Friday, November 20, 2009

Accountability in Holistic Education

This is a guest post by Ron Miller, who is recognized internationally as one of the major thinkers and activists in the emerging field of holistic education. He has written or edited nine books and authored numerous articles, chapters and book reviews. He has spoken at conferences in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, England, and Turkey.You can learn more about Mr. Miller's work by visiting his website.

Schooling in the modern world is driven by an obsession with testing, grading, and accountability. There are at least three deeply rooted cultural reasons for this:

1. Education is culturally defined as the transmission of facts. Approved knowledge is packaged into standardized units and then delivered to students. In contrast to a Socratic or apprenticeship model of teaching, this is a mechanical process that can be measured and controlled.

2. All institutions in modern society are designed and managed by experts, by professionals, who justify their exalted status because of their training in “scientific” methods. This, again, involves standardization, measurement and control.

3. Those responsible for spending taxpayers’ money need to defend their use of it. They are accountable to the public in the same way a company’s management is accountable to investors: They must have certain production standards and achieve measurable results.

Notice that none of these considerations have anything to do with the quality of learning, with the lived experience of young people encountering and making sense of the world. “Education” is not a fully human relationship between adult mentors and aspiring youths, but a rigidly structured institution organized to serve social and political ends.

Holistic education, however, begins with authentic relationship. It defines learning as an existential encounter, not a standardized process. Every learner, every child, is a unique and intrinsically valuable person with a distinctive combination of feelings, hopes, strengths, difficulties and weaknesses. Every teacher, too, is a whole person with beliefs, passions, wisdom and limitations. As they come together to wonder about the world, to sort through the astounding complexity, richness, beauty and violence of human existence in the universe, teacher and learner pursue many paths that can be experienced but not measured.

A holistic educator is accountable, above all else, to the latent potential of each young person he or she encounters. It is our job to call out or bring forth (the Latin root meaning of “educate”) that which lives within our students. To a greater or lesser extent, this will involve common knowledge that shows up on academic tests, but it is so much more than that, so much more that cannot be graded or measured. We cannot meaningfully quantify a child’s enthusiasm for learning, her sense of wonder or awe. We cannot measure a student’s expression of compassion or social responsibility. We cannot attach a grade to a young person’s feeling of kinship with the living world (“biophilia”), or his sense of place (“bioregionalism”). In holistic education, these deeper human potentials are what ultimately matter.

A society that was truly interested in nourishing the human being would allow its educators to practice authentic encounter without the hindrance of obsessive measurement. As John Holt once pointed out, sometimes we just know what is right, and don’t need quantitative evidence to support our practices. Imagine a community that trusted in the wisdom and skill of its educators, and in the inherent capacities of every young person, which would recognize the results of authentic learning in the liveliness, curiosity, public spiritedness, and creativity of its youths. Alternative schools such as Wellspring demonstrate that we can do this. We do know what makes for good ways to educate a human being because the results when we do so are obvious.

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