What is a holistic approach to education?

Hello and welcome.

Have you thought, 'What is a holistic approach to education?"

In essence, holism is about how a whole and its parts relate to each other. 

But, what does that have to do with education?

It's trivially obvious that a student is part of a school, but which whole matters: the whole child or the whole school?

What Is A Non-Holistic Approach?

My name is Don Berg.

Schools that are regarded as “traditional” are sometimes regarded as treating students as willful individuals in need of strict training in order to overcome their evil childishness, which leads believers in this idea to organize their institution of school in a certain way. 

Other schools have been said to be treating students as having inherently good souls who have a natural curiosity to master the world if that curiosity is actively cultivated. 

These folks are usually referred to as “romantics” who also recognize that through institutional neglect or active corruption students could become evil, too. 

The romantics blame the traditional schools for causing bad outcomes for too many students.

They regard traditional schools as inherently corrupt because they are an example of a self-fulfilling prophesy that generates the very evil it is intended to avoid.

The primary concern for both of these models is for the whole school and how it serves the purposes of society.

Holism, properly understood, is a rejection of both these premises as too narrowly focused on how schools will shape individual students.

But, there are both shallow and deep versions of “holism.”

What Is A Holistic Approach, In The SHALLOW end?

On the surface level, holism takes a broader or more encompassing view of the individuals served by the school institution. 

From this shallow view, for instance, a child is observed to have, not only a head, but also hands and a heart. 

Academics are regarded as a head-engaging intellectual activity.

The stereotypical image of schools that emphasize test scores and getting into college are criticized for being too exclusively focused on the head.

A better educational experience for students is the focus of this brand of “holism.” 

Students are acknowledged to have a head, heart, and hands that all need to be trained or cultivated.

A “holistic” educator in this sense might advocate for more practical experiences that engage them in doing handiwork and address the “heart” by adding social-emotional skills to the curriculum.

Another potentially shallow approach could be to throw in the term “spiritual.” 

The term “spiritual” might just serve as a short-hand to encompass adding hand and heart stuff.

But, “spirituality” might also mean adding religious instruction and some religious rituals into students' school days.

Some Waldorf and Catholic schools, for instance, may claim the title of “holistic” on the basis that their curriculum is supposed to address both spiritual and intellectual development.

This is often expressed as a concern for the whole child. 

It is a shallow take on holism as long as the whole school is neglected.

What Is A Holistic Approach, But Deeper?

In order to draw on what I consider to be a deeper notion of holism the idea of a school must extend beyond the development of the individual student and take into account how the whole of the school institution shapes, and IS SHAPED BY, the individuals that make it up.

Deeply holistic schools expect to be influenced by their students.

They recognize that wholes and parts are mutually interdependent, so the influence goes both ways, though it is, obviously, stronger going from the whole group to the individual part.

Holism is a view that recognizes that parts and wholes are inseparable. 

Any separation we might talk about is merely an imaginative intellectual exercise, not an accurate reflection of reality.

The wholes that matter are students and the school and the society and the ecologies and so on.

A deeper holistic perspective on education only talks about individuals distinct from groups in this imaginative sense. 

The underlying assumption is that both every whole and every part we happen to identify are simultaneously wholes AND parts.

What Is A Holistic Approach to Science and Complex Systems

If we can label all wholes and parts as systems then we can begin to figure out what all the systems have in common.

In order to talk productively about holism we have to talk about how systems work. 

And in our discussion of systems we need to distinguish the causal dynamics from the froth of various other salient, but non-causal, stuff that happens.

We need to distinguish the sound and fury signifying nothing, from the rub that actually matters.

I believe that science is the best gauge of the causal nature of reality that we have available.

Physics, chemistry, and biology are each fields of study that deal with a somewhat distinct level of causality within our holistic reality.

Given that those fields of science are interdependent by definition, it strikes me that some form of deeper holism is unavoidable within science.

A holistic perspective is necessary to appreciate how the fields relate to each other.

For instance, chemistry deals with atoms and molecules.

If a biologist wants to understand how the cells that make up an organism work she has to work within the constraints of how chemists understand the workings of molecules.

A doctor is essentially an applied biologist and so the doctor is just as constrained by the principles of chemistry as any regular biologist.

What Is A Holistic Approach to Causal Systems in Education 

Applying this to schooling: psychology is the relevant scientific field for dealing with educational causality.

Educators are essentially applied psychologists and must work within the constraints of psychology, which must work within the constraints of biology, which is constrained by chemistry, all of which are constrained by the fundamental principles of physics. 

This is important because by separating out the most central causal elements in education from peripheral or unrelated elements we can be much more effective at achieving our educative aims.

At the most basic level in education we are concerned with enabling individuals to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations that are appropriate to their situation, without necessarily being consciously aware that they did any of those particular things. 

