The five moments of holistic education

Holistic education has at least five aspects we need to get right

The holographic organization

The first thing to understand is that education is built up of educational events. A lesson is such an educational event, but also an entire course. A school term is such an educational event, but also setting up a school from scratch. A single conversation with a pupil is an educational event, but so is doing a single exercise with a class. Starting the school day is such an educational event, but so is the school day as a whole.

Building education made of five elements

In this way, education is built up of an almost infinite number of educational events. Shorter events (such as doing an exercise) fit into larger events (such as doing a lesson), which in turn fit into even larger events (such as the school day, the week, the term, the school year, and so on).

What makes this way of thinking about education holographic is that each of these events has, almost without exception, at least five aspects that are always there – at least so long as this education is whole and complete. What is more, each of these five aspects contains the whole of education in itself: when one of the aspects is approached wholly, it is a complete educational event.

That is, the kind of holistic education we are trying to create here tends to have at least the following five aspects:

  1. Awakening the spirit of education
  2. Forming a community of learners
  3. The pedagogy of love
  4. Disclosing the subject matter for study
  5. Inquiry into the art of living

I will now look at each of these moments in turn.

1. Awakening the spirit of education

There is a moment before the educational event, when those teaching or parenting think about what they are going to do. This moment of reflection beforehand is there when prospective parents talk about the kind of family they want to raise. It is there when people get together to set up a school or design a new provision in an existing school. It is there when a course is planned or when teachers get together before the start of term. It is there when someone plans a lesson. It is there even for a split second before they introduce an activity during that lesson. This is the moment in which the parent or teacher awakens in themselves the spirit of education, the right kind frame of mind to educate.

Before we engage in teaching or parenting, we need to think about the meaning and purpose of education, as part of awakening the spirit of education

Needless to say, not all families are planned, not all lessons are prepared, and not all activities within those lessons are presented with the right spirit. But the fact that we sometimes fail to awaken the right spirit to educate does not mean that this moment of reflection can be skipped with impunity. It cannot. Our education is always poorer, if this moment of getting in the right frame of mind is left out.

The moment of awakening the spirit of education is important, because in it we establish the purpose of what we are going to do. This is the moment when we ask why we are doing what we are doing in education. It is also the moment when we reflect on the right relationship between ourselves and the learner. Likewise, this is when we consider the world as a whole and our relationship to it. We think about our relationship with society as a whole and with the natural world, because all this is relevant when we are considering the meaning of what we are trying to do.

2. Forming a community of learners

After the moment of awakening, which happens before we engage in educational practice (even if, in the context of the lesson, it may simply be a brief second of turning inward), there is the moment when we establish a way of working together with the learners. In a whole form of education, we then form a community of all those involved in the learning.

One of the first things we need to do in any educational setting is form a community of learners

We form such a community of learners, when the school gets together at the start of the school year, but also at the start of the school day. A community of learners should be formed in every lesson and even for the purpose of every activity within that lesson because every activity requires its own way of working and learning together.

Again, this step is sometimes neglected. But that is never without its cost. A teacher who fails to create a community of learners in their course misses an important aspect of true education. And when the school simply imposes ways of working on the learners, they create some kind of form of working together but fail to create a true community.

Forming a community of learners is something we should do with care, in a way that involves the learners in meaningful ways. In a holistic school community, all are learners, students and teachers alike. And this learning together then adds a wholely new dimension to education.

3. The pedagogy of love

Once we have formed a community of learners and done so in the right spirit, the question of pedagogy is raised. This is the question of how the teaching and learning is to take place.

Pedagogical questions are about whether learners work individually or in groups? Do the learners of the teacher decides what the goals of the lessons are? How is the learning going to be assessed? How does today’s lesson relate to longer-terms educational aims? How is students previous learning taken on boards in what we do in the classroom? How do we deal with differences between learners?

When you go to the very heart of pedagogy, you find that in holistic education, the way we teach should be based in love

All teaching happens according to pedagogical principles. Even the untrained teacher who just starts to tell learners what they need to know has an implicit pedagogy. But most people interested in education would say that the kind of pedagogy that is followed matters. This is not just because certains pedagogies are more effective in reaching educational objectives, but also because with the way teaching and learning happens a whole set of values are introduced.

