving human beings.

This attitude toward teaching and learning inspires many homeschooling families as well as educators in public and alternative schools. While few public schools are entirely committed to holistic principles, many teachers try hard to put many of these ideas into practice. By fostering collaboration rather than competition in classrooms, teachers help young people feel connected. By using real-life experiences, current events, the dramatic arts and other lively sources of knowledge in place of textbook information, teachers can kindle the love of learning. By encouraging reflection and questioning rather than passive memorization of “facts,” teachers keep alive the “flame of intelligence” that is so much more than abstract problem-solving skill. By accommodating differences and refusing to label children as “learning disabled” or “hyperactive,” teachers bring out the unique gifts contained within each child’s spirit.

The community learning center model is not necessarily bound to a fully developed “holistic” philosophy of education—any given community could decide to set up a resource center with an emphasis on helping people acquire job skills, for example. Even so, any transition from a hierarchically managed system of mass schooling to local, participant-controlled places of learning is likely to foster more experiential, more cooperative, more personal forms of learning, and would thereby produce a more holistic educational system, in the broad sense of the term.

For further reading on holistic education, see:

Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life (orig. 1953; San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1981.)

David Marshak, The Common Vision: Parenting and Educating for Wholeness (New York: Peter Lang, 1997)

Jane Roland Martin, The Schoolhome: Rethinking Schools for Changing Families (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992)

John P. Miller, The Holistic Curriculum (2nd edition; Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Press, 1996) and Education and the Soul: Towards a Spiritual Curriculum (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999)

Ron Miller, What Are Schools For? Holistic Education in American Culture (3rd edition; Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press, 1997).

James Moffett, The Universal Schoolhouse: Spiritual Awakening Through Education (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1994)

Parker Palmer, To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (orig. 1983; San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993)

Holistic Education Press carries additional books and publishes the journal Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, the primary periodical in holistic education. Contact them at P.O. Box 328, Brandon, Vermont 05733; 800-639-4122;

* * * * *