In this definition the phrase "appropriate to their situation" carries the most significant burden for educators.

Using this kind of holistic approach charges us with the obligation to put the situation at the center of our educative concern in two different ways.

First, remember that the behavior of the whole group emerges out of the interactions among the individual parts that make it up, this is a basic principle of holism. 

Therefore, a holistic view of human situations implies that the central defining causal feature is the way that participants govern their own and other members behavior.

Second, holistic educators must also consider how the individuals to be educated come to understand their situation as participants within a variety of groupings; including as a bodily assemblage of cells, as a psychological assemblage of minds, in relationship dyads, in organizations, in societies, and in ecologies. 

Human behaviors at these six scales have impact on both immediate and long term well-being for the person taking the action and potentially many others. 

Cognitive scientists have found that morality is fundamentally about well-being. 

Therefore, causal impact on those six levels affect well-being which means those decisions have moral weight.

Having that scope of potential impact on well-being defines the human moral universe.

What Is A Holistic Approach to The Human Moral Universe

If we do not understand the nature of the moral universe in which we exist then we cannot take appropriate actions to protect and promote the well-being of ourselves and everyone else we care about. 

Any individual who misunderstands their situation is one who is at a severe disadvantage as they attempt to generate appropriate behaviors. 

By definition, a misconception about their situation is going to increase the chances that they will be guided to enact INappropriate behaviors. 

Of course, all of us are always at this kind of disadvantage to some degree, but learning deeply over time, such that someone would qualify to be called “educated,” is the key to getting better and better at making good morally defensible decisions. 

The power of situations is super difficult to understand because our day-to-day understandings of how we live and act in the world make it seem like we have a lot more power to be in touch with reality than we really do. 

We like to think that we each have a stable and consistent personality that determines our behavior with regard to every situation.

And we intuitively suppose each situation to be a reality delivered directly to us by our senses. 

We do NOT like to think that our personality changes every time we enter a different situation or that what our senses deliver to us is an impoverished and severely incomplete shadow of a hidden reality.

However, decades of careful cognitive scientific and psychological research forces us to the latter conclusion.

What Is A Holistic Approach to Educational Leverage

Holism might seem to introduce a lot of unnecessary complications if you think that it entails keeping track of everything going on at all levels at all times, because that WOULD be crazy making.

But the key to a practical holistic approach is to focus on the leverage points at lower levels that cause  things to happen at higher levels.

Consider an analogy.

The secret to energy abundance is to respect the principles of physics that enable us understand and harness energy possibilities that exist at the atomic level.

Albert Einstein’s Nobel Prize was awarded for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. 

It was his explanation that opened the way to solar energy becoming a practical alternative to fossil fuels.

Einstein's lesser insights into relativity were instrumental in the development of nuclear energy which is WAY more efficient than either fossil fuels or solar if you ignore the issues of cleaning up and storing waste. 

Viable alternatives to fossil fuel energy use the “leverage” of that lower level to power the much higher levels at which we live.

Similarly, the psychological framework of Self-Determination Theory has revealed that there are leverage points at a lower level in the learning process that can enable the higher level of instruction to become far more effective and efficient. 

The psychological leverage points for education are the four elements of primary psychological need satisfaction.

In short, by ensuring the satisfaction of those four needs consistently, educators will maximize their positive influence on the learners they are supporting.

In Conclusion, What Is A Holistic Approach?

So, you were wondering what a holistic approach to education is.

In my view, a holistic approach to education means embracing science as a holistic approach to the hidden causal structure of reality.

Holism entails scientific humility about what we know and more importantly how much we don't know.

A holistic approach to education means recognizing how central Self-Determination Theory is to a scientific understanding of how learning is shaped by human nature, as minimally described by primary needs.

The proper application of what we know about primary needs means ensuring that all the humans in schools have those needs satisfied as leverage to produce the deeper learning we have always expected our schools to facilitate. 

School institutions can best achieve their educative goals by enabling members of each school community to accurately understand their situation and how to exercise their agency productively within that situation.

Catalytic Pedagogy is my term for the process of harnessing the “leverage” of human needs.

It includes a model of non-academic datasets that will enable school leaders to better manage the hidden curriculum.

Holistic Equity is a description of the results of achieving Catalytic Pedagogy.

And, Back-to-Basics 2.0 is a strategic plan for implementing Catalytic Pedagogy within an organization.

Since you were wondering what a holistic approach to education is, I hope that you now understand that it is a way of seeing education as a complex process embedded in several different levels of reality. 

It is not enough to think about the whole child.

The whole school, the whole society, and the whole planet also deserve our consideration.

If you aren't there already, you can learn more at Holistic Equity DOT org.

Thanks for watching.

This article was printed from HolisticEquityc.com

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