Holistic education is a philosophy of education 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. (Miller, R. 1997).
It is based on the philosophy of ‘holism’. It involves the integration of multiple layers of meaning and experience through direct engagement with the environment. Holistic education is more concerned with drawing forth the latent capacities and sensitivities of the soul than with stuffing passive young minds with predigested information. It is an education that prepares young people to live purposefully, creatively, and morally in a complex world.
To understand the meaning of holistic education, we need to recognize two principles. Firstly, an education that connects the person to the world must start with the person—not some abstract image of the human being, but with the unique, living, breathing boy or girl, young man or woman (or mature person, for that matter) who is in the teacher’s presence. Each person is a dynamic constellation of experiences, feelings, ideas, dreams, fears, and hopes. Secondly, we must respond to the learner with an open, inquisitive mind and a sensitive understanding of the world he or she is growing into (Miller, R. 2000a).
Some advocates of holistic education claim that views central to it are not new but are, in fact, timeless and found in the sense of wholeness in humanity’s religious impetus and inspiration from great philosophers, both eastern and western. In fact, the principles and practices of holistic education are already used by a number of institutions that are dissatisfied with traditional education, but they may be unaware of any critical theory about holistic education.
A holistic education is usually characterized by several core qualities.
- There is concern for the interior life, for the feelings, aspirations, ideas and questions that each student brings to the learning process. Education is no longer viewed as the transmission of information; instead it is a journey inward as well as outward into the world.
- Holistic education expresses an ecological consciousness; it recognizes that everything in the world exists in context. This involves a deep respect for the integrity of the biosphere, if not a sense of reverence for nature.
- It is a worldview that embraces diversity, both natural and cultural. It shuns ideology, categorization, and fixed answers, and instead appreciates the flowing interrelatedness of all life.
- It is an education that recognizes the innate potential of every student for intelligent and creative thinking. It is child-honouring education, because it respects the creative impulses at work within the unfolding child as much as, if not more than, the cultural imperatives that conventional schooling seeks to overlay onto the growing personality.
Thus, holistic education is essentially a democratic education, concerned with both individual freedom and social responsibility. It is education for a culture of peace, for sustainability and ecological literacy, and for the development of humanity’s inherent morality and spirituality.
Premise and purpose of holistic education
The basic premise of holistic education is the belief that our lives have a meaning and purpose greater than the mechanistic laws described by science, and greater than the ‘consensus consciousness’ of any one culture. This transcendent purpose is a creative, self-guiding energy, which we ought not to attempt to suppress. To enable transcendence of society’s prejudices, ideologies, and violence—to educate for peace—we need to reclaim the true meaning of ‘education’ from the soul-numbing system of schooling within which the modern world has imprisoned its children. We read the words of Krishnamurti who writes: If the unity of life and the oneness of its purpose could be clearly taught to the young in schools, how much brighter would be our hopes for the future! (Krishnamurti, J. 1974).
The purpose of holistic education is to prepare students to meet the challenges of living as well as academics. It aims to call forth from young people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is done, not through an academic ‘curriculum’ that condenses the world into instructional packages, but through direct engagement with the environment. Holistic education does not simply instruct young people about what is true and what is false, but enables the learner to inquire: what does this mean? How is this experience, or this fact, or this advertising message related to other things I know? If I act on my understanding, how will that affect other people, or the habitat of other living beings? This encourages young people to care about the world they live in. Other people matter, the natural world matters. Cultural heritage, social responsibility, and ethics matter.
Holistic education hence aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. To educate young people means helping them bring forth their creativity, their compassion, their curiosity, their moral and aesthetic sensitivity, their critical intellectual skills, their ability to participate in a robust democracy—in a word, their wholeness.
Teaching with a holistic curriculum
Curriculum emerges from the interactions between teacher, student, and world. This idea—emergent curriculum—is one of the revolutionary concepts to come out of the progressive education movement (Miller, R. 2 2000b). Children need to develop academic capacities, as these are required to make a living in the modern world, but much more is needed. Since holistic education seeks to educate the whole person, there are other key factors that will be essential to a holistic curriculum. First, children need to learn about themselves. Second, children need to learn about relationships. In learning about their relationships with others, there is a focus on ‘social literacy’ (learning to see social influence) and ‘emotional literacy’ (one’s own self in relation to others). Third, children need to learn about resilience. This entails overcoming difficulties and facing challenges. Fourth, children need to learn about aesthetics, to see the beauty of what is around them and experience a sense of awe in its presence. It doesn’t appear that we will learn such things from learning more Mathematics, Literature, or History.
With this curriculum in mind, how can we go about teaching for holistic learning? Since ‘holism’ understands knowledge as something that is constructed within a person’s context, meaningfulness is an important factor in the learning process. People learn better when what is being learned is important to them. Therefore, a topic may begin with what students know or understand already, what has meaning to them, rather than what others feel should be meaningful to them.
Meta-learning is another concept that connects to meaningfulness. In coming to understand how they learn, students are expected to self-regulate their own learning. However, they cannot be expected to do this on their own. Students learn to monitor their own learning through interdependence on others inside and outside the classroom. Thus a sense of a learning community is an integral aspect of holistic education. As relationships and learning about relationships are keys to understanding ourselves, so the aspect of community is vital in the learning process.
The holistic educator is seen less as a person of authority who leads and controls and more as a friend, mentor, facilitator, or experienced travelling companion. The teacher’s role is an active one involving the preparation of rich, supportive learning environments for effective facilitation of growth through learning. Teacher direction and supervision are required in order to put the dynamics of freedom to proper use.
It is imperative to note that holistic education is not a specifiable model or ideology, but an attitude or orientation of openness to the living presence of our children/students and to the complex and dynamic world around us.
If the goal of holistic education is connection, then we are ultimately dealing with spirituality, and with the unfathomable meaning of the cosmos. We are trying to help our young people find a place deep within themselves that resonates with the mystery of creation. And it is only when we, as educators, look deeply within ourselves and strive to embody wholeness in our own lives that we will inspire our students to do the same. Our lives make up the curriculum. Let us work on ourselves, and our lesson plans will take care of themselves. Holistic education, then, is a pedagogical revolution. It boldly challenges many of the assumptions we hold about teaching and learning, about the school, about the role of the educator, about the need for tight management and standards. Holistic education seeks to liberate students from the authoritarian system of behaviour management that in the modern world we have come to call ‘education’. But ultimately holistic education is far more than radical pedagogy. Holistic education opens up crucial dimensions in learning. When learning is seen in a new extended epistemological framework where science and spirituality are compatible, no longer contradictory, science acquires human sensitivity and consciousness becomes fundamental in the integration of the cosmos.
- Krishnamurti, J. (1974). Education and the Significance of Life. Pondicherry, India: All India Press.
- Miller, R. (1997). What Are Schools For? Holistic Education in American Culture (3rd ed.). Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.
- Miller, R. (2000a). Creating Learning Communities: Models, Resources, and New Ways of Thinking About Teaching and Learning. Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.
- Miller, R. (2000b). Making Connections to the World: Some Thoughts on Holistic Curriculum. Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.