Overview of the elements of holistic education

Putting together the different parts of the website

Holistic education combines an inner and an outer dimension

Holistic education begins with a sense of the undivided whole

Holistic education has at its core a sense of wholeness that lies beyond anything we can put into words.

The wholeness that grounds holistic education is not an idea, because ideas are always only one way of thinking about the whole. And the whole cannot be captured from any particular perspective, because a perspective only ever captures a part. As a consequence, no idea can capture wholeness in its entirety.

Nor can this sense of wholeness be contained in a practical approach that is handed down from one set of practitioners to the next, because any set of practices, however sophisticated, can only ever represent part of the whole of holistic education.

The wholeness on which holistic education is based has an altogether more elusive character than what can be contained in a school’s mission and vision or in its practices and organizational structures.

The starting point of holistic education is a sense of wholeness that has suspended all division. This is not to say that, in order to bring holistic education into practice, we can do without distinctions. Rather, it means that at a deep level we do not divide the inner from the outer, the body from the mind, ourselves from others, the present from the past and the future, our understanding of things from the actions we take.

From out of such a sense of undivided attention to ourselves, others, and the world there can then come a whole understanding of what it means to educate. Out of this undivided sense of the meaning of education a kind of educational practice can come that is truly holistic. In such a holistic practice, it is the whole that shapes the parts and in the process we, as individuals, become whole in ourselves.

The essence of holistic education needs to be expressed in educational ideas and practices

Holistic education begins with a sense of wholeness that has not yet been constrained by language, by concepts, by habits, by circumstances, by one’s likes or dislikes. But in order for this undivided wholeness to become a form of practical education, it needs a vehicle through which it can manifest.

In other words, any practical form of education needs an account of what learning is, of what it is that needs to be learned, and of the teaching and learning practices that make possible such learning. And because holistic education is rooted in a spiritual dimension, there also needs to be an understanding of spirituality that is in line with it. And all these need to be brought together in a holistic pedagogy, one that can accommodate the different elements in such a way that wholeness informs them all.

Holistic education needs to be based in a sense of wholeness, with a set of ideas and practices though which this wholeness can express itself. And these ideas and practices need to be selected carefully, because they need to be able to contain, as best as possible, the sense of wholeness that lies at the basis of holistic education.

You could even say that the ideas and practices of education need to be selected and then shaped by the wholeness itself. This is because in holistic education, the whole comes before the parts, and the whole then shapes and modifies the parts. These parts are the outer manifestations of education, its ideas and practices, whereas the whole has an inward quality.

The whole is something we may come into contact with at the inner level, and when we do, the whole shapes our thoughts, feelings, and actions. That is the beginning of holistic education.

Combining the inner and outer dimensions of holistic education

Holistic education is never a mere set of practices, and as a result can never be made into a mere set of outward actions: it matters whether those involved (teachers, parents, children, and others) have an inner sense of what wholeness is. More precisely, those involved need to open themselves up to being shaped and guided by this wholeness.

So two things are necessary in holistic education.

  1. Those involved need to have a sense of this wholeness, and allow themselves by guided by it, because wholeness is the inner dimension of holistic education.
  2. From out of a sense of wholeness, we need to select educational ideas and practices that are able to, more or less, express this wholeness, because the outer dimension of education needs to reflect the inner one as best as possible.

Note that both the inner and the outer dimension of holistic education are likely to be realized only imperfectly. Those involved in creating holistic education are likely to have only a partial sense of what true holism is. And the ideas and practices which we select to express the sense of wholeness are in themselves never more than an approximation of true wholeness.

Note also that of the two the inner sense of wholeness is the most important one. This is because you can go from an inner sense of the whole to a partial expression of that in the shape of ideas and practices. But you cannot go from the part to the whole, because wholeness has a quality that cannot ever be captured in a partial expression of it, and it is this quality that holistic education aims to awaken in both the teacher and the learner.

Note, finally, that we are intimately involved in this process of shaping holistic education, because at every turn there are things like fear and desire, ideas and habits, that insert themselves into our quest for holistic education. And opening up ourselves to the whole then puts these aspects of the self into question at the same time that it begins to make us whole.

Selecting educational ideas and practices for holistic education

Selecting educational ideas and practices for holistic education

Holistic education begins with a sense of wholeness that is deeper than any idea we may have of wholeness. But in order for this sense of wholeness to become educational practice, it needs to avail itself of ideas and approaches to education which are, in themselves, not whole and undivided. In other words, holistic education needs to use existing ideas about education, if it is to become actual practice.

Holistic education needs people like you and me—or others who feel the need for such an education—to select these ideas and practices. In order for this to happen in the right way, we need to allow ourselves to be, as much as possible, be guided by wholeness itself. Part of this will be that we have a sense of wholeness that we keep in mind as we engage with the practical side of education. Another part will be that the wholeness shapes what we do and what happens more generally, in order to express itself.

It matters which ideas and practices we use, because not all educational ideas and practices are equally suitable for expressing the inner sense of wholeness. For example, an education that is narrowly nationalistic will fail to express a sense for humanity as a single whole. Similarly, an education that takes the natural world as a mere resource for human use will fail to reflect the intrinsic connections that exist among all living beings, including those between humans and other animals and plants. Or, to take one last example, an education that is based on the behaviourist principles of reward and punishment will fail to bring out fully our ability to do what is good in a way that is totally unforced.

In order to get the outer dimension of holistic education right, we need ideas and practices that reflect, as best as possible, the inner sense we have of the wholeness of existence, and for this to happen, we need to be at least to some extent in touch with this wholeness. This will never be a perfect fit, but we need to do the best we can. To take an analogy from medicine, no cure may be perfect, when it comes to treating a difficult disease, but we still need to select the cure that that contains our best understanding of what it means to be healthy. And from out of an understanding of health, we can then try to understand the disease and how it can be treated. In the same way, we need to be somewhat in touch with wholeness, so that we can select those educational ideas and practices which we feel are most in line with the wholeness that lies at the basis of holistic education.

