Children are born curious and competent, connected to the world with ethical thinking, and in a perpetual state of active learning.
The increased emphasis on academic success is having a regrettable ripple effect: an unwavering emphasis on content; a subsequent reduction in time, effort, and resources to areas outside these subject matters; and an unspoken refocus on why we teach and what is considered important in education. All this changes what we do and why we do it. And punitive measures to enforce these directives only quicken the shift toward the standardized basics that high-performing systems have moved far beyond.
Encouragingly, in 2007—in the middle of the No Child Left Behind years—ASCD (one of the world’s leading educational associations) introduced its Whole Child Initiative. The time was neither politically nor financially expedient for such a move, but the moral imperative unanswerable.
“When we commit to educating whole children within the context of whole communities and whole schools, we commit to designing learning environments that weave together the threads that connect not only math, science, the arts, and humanities, but also mind, heart, body, and spirit—connections that tend to be fragmented in our current approach” —ASCD, The Learning Compact Redefined (2007).
We can have the best standards in the world, but it will make not one jot of difference if teachers and leaders have neither the capacity nor commitment to address or deliver them. How can we respond to the diverse needs of local communities if more and more of our attention is geared toward marks, scores and standardized testing? How can we embrace true innovation in children’s learning if the system is endlessly focused on making marginal improvements on what already exists?
Children need literacy and math, but emotionally and intellectually, they need so much else as well. The old ways of change are being abandoned by our peers and our competitors. There is a new way of change that can inspire our teachers, engage our communities, and lift up all of our children through a more holistic approach. This is a movement which reverts educational authority back from centralized bureaucracies to educators and communities, diversifies skills and content taught to suit each community and context, and is driven by the inspiring and also basic belief that there are skills and aptitudes that are just as critical as content knowledge.
Child development should inspire lifelong learning across different spaces and communities. Research suggests that “whole child development,” not routine or standardized classroom-based learning, empowers children as creative and engaged citizens who can strengthen the wellbeing of a whole society. It is crucial, then, to nurture their creative abilities to express themselves, understand others, and navigate complex amounts of information so that they can confidently solve the problems of a world that’s changing faster than ever.
The development of these qualities, which rely on an individual’s self-worth and self-control, critically outperform any other positive measures of children’s long-term outcomes, whether academically or intellectually. The most impactful way of supporting such skills is associated with helping children feel in control of their learning process. This can be done by talking with children about the best approach to a particular task and having them describe the strategy they intend to test, for example, or asking the child to consider what could go wrong and how they might improve a task if completing it again.
Using relevant playful and experimental activities in the classroom requires the teacher not only to encourage the learner to plan, monitor, and evaluate his or her own processes, but also to support the learner with tools like storyboarding, mind maps, and narrative structures.
At a societal level, these changes seem radical, but they fundamentally rely on how adults imagine the purpose of children in society. If we have a look at the history of education, we find that it was not until the industrial revolution that the idea of “childhood as we know it” settled in. Children were seen as fragile beings (to be protected and safeguarded), as unruly spirits (to be disciplined), as empty vessels (to be filled), or as incomplete adults (to be trained).
In today’s society, we have to pay attention to children’s own thoughts, needs, and rights as individuals. Children are eager to learn and participate, and should be considered citizens at the moment of birth – they are born curious and competent, connected to the world with ethical thinking, and in a perpetual state of active learning. Maintaining early childhood’s playfulness, curiosity, and experimentation throughout schooling is critical in developing the collaborative culture, problem-solving skills, and independent goal-setting that we expect from adults.
Nurturing both desire to learn and effective ways of experimenting with things and ideas are at the heart of a whole child approach, but require a whole culture around the child to extend this into schooling and adult life.
– Stephanie Bugeja is an educational psychologist. She offers educational assessments. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.