Balanced education is key to academic and life achievement

16Jan 2017
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Balanced education is key to academic and life achievement

FOR decades, there have been complaints around the world relating to a perceived drop in the standard of education and the quality and utility of graduates.

Blame has been heaped on teachers, curricula, lack of resources, household-level upbringing of children, new technology, lack of political will and many other factors.

But rather than engaging too long and hard in blame-game, we need to join hands in reflecting on our education system in its entirety – particularly its content and its relevance to present-day children, our so-called nation of tomorrow.

We need to plan an education system able to help our children obtain all necessary skills and therefore to become active and productive global citizens. Our students need to be more globally aware, better able to navigate the digital world and more engaged as 21st century citizens.

For this to materialise, we need to give them opportunities to come up with the skills, knowledge, mindsets, spiritual and moral standards they need to be successful in college, career and life. This calls for provision of a balanced or holistic education.

But what is this balanced or holistic education and how it can support our children’s academic and life achievement in this century?

Ron Miller defines ‘balanced or holistic education’ as a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. It aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning.

Miller is a teacher educator at Goddard College in Vermont (in the US) and an historian and activist in holistic, progressive and alternative education movements. He founded the journals Holistic Education Review and Paths of Learning, his previous books including Free Schools, Free People and What Are Schools For?

According to Miller, holistic education is concerned with the growth of every person’s intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative and spiritual potentials. It actively engages students in the teaching and learning process, and encourages personal and collective responsibility.

He says such recognises the innate potential of every student for intelligent, creative, systemic thinking. This includes so-called ‘students-at-risk’, most of whom have severe difficulties learning within a mechanistic reductionistic paradigm which emphasizes linear and sequential processes.

Miller further argues that the education also values spiritual knowledge (in a non-sectarian sense). Spirituality is a state of connectedness to all life, honouring diversity in unity.
For him, it is an experience of being, belonging and caring. It is sensitivity and compassion, joy and hope. It is the harmony between the inner life and the outer life.

Furthermore, it is the sense of wonder and reverence for the mysteries of the universe and a feeling of the purposefulness of life. It is moving towards the highest aspirations of the human spirit. Spirituality is important in life as it encourages tolerance, endurance against odds and adds meaning to life.

There are a number of expected competencies to be to achieve in individuals who have been exposed to holistic education. One of the expected competencies is spiritual growth. This is an important component in holistic education as it emphasizes the connectedness of all living things and stresses the ‘harmony between the inner life and outer life’.

Moreover, spirituality adds meaning to life and therefore combat immoral behaviour such as corruption, depression, suicide and substance abuse by young people.

The second is psychological growth. As, in Maslow’s ‘self-actualisation’ theory, holistic education believes that each person should strive to be all that they can be in life. There are no deficits in learners, just differences.

The third one is physical growth. Holistic education provides opportunity for physical exercise, which adds up to students’ health. We know that a healthy mind dwells in a healthy body.

Other competencies include good-judgment (self-governance), meta learning (each student learns in their ‘own way’), social ability (more than just learning social skills), refining values (development of character), and self-knowledge (emotional development).

The fundamental principles to holistic education are connectedness, wholeness and being, with connectedness being the concept of an interconnected reality which originated in the philosophy of holism and was further developed through ecology, quantum physics and systems theory.

Wholeness refers to the concept that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Whole systems have emergent properties that can’t be deduced by studying their components.
Meanwhile, being is about fully experiencing the present moment. It is about inner peace, wisdom and insight. It is about being honest and authentic.

Apart from fundamental principles, there are two important components of holistic education, the first component being ‘Holistic Curriculum’. This is inquiry-driven, interdisciplinary and integrated and it is based on explicit assumptions of interconnectedness, wholeness and multi-dimensional being.

It recognises that all knowledge is created within a cultural context and that the ‘facts’ are seldom more than shared points of view. It encourages the transfer of learning across academic disciplines. It encourages learners to critically approach the cultural, moral and political contexts of their lives.

Commenting on holistic curriculum, Dr Ramon Gallegos Nava argues that in considering curriculum using a holistic approach, one must address the issue of what children need to learn. Since holistic education seeks to educate the whole person, there are some key factors that are essential to this type of education.

One of these factors is that children need to learn about ‘themselves’. This involves learning self-respect and self-esteem.

Second: children need to learn about ‘relationships’. In learning about their relationships with others, there is a focus on social ‘literacy’ (learning to see social influence) and emotional “literacy” (one’s own self in relation to others).

Third: children need to learn about resilience. This entails overcoming difficulties, facing challenges and learning how to ensure long-term success.

Fourth: children need to learn about ‘aesthetics’. This encourages the students to see the beauty of what is around them and learn to admire their surrounding environment and therefore they become motivated to preserve them.

The second component is ‘Holistic Learning’. This is organised around relationships within and between learners and their environment while empowering learners to live fully in the present and to co-create preferred futures. It is concerned with the growth of every person’s intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative and spiritual potentials.

Holistic learning actively engages students in the teaching and learning process, and it encourages personal and collective discernment and responsibility. It seeks to open the mind, warm the heart and awaken the spirit.

But why do many scholars advocate incorporation of holistic principles into education? Our current modalities of providing education emphasize reproduction of what has been taught, linear thinking, non-participatory and oriented to passing examinations that make it very difficult for learners to find meaning, relevance and value in school or life.

The result – in schools – is often poor attendance, lack of motivation, poor performance, lack of participation and poor behaviour (delinquency), all of which make learning much more unpleasant and difficult.

Education should be meaningful to and for all learners. We need a learner-centred education system. The global citizens of the 21st century need to have these attributes. Education must meet the needs of the whole person. It should seek to enrich the mind, warm the heart and awaken the spirit of each student.

Additionally, it should provide opportunities for students to be creative, contemplative and imaginative. It should allow time for the telling of old and new stories of heroes, ideals and transformation. It should encourage students to go deep into themselves, into nature and into human affairs. It should value service to others and the planet.

There is a need for the curriculum to value physical, mental and spiritual knowledge and skills. It should present knowledge within cultural and temporal contexts rather than as facts to be memorised or dogma to be followed. It should be integrative across all disciplines emphasising inter-relationship and inter-connectedness.

It should also challenge students to find their own place in space and time, and to reach for the highest aspirations of the human spirit. For Tanzania, the Education for Self-Reliance policy as promulgated during the Mwalimu Nyerere era was meant to reach these goals.

Another argument for incorporating holistic principles in education is to enhance ‘education for meaning and social justice’. Such an education will also need to meet community goals.

These goals are likely to include fundamental needs determined by the community, among them economic prosperity, a healthy democracy, personal well-being, community well-being and environmental well-being.

In summary, education should be a rich experiential journey of discovery, expression and mastery, where all students and teachers learn and grow together. It should be inquiry-driven, interdisciplinary and integrated as well as and based on explicit assumptions of interconnectedness, wholeness and multiple ways of being.

If our education system provides a balanced assessment of all aspects of a child development, it will surely encourage today’s children to grow to their fullest potential. Such an education would have achieved the mark of what is called a ‘holistic education’.

• A specialist in educational policy, planning, economics and finance, Masozi Nyirenda is a regular columnist with The Guardian. He is reachable at: +255754304181 or [email protected]