For example, a pedagogy that treats learners as mere recipients of knowledge is likely to instill in those undergoing it a passive attitude to learning. Likewise, a pedagogy that relies heavily on reward and punishment will teach the students that learning is about trying to get a reward and avoiding punishment. And when such attitudes are learned implicitly, this has a lasting effect on the learner, an effect that may well not be aware of.

As stated in the heading, the kind of pedagogy that is developed on this site is grounded in love. What exactly that means is explained in the posts in the pedagogy section.

4. Disclosing the subjectmatter for study

Whereas pedagogy sets the tone for teaching and learning in general, the way the subjectmatter is approached uncovers yet another level of learning. To use an analogy, if pedagogy is about the way one travels, disclosing the subjectmatter is about which regions one enters.

What subjects, topics, disciplines are taught is to some extent a matter of practicality, as when learners require certain knowledge and skills to function in their society or their line of work. But there is also a cultural element, for example, when in our society we believe that learners need to know about its democratic institutions, about equality and freedom. And in alternative schools people often feel that learners also need to know about certain things that traditional schooling tends to ignore.

Part of holistic education is that teachers and learners together disclose the subjectmatter as if they were the first one ever studying it

But there is in all this a deeper question, which is what exactly it is we should be learning, when we learn about the subjects we study. For example, when we study history, what exactly is it that we are studying? Is it the past? Is it our memories about the past? Is it about the story of humanity or about a certain national group? Or when we study physics, what exactly is the material world? And how do we actually experience matter, if for the moment we set aside our ideas about what matter is?

In much of education the moment of disclosing the subjectmatter is allowed to pass without paying attention to it. We tend to take for granted the topics we study. We tend not to ask the fundamental questions of the disciplines into which we enculturate learners. But in a truly holistic form of education we should not skip this step. Together with the learner we should open up the subjectmatter for study, as if we were the first humans ever going there.

5. Inquiry into the art of living

The final moment in holistic education is that of inquiring into life, into ourselves, into what it takes to live a good and meaningful life.

Some of the question of what is involved in a good and meaningful life is already being answered in the earlier points about community, pedagogy, and subjectmatter, because how we approach them affects life as a whole. For example, the kind of community of learners we participate in will affect how we ourselves give shape to the communities we are part of.

Inquiring into ourselves and the whole art of living is part of a holistic form of education

But there are questions about how we should be living our lives that merit looking into directly. These are questions about what we value in life; about what it means to flourish as an individual; about fear and loss; about pride and hurt; about pleasure and joy. These are questions about inwardness and god and love.

A holistic form of education will set time aside for such an inquiry into how we live our lives. This is because an educated person is one who understands themselves, a person who considers the whole of life and not just a part. It is also because education is part of life, and if we engage in education without seeing it in the context of life as a whole, this education is likely to become narrow and uninspiring.

Being ready to be guided by what happens in the moment

There is a certain sequential order to the first four of the five moments of holistic education set out here. The moment of awakening the spirit of education generally occurs before the actual interaction with learners. One of the first things we need to do, when getting together with the learners, is to establish a communal way of learning together. Then the question of how we are to approach teaching and learning in general, before we think about the meaning of the particular subjectmatte we are going to investigate.

But though such a natural sequence is certainly there, we should not forget that in many ways all these moments are always there, at the same time. As I stated at the beginning, there is something artificial about creating a framework into which we fit our questions about education. So, while I believe such a framework is of value, we should not think of it in too rigid a way.

When it comes to the inquiry into the art of living, it can either can fit into any of the first four moments or stand on its own. For example, if in looking at the pedagogy we want to adopt, we find there is a fear of failure on the part of teachers and learners, it may be necessary to address the question of fear right then and there. But it is also important for teachers and learners to spend time together just talking about life in general. The question of love, for example, merits looking at on its own terms, at a time when no other issues are pressing to be addressed.

To sum up, the distinctions between the five moments of holistic education are neither absolute nor fixed. They are there mostly for our convenience. But in the practice of education we should be ready to let ourselves be guided by what happens in the moment, and not become mechanical about a framework that was really only ever intended as a thinking aid.

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