Thursday, December 10, 2009

What is Holistic Education, Anyway?

Last week at our Community Meeting, we were discussing the recent teacher in-service session held at the school. The staff and directors had read and talked about a couple of articles by Ron Miller that addressed the question of what Holistic Education is. In fact, it seems that Holistic Education is largely a theoretical construct right now, and people are trying to figure out how to actually execute it in the classroom.

Holistic Educators are attempting to strike a balance between individual freedom on the one hand and structure on the other. An example of an educational philosophy driven by individual freedom would be a free school, where students are free to do what they want when they want (within reason, of course) and come to staff when they want help doing something. Waldorf or Montessori philosophies would be examples of alternative educational philosophies that are largely driven by structure, where there is a well-defined curriculum that is followed in the classroom. Holistic Education seeks to place itself somewhere in the middle.

So, at Wellspring, it is expected that students will learn academic (life?) skills like math and reading, and the facilitators are not waiting around for the children to come to them with an interest in these activities. However, neither do the facilitators have a prepared curriculum that tells them that all students born between November 1, 2002 and October 31, 2003 should achieve a certain level of reading proficiency by June 16, 2010. Instead, they create a classroom that is rich in literacy and mathematical activities, and they carefully observe each student in order to determine where the student is and what is required to move the student to the next level. This requires a great deal of one-on-one work, and a carefully cultivated relationship among the facilitator, the student, and the parents.

In thinking about this, it has struck me how complicated this task really is for the facilitators. I had never thought of it in these terms before, but this is the philosophy I follow at home with my children. Within this parenting philosophy, I am constantly re-adjusting my strategy and expectations for my son and daughter. One of my children is very comfortable with the idea of personal freedom but could use a little work on structure, and the other is very comfortable with structure but needs some encouragement to assert his personal freedom. Personally, I tend to favor the personal freedom end of the spectrum while my husband favors structure. When I try to imagine how our facilitators manage to incorporate all these variables into the classroom, I am even more impressed with the amazing job they do!

The fact that Holistic Education is difficult to define is really where the beauty lies. Rarely in life will we encounter a situation with clear expectations and unambiguous roles. Everything in life is relative and is shaded by our experiences and personalities. Likewise, Holistic Education does not really lend itself to Curriculum, because it is based on the idea that the student and the facilitator create educational experiences together, organically. It is not entirely spontaneous, because the facilitators do have an idea of where they are going and they try to steer the student in that direction, but they take the individual student into consideration while charting the path.

I am reminded of the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who uses the term scaffolding to describe this type of interaction between student and facilitator. The facilitator recognizes the distance between where a student is now and the next stage of development (called the Zone of Proximal Development), and offers just enough support so that the student is able to reach the next stage with a feeling of autonomy and accomplishment. This is something that, according to Vygotsky, spontaneously happens in the intimacy of the parent-child relationship. Obviously, it is much more difficult in the context of a classroom, but this is the goal of Holistic Education.
~KCD

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user ANNE, shared under a Creative Commons license.)

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