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The Benefits Of A Holistic Education

Yes, The Word Holistic Is Overused. But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Great For Kids

Educators, Embrace The Digital Revolution!


The word’s overuse these days in everything from vegan cuisine to alternative medicine detracts from the undeniable reality that, when it comes to education, it’s precisely what our kids need. If we want to prepare them for life in the Digital Age, we must nurture every part of them; intellectually, emotionally, physically and morally.

Holistic means seeing the world as a network of interconnected relationships, not just separate, unrelated parts. Therefore if a person is sick, a holistic practitioner might treat their emotions first, before the physical symptoms. True health is only possible if the whole organism is well on every level.

The truth is that in the realm of education, holistic thinking is not new at all, having been around for the past 250 years. Back then, a powerful group of intellectuals reacted to a public education system they felt was plagued by linear thinking, standardisation and uniformity, moulding children for an industrial and empire-driven machine. They took a stand against it and the movement toward alternative and progressive education was born.

Humanists, transcendentalists and even the godfather of modern-day psychology Carl Gustav Jung raised the bar by saying schooling should cultivate the developing child on all levels. The pioneering work of Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner created pedagogies which stood the test of time, creating a worldwide network of schools still expanding today. J. Krishnamurti and Reggio Emilia did the same. Their defiance and determination to overturn mainstream orthodoxy are what made them holistic.

Dr Ron Forbes described these educators as being committed to what he called ‘ultimacy’ – the fullest possible development of human potential.

However, the irony today is ‘holistic education’ has now slipped fashionably into the mainstream and is used as a generic term referring to virtually everyone’s educational offerings, regardless of their commitment to developing the child as a whole.

Glance at absolutely any school’s website and you will see this phrase thrown about like confetti. In strict schools with formal curriculums it usually refers to the ‘social and personal’ development of children. In alternative schools, it’s used to express a more relaxed atmosphere, with less rules and more freedom, placing equal emphasis on non-scholarly pursuits such as gardening, yoga or crafts. All of which is fine. But it’s not ‘holistic’ in its original sense. No matter what your vision statement says.

Instead, something more radical needs to happen. A fundamental tenet of education needs to be challenged, a wider angle taken to tap into children’s highest potential. Most schools (including those who call themselves holistic) are still operating from a centuries-old model of a teacher standing in front of a class of static children, delivering content. Whether that’s in a relaxed or formal manner, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still the same old dynamic of traditional education. If we want real change, we need to tear down the walls of that classroom. Find a new way to teach. Rip the guts out of the curriculum. Create better methods. See it all afresh.That’s what a real holistic education stands for.

Tech-leader Raj Dhingra agrees. His solution is to bring computers slap, bang, centre into the classroom. Not a separate lab which children visit for a lesson a week. Nor does it mean simply having iPads in the classroom. He is advocating a much bigger shift than that, in the form blended learning.

This is where children receive a part (or all) of their learning from online and digital methods. This work can be done from their own homes, giving a child control over their time, pace, path and even place of studying. The actual ‘bricks and mortar’ structure of classrooms can then be used to interact with teachers more directly, or work with other students on shared projects.

Thus schools become places not to receive instruction, but support. There is an increase in productivity as students become involved in meaningful work, without the drudge of normal school routine.

Whilst Dhingra is able to cite a few small examples of this new model, what we really need to know is how it would work on scale.

For that, we need look no further than the Khan Academy. No one knows how to flip a classroom better than its founder Salman Khan. He has created a highly successful free online tutoring service generating a learning revolution for millions. Children can study tutorial videos at home at their own pace, with the ability to rewind videos as many times as they need until they get it. This creates excellence in their learning, which is a great outcome. But it’s also a massive breakthrough for teachers and schools who choose to engage with it.

The old model, teaching 30 pupils simultaneously who all work differently, is no longer needed. Now children are getting the lesson online and working individually at their own speed, so all teachers need to do is track progress.

Khan Academy gives them the tools to do that with a special dashboard. Green indicates the student is doing well. Blue means they’re working on it. Red shows the pupil is stuck – and exactly where they are stuck. Then the teacher can move in on the ‘Red’ cases and directly target the problem – without asking them embarrassing questions or putting them on the spot. They can be clear exactly where all their pupils are at. How much time they are spending on the site, on which videos and subjects, where their focus is, what’s easy for them and what’s not. That’s a highly bespoke service they’re getting, one they could never fulfill on their own in a traditional classroom.

Thus teachers get on with teaching. Not delivering one-size-fits-all lectures. Or spending huge amounts of time marking papers. Or second guessing what their children know or don’t know. They become ‘Learning Masters’ instead of mere ‘Content Providers’. Schools become places of clarity, communication, collaboration, community; with higher levels of student engagement and satisfaction all round. The old model is transformed. The true full potential of children is being harnessed.

That’s the remarkable empowerment technology can bring into the classroom, for everyone.

So next time a school claims to be ‘holistic’ you need to ask yourself – is this a normal classroom or a flipped one ? Who’s leading their learning – teachers or students ? How is the curriculum being delivered ? Via traditional methods or with advanced digital and online tools ? Therefore what’s really being addressed ? The whole, or just some little parts.

Shilpa Mehta is the CEO of Indi-Global Paradise School (iGPS) and the founder of Paradise School in South Goa. A new school is due to open in North Goa in Sept 2016. A former television broadcaster for Discovery, BBC and Channel 4, her aim is to modernise education in India and the world.

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Shilpa Mehta, with her daughter India-Fire