Objecting to “Putting academics first by focusing on the whole child”

A focus on the whole child contradicts putting academics first when the academics block our view of that whole child. 

The opening of a recent article put out on SmartBrief.com written by Dave Gibbons is alarming to me because of two commitments. 

First, as an educator, I take deeper learning to be generally regarded as necessary in today’s world. 

Second, as a psychologist, I take autonomous motivations and agentic engagement to be the key components of deeper learning.

Mr. Gibbons wrote: Quote “As a curriculum director, I believe it is our district’s responsibility to put academics first. 

Social and emotional learning and even physical development are important, and schools have a role to play in those areas as well, but the central component and goal of education should be the academic growth of our children.” End Quote

Politics of the Whole Child

This opening could be a rhetorical move to avoid controversy. 

The invocation of the “whole child” in the title might evoke reactions from educational “conservatives” that assume any possible diminishment of the importance of academic instruction is the end of the world. 

Educational “liberals” might assume that the move will serve to hide oppressive institutional patterns. 

As a rhetorical move, however, it might be obscuring a recognition that properly aligning the motivations and engagement for academic activities amongst teachers and students is, in fact, indispensable to achieving those academic goals. 

By aligned I mean that the motivations are more autonomous than controlled and that their engagement is more agentic, not merely behavioral. 

Achieving this kind of alignment is a necessary prerequisite to good instructional practice.


Or this opening could be a straightforward statement of belief that does not recognize how making academic instruction a higher priority than the well-being of children and teachers encourages the acceptance of more controlling motivations and shallower engagement. 

The effects of such acceptance would be to fundamentally undermine childrens’ and teachers’ abilities to deeply learn the academics that are supposed to be the top priority, thus creating a contradiction between the stated goal and the necessary conditions for achieving that goal.

Educating the Whole Child is Sailing Against the Winds of Ignorance

Let me illustrate this challenge. Imagine we are sailing on a sailboat. 

I am the captain. 

I have set the goal of arriving at a destination to the North. 

But, the wind is blowing from the North to the South. 

We are sailing in a boat that has fore-and-aft rigging, meaning the sails are designed for the express purpose of sailing against the wind, though it can only do so with the sails in a very specific configuration. 

The closest to true North we could possibly sail is still thirty degrees to the East or West. 

This means that attaining our goal will require us to tack, that means turning the boat back and forth in order to actually travel in the general direction of our destination. 

Tacking is bit like being on a trail on a steep hill in which the top of the hill is to the North and you have to walk back and forth along switchbacks that alternate between sections of the trail that make you face roughly East or West. 

On the hill you use switchbacks to make the climb easier; in a sailboat you use tacking to travel against the wind to sail to places that would otherwise be impossible to reach in that kind of boat.


If I am the captain and I refuse to set the sails in the appropriate way or refuse to use tacking maneuvers, then there is no chance that we can reach our destination. 

In education there is more leeway for success, but it is still counterproductive to undermine deeper learning in schools today. 

The result is learning that is shallower rather than deeper. 

My commitment to deeper learning means that accepting shallower leaning is not OK. 


In the holistic schooling contexts in which I have been an educator it is not uncommon to devalue the role of academics in favor of other factors. 

Holistic schools commonly recognize that education consists of far more than academic growth. 

This casual devaluing of academics might be the reason that holistic schools are marginal players in the over-all K-12 schooling industry. 

But, there is also no credible evidence that devaluing academics in favor of a richer conception of what counts as a “whole child” has any negative effects. 

In my view holistic schools have recognized that the children and teachers in their schools must sail against the winds of ignorance in order to achieve the goal of becoming educated. 

It is time that the mainstream of schools also recognize that they cannot achieve their goals unless they manage for engagement, not just for academic growth. 

They will have to learn to set their sails in different ways. 

Mr. Gibbons Intentions for Whole Child with Academics First

I was not clear what Mr. Gibbons intentions were for his opening lines were when I first wrote this. 

But, I sent the draft to Mr. Gibbons and he replied with reassurance that he was not trying to avoid political landmines nor does he believe that academics should trump well-being.

Quote “As I've thought about it, perhaps the addition of a statement along the lines that the deepest level of learning takes place in a caring and nurturing environment would have been helpful.  

[W]e know that students do not learn in controlling environments with shallower engagement.  

Students need authentic engagement (we do our best to follow Schlechty's levels of engagement in my district.) 

If student learning is the fundamental purpose of school, then it is up to the adults in that building to find the best way to make it happen.” End Quote

I couldn’t agree more, though I am planning to post my view of engagement models like Schechty’s that are more intuitive than scientific.

Whole Child Means Cultivating Motivation for Academics 

The bizarre backlash against social-emotional learning suggests that there are good political reasons to maintain the rhetorical stance that academics are the central goal of schooling.

However, it is also problematic to take that stance so seriously that you undermine the deeper learning processes that are required to achieve the ultimate goal of educating children. 

Professional educators are most likely to succeed when they understand that academic instruction can only lead to learning deeply when motivations are more autonomous and engagement is agentic, which appears to be an attitude that Mr. Gibbons shares. 

Empirical studies of motivation and engagement over the past 50 years have established that appropriate support of the whole child will lead to deeper learning of academics. 

Let’s make sure that our rhetoric about academics does not obscure our ability to focus on supporting the whole child to learn deeply from all their experiences in school. 

You can learn more about my Catalytic Pedagogy approach to achieving that goal at Holistic Equity DOT org. 

Thanks for watching.

This article was printed from HolisticEquity.com

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