WHAT is holistic education? Throughout the history of public schooling, widely scattered groups of critics have pointed out that the education of children involved much more than simply moulding them into future workers or citizens.

Pioneers like Francis Parker and John Dewey (progressive education) and Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, among others, insisted that education should be understood as the art of cultivating the moral, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the developing child.

Holism emerged in the 1970s, when emerging bodies of literature in science, philosophy and cultural history provided an overarching perspective in understanding education. 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 scores on standardised 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 people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning.

This is done, not through an academic “curriculum”, which 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 person feel part of the wholeness of the universe, and learning will naturally be enchanting 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 and adults may not be best for others. The art of holistic education lies in responsiveness to the diverse learning styles and needs of evolving human beings.

Holistic education involves the whole self and therefore includes the following parts of the person: Physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and relationships between people and groups.

Conventional education mainly happens in the mental arena, passing exams, gaining qualifications and degrees, actions that demonstrate intellect or intellectual knowledge. The mind leads the process and is at the top of the hierarchy of learning.

In holistic learning, the emphasis shifts to the importance of each part of the person and their interconnectedness. If there is a hierarchy in holistic learning, the process should be led by the higher self or the spiritual self.

A good analogy is the one used by the Hoffman Process. The whole person can be likened to a carriage and driver pulled by a horse. The owner is inside the carriage, the driver is high at the front with the reins of the horse in his hands. The owner represents the higher self (spirit), the carriage (body), the driver (mind) and the horse (emotions).

The direction should be set by the owner, the spirit and not by the driver, the mind. Each part then has a clear function in making the carriage move towards its destination.

Almost every man-made trouble in the world can be traced to giving the driver a free rein! Time for a change of emphasis, I think.

This attitude towards teaching and learning inspires many home-schooling 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 memorisation, teachers keep alive the “flames of intelligence”, which is so much more than abstract problem-solving skills. By accommodating differences and refusing to label children, for example as “learning disabled” or “hyperactive”, teachers bring out unique gifts contained within each child’s spirit.

AZIZI AHMAD, Kuala Lumpur

355 reads