Hermeneutics of oneness and silence

First, because we need to avail ourselves of educational ideas and practices, if we are to create a practical form of holistic education, we need to start with an inner sense of wholeness and an openness to being shaped and guide by this wholeness. But it also requires that we make sense of, interpret, those sources for ideas and practice that we select. If, for example, we adopt a certain method for teaching a language, we need to read about this method and follow instructions, in order to create an actual language lesson. The approach to the interpretation of the educational sources we select itself needs to be capable of bringing the inner sense of wholeness into dialogue with these sources. In other words, we need a hermeneutics that brings the infinite of unbounded wholeness into conversation with the finite nature of the sources we select (Risser, 1997).

Embodied, embed, enactive, emotive, and extended cognition

Second, there needs to be an account of human learning that is based in science, because holistic education is not a magical process: when we learn a skill or acquire a piece of knowledge in holistic education, this happens to the same human beings as are studied in science. But this scientific account of human learning needs to be as holistic as possible; we do not want a scientific account that unnecessarily divides the body from the mind, thought from feeling, the individual from the environment, or individuals from each other. What is more, the account of human learning we use needs to have space for an authentic account of spirituality. For reasons that are explained in a separate post, it therefore makes sense to adopt what is called an embodied, embed, enactive, emotive, and extended view of cognition (Fuchs, 2018).

Participatory spirituality

Third, holistic education has as one of its defining characteristics that it has a spiritual dimension. But as will be explained, this spiritual aspect of holistic education needs to be totally undogmatic. The learner should not be required to adopt any particular belief, follow any rituals, identify with any tradition. At the same time, the spirituality that is part of holistic education needs to be genuine and not something vague or invented. An account of this kind of spirituality can be found in the participatory (Ferrer, 2011) approach to spirituality, where spirituality is taken to be accessible to all but fundamentally beyond the reach of any particular dogma or tradition.

The learning sciences

Fourth, building on both a holistic understanding of human learning and the kind of curriculum that bases itself in a whole sense of life, we need to identify processes of teaching and learning that are capable of facilitating such holistic learning. Our starting point for this is found in what are called the learning sciences, the interdisciplinary field of study that draws on ‘cognitive science, educational psychology, computer science, anthropology, sociology, information sciences, neurosciences, education, design studies, instructional design, and other fields’ (Sawyer, 2014). Considering what is considered best practice in teaching and learning at the time of writing, we will select those approaches that are amenable to being used in a holistic way.

The holistic curriculum

Fifth, the subjects that are studied need to be based in a holistic understanding of knowledge and the world. On the one hand, this means that the curriculum needs to include not only verbal and logical skills and knowledge but also things like art and music, practical subjects, and a well-rounded kind of physical education. On the other hand, the individual subjects need to be approached in a way that maintains the link with the whole of life, with the state of mind even which has, as yet, not divided the world into separate regions of knowledge. Keeping these two in mind, we can begin to think about what it means to have a truly holistic curriculum.

The pedagogy of love

Finally, the way we interpret our educational sources, our account of human learning, authentically undogmatic spirituality, and practices for teaching and learning mentioned above need to be integrated in a pedagogical approach. This pedagogy needs to guided by wholeness itself. It also needs to be able to combine the above elements in a way that allows these to form one integrated educational experience in such a way that the initial sense of wholeness once more becomes the central element. I call this pedagogy the pedagogy of love, in that it is love that can help us select the different elements of education we need and combine them in a way that is whole. I will draw on Jiddu Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy (Krishnamurti, 2006) for this integrative element of holistic education.

The elements of holistic education

A true sense of wholeness lies beyond anything we can put into words, capture in ideas, or operationalize in practices. And yet, to create education, we rely on words, ideas and practices. In that sense, holistic education consists of two streams that can never truly meet: words, ideas and practices can never truly express the sense of wholeness, even as this sense of wholeness needs these words, ideas, and practices to express itself.

In order for us to create such a holistic form of education, we need to start with a sense of the whole and an openness to let ourselves be shaped and guided by this wholeness. This is a never-ending process that not only helps us actualize a form of holistic education, but also shows us who we are deep inside and, to the extent that it is successful, makes us whole.

So it needs to be borne in mind that our inner understanding of wholeness is likely to be less than perfect. Add to this the fact that ideas about educational practice change all the time, as new research and new ideas continually improve our understanding of the mechanisms involved, and we find that this produces an ever-changing field of understanding what holistic education is and how it is to be brought into practice. The attempt to create a holistic form of education is, therefore, an ongoing process which is never complete.

This website is an attempt to grapple with this ever-shifting understanding of holistic education. It does not aim to establish once and for all what holistic education is, but to draw, as it were, a map of the terrain, for others to use in their navigation of the landscape, and to correct and modify where necessary. In doing so, we are partaking in a conversation that has deep roots in history. And as with any genuine conversation, the aim is not to have the last word, but to make a valid contribution, so that the conversation can continue somewhat enriched into the indefinite future, beyond the horizon of the world as we know it now.

Bibliography

Ferrer, J. N. (2011). Participatory spirituality and transpersonal theory: A ten-year retrospective. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 43(1).

Fuchs, T. (2018). Ecology of the brain: the phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krishnamurti, J. (2006). The Whole Movement of Life is Learning: J Krishnamurti’s Letters to His Schools: Krishnamurti Foundation Trust Ltd.

Risser, J. (1997). Hermeneutics and the voice of the other: re-reading Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sawyer, R. K. (2014). Introduction. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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