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Parent Education Program: Articles

Holistic Learning

By Kerry Elfström, B.Ed., M.A.

The basis of any educational program is learning. As a fundamental human process, learning involves the whole person, not just the intellect. Social, emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual aspects of being human are also involved when an individual learns anything. All human activities, of which learning is but one, are performed holistically. The root concept is the notion of engaging the "whole" being or all human activity. More specifically, when humans engage in anything they do so in a way that we commonly refer to as being "human" as opposed to just engaging in a mental function. There are many other aspects of being human that are engaged when we do anything. While there may be others, perhaps the four most common aspects of being human are:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Cognitive
  • Social

It is important to note that nothing stands alone - everything is connected. For instance, when we meet someone in a social event and shake their hand or otherwise embrace the person, this registers in our mind as a physical feeling (touch), a thought (mental note about features etc.), an emotional response (positive or negative impression) as well as a social experience (the event itself, other people present etc.).

Physical Aspect
Physical Aspect

To be human is to have a mind as well as a body. Both are engaged in every activity, thought and experience. Our cognitive, emotional and social qualities are generally associated with the mind and our physical qualities are generally associated with the body. The brain is the principal part of the body. It is a physical organ responsible for receiving information from all five senses via the central nervous system. We traditionally think of the brain as the store house of memory but in fact, there are many other parts of the body involved. For example, things like motion and precise or nimble movements are chemically stored in the muscles of the hands, limbs and feet. Nevertheless, the brain is always active and in control of the body so it is essential that it is maintained in a healthy, alert state.

There are only two things that the brain requires to maintain this state: oxygen and glucose, both of which are brought to the brain by the blood stream. Glucose is introduced from digestion and oxygen from breathing and both are moved throughout the body as a result of physical activity.

Indeed, the entire body requires oxygen and nutrients that are supplied in the same manner. Of critical importance is the fact that a lack of physical activity leads to a lack of nutrients and oxygen, hence listlessness, sluggishness and inattentive brain function. The most important implication of this is that the more physically active a person is, the more alert and able to engage in all mental functions, including learning.

Emotional Aspect
Emotional Aspect

Feelings govern our perceptions of reality and subsequent behavior. Human beings have feelings - we are emotional and our emotions provide the power to take action as we interact with our environment and other people. They come from within the mind and are a reflection of our inner beliefs, values and principles - it is our emotions that govern our perceptions of reality and subsequent behavior.

Each emotion is polar - there are two opposing extremes such as love and hate, right and wrong, happy and sad, peace and anger. It is important to recognize that we interpret every situation that occurs in our environment as being either positive (safe) or negative (threatening). And, since we generally seek a positive life experience, have a tradition of moving towards the positive (embrace it) and move away from the negative (protect ourselves.

It is also important to realize that these feelings can be affected by conditions in the environment, especially other people. For example, if we attend an event without knowing what to expect and discover that everyone is laughing, we tend to perceive it as being positive, happy and are inclined to follow suit.

Cognitive Aspect
Cognitive Aspect

We think to make sense of our world and to associate everything new with what already exists in memory. Cognitive means the ability to think and that we are aware of our existence - we have a conscious mind.

These two aspects mean that we are arguably the dominant species on the planet. Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of the human mind is its never ending search for meaning through conscious thought. Literally everything that enters the mind is perceived as nonsensical and we immediately engage many mental processes to make sense of it.

Everything enters through our central nervous system (5 senses) and goes to the brain where we apply thought processes such as problem solving, conceptualizing, interpreting, analyzing, categorizing and the like. We also associate everything new with what already exists in memory - we make connections according to our habits, goals, values and belief systems. The results of thinking are increased memory in several forms such as pictures (spatial memory), words (factual memory) and episodes (contextual memory).

Social Aspect
Social Aspect

We grow, develop and learn as a result of social interaction. Humans are collaborative. We gain something from each other - everyone is both a teacher and a learner.

In any group setting, everyone contributes something even if they remain silent - ideas, experience, knowledge, physical assistance etc. This is called synergy the net result of which is that the achievement of the whole is greater than the individualÕs. In this sense, human beings have been likened to the term "geodesic" - an architectural form that gains its strength from the interconnectedness of several parts. Buckminster Fuller used this principle when he designed the Geodesic Dome that holds itself in place without any internal structure.

Holistic Learning at Pacific Spirit School

The New Learning Society, whose flagship program - Pacific Spirit School (PSS) - supports the notion that concentrating on only intellectual or cognitive engagement impedes not only the speed, but more importantly, the depth of learning. Moreover, when the whole person is involved, the learner is able to make broader and more comprehensive applications of what is learned thereby resulting in a more confident, dependent and self reliant person.

Consequently, as the school motto - supporting the growth of the whole child - says, learning at Pacific Spirit School is delivered in a holistic manner.

Our educators are at the core of this endeavour in two ways. First, the program at PSS includes several activities that activate and support the non cognitive aspects of learning.

Circle time at the beginning of every day that includes reflection and sharing provides opportunities for students to engage in social and emotional learning. Similarly our regular Thursday afternoon tea time in which, among other social and physical activities, students parents and visitors acknowledge the people, events and people for which they are grateful is another way students learn holistically. Many other activities at PSS that support holistic learning include weekly yoga and nature walk sessions, community visits and camping trips. Second, educators plan active learning activities for the children so as to provide a wide variety of learning experiences regardless of the subject. Our small size and integrated grade groupings allow them to provide integrated learning experiences wherein children teach and learn from each other. Holistic learning is associated with Colin Rose's learning styles inventory which describes how people engage in learning. That's one of the reasons why the educators at PSS use holistic holistic learning - it appeals to the variety of learning styles that exist among the students. If you'd like to view a video or read an article about learning styles, click here.

One of the best ways to ensure that holistic learning is accommodated is to apply support from others who are immediately associated with the learner, especially family and principally parents. Aside from the obvious benefit that comes from encouragement, motivation and incentive, parents are in the best position to affect a child's learning achievement by supporting their learning style, emotional and other intelligences, freedom of choice as well as all other aspects of learning. That's why parents are invited to join in many of the school's learning activities.