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Finding the Whole Child in Education Reform


Christopher Nye leads Educate the Whole Child, an initiative to change the prevailing paradigm from accountability to nurturing the whole child. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, has been a college professor and administrator, a poet and editor. He successfully introduced service learning to his campus and engaged college students as mentors in after-school programs at elementary schools.

Big challenges lie ahead––fixing the economy so that it more equitably serves everyone, not just those with the wealth and power; rebuilding democracy so that it is no longer hijacked by lobbyists and corporations; and redirecting cultural life away from decadent diversions and violence but toward higher purpose. Addressing these and other challenges like global warming will demand more than competent workers and participating citizens. It will demand people with a broader vision and a higher and evolving humanity.

An excellent article not long ago in Community Works Journal by Hector Vila addresses this demand from the point of view of teachers and their responsibilities within the broader culture. In what follows I use a different perspective that I believe complements what Dr. Vila had to say.
Think about those, now children, who will be called upon one day to supply solutions in these three spheres. The problems are daunting and will take decades to resolve, but don’t we owe it to those who are now young and in our charge to equip them to handle the world we leave in their care? We can begin immediately to instill the qualities needed to create a new vision and a vibrant society.

How can this be accomplished?

Imagine with me a school where students spend so much time outside and doing projects in the community and in their school garden that it is as if the walls of the building do not exist. There is an ebb and flow, where community members with valuable real life experience to share frequently come into the school, and students, wanting to learn about the society and nature around them, can often be found out beyond the classroom. No one can miss that these young people are fully engaged, that they appreciate the opportunities and nurturing afforded them. A psychological climate of mutual support, what in Finnish schools is called “pedagogical love,” supports all these relationships.

Empowered teachers, who feel the school in which they teach is their school rather than merely a place of employment, can do this. They set the tone. More than that, to a considerable extent they are able to set the school’s direction and expectations for children, rather than having these mandated by administrators at a distance, especially in Washington, who wield carrots and sticks, tests and sanctions, to insure compliance. The teachers are encouraged to be innovators. They work hard and enjoy what they do.

At the weekly assembly, called the loya jirga in this imagined school, much singing can be heard, and students share the results of their creative work and projects they have researched. They perform skits, stories, and songs as well as storyboards and paintings. These presentations involve two principles of the school—first, that that older students work with and help nurture the growth of younger ones in order to create a community of learners. Second, not just the brain but the heartfelt creative talents of the hands and body become important in the acquisition of knowledge. Head, heart, and hands work together in the project-based learning one finds in every classroom. Place-based education links learning  with nature and the local community.

When teachers look at students in this school, they look through a different lens. Instead of being a data collectors, they see each child’s emergent and future potential. Relying on their knowledge of a whole child drawn from having taught him or her for at least two years in a multi-age classroom or through a looping arrangement, as well as authentic assessment, teachers can foster growth in multiple levels and areas.

The lens or paradigm used by educators here is key. It focuses not on deficiencies but on the gifts and latent potential in each individual student. When young people feel affirmed in this way, the dividends in student motivation can be remarkable. This calls to mind what psychologist Wayne Dyer says—simple but profound: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

What kind of a paradigm will optimize the potential of each individual child?



The Economic Model
The prevailing paradigm could be called an economic one. We want schools that will produce workers capable of competing in the international marketplace. Justifiably upset that job applicants typically have inadequate basic skills, the business community has used its formidable power and resources to write the script for how schools must change. Make them accountable the way factory employees are. Use quantitative measures to insure quality control. Guarantee compliance by disempowering unions and privatizing management. Like the Darwinian struggle that the economy mimics, competition between students, between teachers, and between schools is encouraged: let the market sort out winners and losers. If a school is a loser, cut your losses and close it.

Of course the parallel with business does not work completely. In a business you can reject defective materials you receive from suppliers; you can also fire non-performing employees. In a public school all children are entitled to a free education. None are turned away. More important, this economic paradigm ignores the fact that in the cultural domain, where education belongs--i.e. the realm of ideas, arts, and individual creativity--this system based on accountability and compliance smothers the human spirit and the very qualities you want to encourage. The results bear this out: out-of-control testing, teaching to the test, narrowing and standardizing curriculum, time and resources spent on data management that formerly went into teaching, the migration of the most creative teachers out of the profession because they are stifled and forced to teach from a script, and teachers treated like technicians rather than professionals, and for-profit corporations running schools—to name a few of the symptoms.

This paradigm’s central weakness is that it loses sight of the child and the need to nurture individual talents. Businesses focus on making a profit, and the correlate in the economic paradigm for education is: cost-effective schooling that produces measurable skills needed for the economic system.

The Political Model
What we may call the political model significantly improves on the kind of thinking enshrined in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Some very perceptive and progressive people embrace this democratic approach, and for good reasons. It gives more power to teachers; schools are run more democratically; kids are given a role in running the school and gain confidence; parents become involved. One of the best things about this model is that it incorporates listening to kids and responding to their needs and curiosities. This in turn strengthens their willingness to take initiative, be active in the community, and be creative. This is the idea behind the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA). Examples include Mission Hill School in Boston, The Met in Providence, and Brooklyn Free School.

Some adherents to this democratic paradigm feel this is the only way, but that ignores other models and elements that work extremely well yet do not attempt to make the school a functioning democracy. Listening to kids is one thing, critics of this approach say; giving them the power to determine what they are going to learn, when and how, is asking them to operate beyond their capacities and is a mistake. But the fact is, children in these schools seem to flourish, and they learn to take initiative, negotiate, and develop social skills that can be truly amazing.

