What is Holistic Education? (2020) – Benefits & Limitations

A holistic approach to education believes:

  • Education is about educating the ‘whole child’.
  • Teachers must guide the student to become happy and well-rounded adults.
  • We should teach students that they are interconnected with the world around them.

It is an increasingly popular approach to education in the 21st Century. But, it also significantly broadens the scope of what education is and what a teacher’s role should be.

What is Holistic Education?

Holistic education (also: holistic learning) is an approach to education that involves educating a child so that they will become a well-rounded and confident adult who contributes productively to their community. It focuses on developing care for other and respect for the environment. It pays equal respect to to the emotional, social and cognitive wellbeing of the learner.

Scholarly Definition

Scholars in journal articles constantly say that it’s hard to find a definition of holistic education because different people have different ideas about it (Hare, 2006; Martin, 2002; Marshman, 2010). To me, that’s a cop out.

I like definitions.

Here is my favorite scholarly definition, from Marshman (2010, p. 3):

“Holistic education focuses on the fullest possible development of the person, encouraging
individuals to become the very best or finest that they can be and enabling them to experience all
they can from life and reach their goals.”

Key Features

Key features of holistic learning are:

  1. Educating the whole student
  2. Viewing students as part of the whole
  3. Embracing a caring classroom culture
  4. Engaging in experiential learning

Here are each of them in turn:

1. We should Educate the Whole Student

Educating the whole child means that we’re not just focused on them passing tests or getting smarter.

Rather, our focus is on their development as a well-rounded, happy and constructive member of society. We don’t just focus on cognitive development but all four areas of development:

  • Emotional development
  • Cognitive development
  • Physical development
  • Social development

By looking at the role of education ‘holistically’, teachers are no longer just teaching math, literacy and science. Rather, they guide students as they develop their social skills, coping mechanisms, respect for others, love of learning, and so on.

From a holistic perspective, education becomes a much broader concept!

2. Students are Part of a Whole

Not only do we focus on the ‘whole child’ but we also see the child as part of a larger ‘whole’. The student is connected to the world, the environment and their community.

In terms of the natural environment, there is an emphasis on caring for and being stewards of our environment. Here, it has strong overlaps with Education for Sustainable Development.

In terms of our communities, there is an emphasis on the need to look out for one another. A healthy community is good for everyone. We need to care for one another in order to have the best for everyone. Thus, we educate children on citizenship and their responsibilities to others:

“Interconnectedness brings with it personal responsibilities that must be exercised with due regard for the well-being of the wider community” (Hare, 2006, p. 304)

3. A Caring Classroom Culture

Students should care for others and be cared for by others. Within a holistic classroom, teachers don’t just care whether children are learning. They also want to ensure their students leave at the end of the school year more well-rounded, happier and socially competent members of their communities.

This focus on the ‘whole child’ has clear overlaps with the humanist theory of education, and particularly Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow, a classroom must ensure a child’s basic needs are met (psychological, safety, security) before they can excel and learn to their fullest potential:

maslow's hierarchy of needs

4. Experiential Learning

There is a focus on learning ‘outside the classroom’.

Holistic educators have an issue with intense focus only on academic development. They believe overemphasis on academic development will not lead to a well-rounded learner.

Thus, there is an equal focus on outdoor education, community engagement, the arts, and learning through engaging with others.

Marshman (2010, p. 3) puts it this way:

“There is an emphasis on life experience and learning beyond the confines of the classroom and the formal educational environment towards education as growth, discovery and a broadening of horizons. It encourages a desire to elicit meaning and understanding and to engage with the world.”

The focus on learning through experience also has obvious overlaps with constructivism.

Holistic educators will also have a social emphasis within the curriculum. This is underpinned by the holistic belief in interconnectedness. Here, there are obvious similarities with sociocultural theory.

Read Also: What is Lifelong Learning?

Examples of how to teach a Holistic Curriculum

A holistic curriculum is a curriculum that uses the basic ideas of holistic learning to teach children.

Some ways to implement a holistic curriculum include:

1. Embrace Place Based Learning

A place based approach to education involves learning within places in the local community. It overlaps with many holistic learning approaches, in particular the focus on interconnectedness.

So, when teaching a holistic curriculum, consider going out into the community and doing community-based projects. Work on regenerating a local nature reserve, contributing art to the community, or volunteering at a local nursing home.

