Holistic Education: Learning through the Self, Experience, and Subject

    What is holistic education? This is often a question that arises in discussions among holistic educators and it is a wonderful question at that. It is a question that regardless of how long we have been teaching, we should return to, to contemplate, and re-discover. Our Roong Aroon School, in collaboration with Southern Oregon University, are currently in the process of establishing a virtual conference for holistic educators. I have had the privilege to discuss with colleagues in the field what this conference should entail. The question of what is holistic education undoubtable arose from these interactions. Although no conclusions were made, it gave me a chance to think again about what I even mean when I refer to this term. In my brief experience with holistic education, I have already come across a variety of approaches and interpretations. In addition, I personally bring with me a practical and philosophical connection to yoga and some other spiritual traditions that have impacted my views. After teaching for over a year at Roong Aroon, I have further developed my vision of what is encompassed when I say “holistic education.”  

   I’m sure I have not solved the mystery or pinned down the all inclusive answer, but I have had some recent insights that I was inspired to share. Through discussion and self-inquiry, I have found a three-fold understanding of holistic education and how it is applied to the learning environment. The first is holistic education applied to the being, to the being that we are and that we are teaching. Second, holistic education applied to experiences, how every experience is an opportunity for learning and growth. Finally, a holistic approach to the subject matter, that there is a way to view the content from a holistic perspective. I would like to explore each of these in more depth.

The Holistic Being (Self)

     Much of modern educational practices have a limited vision of the being that we are are working with. The student is reduced to their brain and the capacities of the mind to memorize and retain information. In a holistic approach, the whole being is considered and all parts of our being are addressed in our education. Depending on which theory you subscribe to, the aspects/layers/sheaths/bodies of  who we are vary slightly. For example, in yogic philosophy we have the Pancha Koshas (Five Sheaths): Anamayakosha (body), Pranamayakosha (life force),  Manomayakosha (mind), Vijnanamayakosha (intellect), Anandamaya (bliss). Rudolf Steiner described a four-fold being composed of a physical body, etheric body, astral body, and ego. Sri Aurobindo had five principle aspects which included the the physical, the vital, the mental, the psychic, and the spiritual. Even in modern psychology and many current models of education we see the physical, social, emotional, cognitive areas of development addressed. At the Rainbow community School in Ashville, NC, they have taken this a step further and developed the Seven Domains: spiritual, mental, creative, emotional, social, natural, and physical. 

    There are many more such examples and at times it feels overwhelming to take in this vast array of perspectives on the layers of being. Rather than concluding that one breakdown should take priority, I simply want to shed light on the idea that these various parts to our being exist and need to be addressed in education. When we neglect educating essential parts of who we are, we lose the chance to develop the whole being, our whole student to their fullest potential. When we understand this, it allows us to create an educational experience that includes activities such as yoga, mindfulness, experiences in nature, self-reflection, creative arts, and much more. It ultimately changes the way that we teach. Therefore, I simply propose that holistic education takes this into account and creates a learning experience for students which deeply acknowledges and nourishes all aspects of who we are as human beings. Holistic education must educate the whole person.

The Holistic Experience

    We go to school to learn. We go to math class to learn math, we go music class to learn music, we go to the Science lab to learn science. The idea here is that learning is confined to certain places and times. However, what if we instead adopted the idea that all experiences were learning and the chance to learn could arise in a variety of settings and activities. For example, if you are planting in the garden, your lesson may be focused on the process of planting (soil, seed, water, weeds, etc.) However, during the time in the garden, the children observe the depth and spacing between the seeds and they try to replicate it. Maybe the children see an insect struggling and try to rescue it, or take care of it on their own. They are learning much more than what we have imagined. It might be that their learning happens even outside what we would deem the to be the learning space or learning time. Lunch time, walking to school, packing their bag, playing outside, and all the other “in between” times are also part of the learning experience. 

    Krishnamurti has a book entitled, “The Whole Movement of Life is Learning.” He suggests that everything we do is learning.

    “The whole movement of life is learning. There is never a time when there is no learning. Every             action is a movement of learning, and every relationship is learning.” (Krishnamurti, 1985)

    Holistic education sees all of life as learning and embraces learning in all situations that arise. Life naturally provides learning experiences, even if we have no lesson plan, we have the act of living to guide our learning. Life requires us to learn how to form relationships, take care of ourselves and others, create, and explore everyday. Our whole day from brushing our teeth, to eating lunch, to walking through the garden is the learning space, we simply need to be open to it as such. Holistic education must educate throughout all experiences.

The Holistic Subject

     This is the most recent of the three categories that has occurred to me and revolves around the understanding that the subject and content we cover in our classrooms is vast. The subject matter itself can be taken up in a holistic manner to appreciate the depth and connectedness of all that we study. For example, if the topic “Recycling,” the content might typically focus on the steps in recycling, categorizing materials, effects on the environment, etc. However, recycling opens us up to a whole world of exploration such as: the qualities of plastic, the production process, the amount of waste produced by the average household in various countries, ways to creatively “reuse”, the people and organizations involved in the recycling process, and even the possibility of understanding that everything, even something we assume to be trash, can have great value. Within one topic, we can find opportunities to learn science, math, geography, and art. We can learn about society and the way that we effect each other and the natural world. There are deep values to be discovered within even a single topic.  

    If we have the chance to approach content in this way, we can have a holistic view of the world around us. We can think of it as a 360° view. Instead of limiting our perspectives or seeing something in isolation, we see how it fits into the whole. It brings greater depth and meaning to materials that we learn when we understand how it relates to our lives. This has lead me to believe that a holistic approach also regards the content to be covered in a holistic fashion. If we develop a style of learning that emphasizes seeing the whole picture, we train ourselves to look at all of life more fully. Therefore, holistic education must explore the whole subject.

    My personal exploration of understanding what is holistic education continues to unfold. As I teach, discuss with colleagues, and contemplate on my own, I find that my own definition evolves and changes. It is the perpetual process of exploring holistic education that keeps me motivated to teach, but it also keeps me inquiring into myself and my own relationship with the world around me. May we all take some time, teachers or otherwise, to understand holistic learning. It is a pathway to understanding ourselves and our world with greater depth and meaning. 

    Finally, I would like to reiterate that this is by no means an extensive understanding of holistic education. One main factor that I have failed to properly integrate is the role of the teacher. It is essential to understand the role of the teacher to impart a holistic experience for students. They are the observers, the facilitators, and the guides for learning. It is through the teacher that most of holistic education is brought into reality. Even if the principles or directors of school have a holistic vision, if it is not also embodied by the teachers, it will not result in a holistic education. Therefore, as an addendum, I propose that holistic education must have holistic educators. 

    Thank you for taking some time to read and think about these topics with me. During these times I am finding it ever more important to reflect and return to the core of education. 


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