A Cultural Model
Let’s look at a third paradigm. The Whole Child Model grows from a different center than these other two. It emerges from the potential latent in each individual child, and it resembles the school we imagined at the outset. It’s primary aim is not to prepare a productive worker, or a participating citizen, but rather both of these and a mature person who is capable of leading a fulfilled, satisfying and purposeful life, one that optimizes the talents and uniqueness that child brought to this lifetime. A friend named Lynn Stoddard captures this in his holistic approach to learning that he calls Educating for Human Greatness. Instead of focusing narrowly on math scores and English proficiency, he works on the qualities his research has told him parents want most for their children, qualities like a love of learning, self-confidence, initiative, creativity, and social skills including teamwork. Engender qualities like these, he argues, and children will see that basic skills are necessary to exercise the higher order skills. Put children to work on a project of reclaiming and redesigning a park now full of litter and discarded drug paraphernalia, and watch them discover how important literacy and math skills are. Motivation is built in.

As stated above, the political model is an improvement over the economic model because it is child-affirming, rather than child-measuring. But the whole child or cultural model goes further in the child-affirming direction. This can be approached different ways. In a conventional public school almost any form of project-based learning can be child-affirming if the teacher serves more as coach than instructor and constantly looks for ways to draw out the unique talents of individual children. Some seem to learn through alternative learning styles, perhaps through making or creating things; others are quick to grasp concepts or rise to a mathematical challenge. In a project that calls for all these elements, a team can learn how to support one another with their differing talents. Even in a Waldorf school, where typically a faculty council runs the school and the students have no role in governance, child affirmation takes different forms. Teachers stay with a class for multiple grades and really get to know each child. Instead of buying textbooks, students create their own. And in the morning the teacher stands at the door and shakes hands and makes eye contact with each student upon arrival. In some independent schools with smaller classes, and in the youngest grades for some public schools, teachers do home visits in order to orient the family and child as to what to expect when they first come to class. This also affords the teacher an opportunity to gain a picture of the child’s environment.

In contrast to this child-affirming emphasis on the individual child’s potential strengths and abilities, our contemporary educational practice tends to focus on deficiencies and considers only one intelligence of real value––the cognitive-intellectual or left-brain. The entire impulse that resulted in No Child Left Behind spun out of a perception that we had to make up for inadequacies; we had to prepare more competitive workers and catch up with other nations. The whole child model instead tries to focus on strengths, and use those to motivate growth and draw in other areas that need strengthening. This isn’t radical; it’s a best practice many experienced teachers use: engage a child’s interests to teach new content. But national and state directives and scripted lessons in a test-and-sanction environment do not allow for much of this.

At the website we propose a framework for whole child education. It involves engaging students whenever possible on five different levels. Not identical with Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, these levels nevertheless make use of brain science’s discovery that material can be learned and retained better, the more parts of the brain become involved. Thus a student working on a project that requires multi-level activity and initiative is bound to do better. The five areas are:

  1. cognitive-intellectual activity, associated with the left brain
  2. creative-intuitive activity (the arts), associated with the right brain
  3. structured physical movement and unstructured, self-directed play
  4. handwork, making things that can be useful
  5. engagement with nature and community.
Teachers who have worked with service learning or run projects beyond school walls, know that when students are active in the fifth area, it is easy to engage them in the other four. Moreover, the tangible service in one’s own place or community adds a purposeful dimension to learning, one where students build self-esteem because they can see they are contributing. Moreover, community members become stakeholders in the children’s education.

Gardens, even on a vacant lot next to an urban school, provide tremendous opportunities to challenge children on several levels. In the winter, students plan, calculating how much room is available, the number and cost of seeds. In spring they plant and tend the seedlings. Drawing the young plants as they emerge builds powers of observation and artistic skill. In late spring the students will be challenged to come up with a plan for getting their vegetables through the vacation so there is something to harvest when school begins again. Then in late summer into fall as they are astounded by the way the tiny seeds have transformed and produced seeds of their own, students can learn meal preparation with food they have harvested. In late fall they dry and prepare seeds for next year’s crop. They create a cookbook with recipes they have researched or created. Other writing activities can be introduced along the way. And finally, reflecting and writing about the gardening experience can form a basis for next season’s plans.

Summing up, we can look at the economic model for education and see what it aims to produce: workers, competent in math and English. While this is a worthwhile goal, it fails to address the need to help young people develop their full potential as human beings. By aiming higher, much more could be accomplished. We can see what the political model aims to produce: citizens, responsible, thoughtful, voting, in some cases ready to serve the general good. This is also worthwhile, for the qualities of responsible citizenship also make one a good worker and a better person.

The cultural model when rooted in a whole child approach has a different aim––to produce a fully integrated person, versatile and able to do all of the above, able to address big challenges. Moreover, one hopes this person, who has been educated to have multiple, integrated intelligences, will be able to make a marriage work, raise a successful family, take initiative, value creativity, care about others, become a lifelong learner, and above all balance outer demands with inner capacities so that life becomes not a chore but a journey. That is the ideal, and a profoundly useful one. Ideals help us navigate through conditions we cannot anticipate or control. They make possible purposeful and integrated lives. Whole child education should become our paradigm and our educational ideal.


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