2. Embrace the Arts, Sports and Music

Too often, education curricula focus on academic learning and forget about arts and music. Arts can involve embracing the value of painting, drawing and pottery. But it might also involve learning to build huts in the woods (like in the forest schools approach) or learning an instrument. It may similarly involve going on bush camps, joining a Scout troop, or taking up canoeing.

3. Do Inquiry Based Learning

Experiential learning can be achieved through an inquiry-based approach. This involves using investigation, discovery, scientific method and systematicity to find new information. When you learn through inquiry, the focus is on genuine knowledge building through life experience rather than passive learning (or what we call the ‘banking model‘).

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages and disadvantages of a holistic education include:

Advantages

Disadvantages

1. Develops well-rounded adults 1. Can underemphasize academic learning
2. Prepares people for the 21st Century 2. Rarely embraced beyond the early years
3. Encourages lifelong learning 3. Time consuming and potentially expensive
4. It is motivating 4. May not fit into traditional school curricula
5. It creates cohesive communities 5. Parents may disagree with it

Advantages

Advantages of holistic education include:

1. Develops Well-Rounded Adults

Holistic learning is designed to ensure people grow with an appreciation of all aspects of life: academic, sporting, social, etc. This helps to ensure people are balanced and ready to contribute to their society. A person with a holistic learning background may be considered a renaissance man (or woman!).

2. It prepares people for the 21st Century

In the 21st Century, we are expected to have multiple different careers. People’s careers are more likely to require critical and creative thinking skills than the manufacturing societies of the past. To be ready for the challenges of the future, young people need a broad range of knowledge and social skills that can be gained through a holistic curriculum.

3. It is Motivating

We can assume that a holistic approach will give young people a broad-ranging education in the arts, humanities, sciences, and so on – giving them an opportunity to find what they love and pursue it.

4. It creates cohesive Communities

When young people are raised to acknowledge and respect their interconnectedness to communities, they learn how to live with other people and care for them. This is not only good for the child, but also good for everyone.

Disadvantages

Disadvantages of holistic education include:

1. It may underemphasize Academic Learning

A holistic approach may limit children’s time on academic aspects of learning. We live in a competitive world where education systems are racing to have the most educated workforces for math and sciences of the future. In this context, a nation with a holistic curriculum may slip behind other nations that are lazer focused on math and literacy alone.

2. It’s rarely used beyond Early Years Education

There is not much willingness to use a holistic approach beyond the early years. While in the early years we have holistic approaches like play-based learning and forest schools, after about ages 8-9, young people are increasingly pressured into focusing more and more on math and literacy to the detriment of other aspects of the ‘whole’ child.

3. It is Time Consuming and Expensive

Many holistic learning opportunities are time consuming and expensive. For example, we often send students to ‘summer camps’ for holistic development. This costs parents a lot of money. Similarly, if we want our children to appreciate arts and sports, these are often costly extracurricular opportunities only open to the relatively wealthy

4. It doesn’t fit well with many School Curricula

Many schools have very struct learning outcomes. They are often very crowded with math, science and literacy as the most important elements. When we teach within these education systems, it is hard to educators to retrofit holistic learning opportunities into the classroom.

5. Many Parents may Disagree with it

Teachers may find that teacher will dispute an overemphasis on social-emotional learning, arts, humanities and sports. You may come across parents who tell you that their children are falling behind other children their own age because of the way you are teaching their children.

Final Thoughts

Holistic education is a powerful, caring and thoughtful 21st Century approach to education. It can help young people to grow to be balanced and well-rounded. It has great similarities to other approaches such as humanism and sociocultural theory, and pays important regard to the role of emotions in educaiton

References

holistic education Hare, J. (2006). Towards an understanding of HE in the middle years of education. Journal of Research in International Education5(3), 301-322.

Mahmoudi, S., Jafari, E., Nasrabadi, H. A., & Liaghatdar, M. J. (2012). HE: An approach for 21 century. International Education Studies5(2), 178-186.

Marshman, R. (2010). Concurrency of learning in the IB Diploma Programme and Middle Years
Programme. Retrieved from: https://kirrawatt.com/uploads/2/4/7/2/24720749/holistic_education.pdf

Martin, R. A. (2002). Alternatives in education: An exploration of learner-centered, progressive, and holistic education. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association: New Orleans, LA.

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