Could a new Holism approach save education?

A year an a half ago I was at a teaching conference in Kathmandu, Nepal. Several other educators thought it was ironic that schools in 2013 were still trying to figure out what 21st Century education is. “We are 13 years into this century!” one principal put it. The catalyst of this conversation comes from the fact that many in education believe we should no longer teach as if we are stuck in the 20th century manufacturing model.

I recently read an article about how, with rising global population, and future food and water security being analyzed as a potential future threat, perhaps a “holism” approach to economics would be the only way to sustain governments, nations and the human population. This article explains:

Jan Smuts, who coined the term “holism” in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution, defined it as the “tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts”. For example, in the case of a plant, the whole organism is more than a collection of leaves, stems and roots. Focusing too closely on each of these parts, the theory argues, could get in the way of understanding the organism as a whole.

For example, this traditional economic view might view automobile manufacturing separately from the mineral mining, petroleum production and workers on which it relies. Moreover, this view might also not acknowledge the impact that automobile manufacturing has on the environment, politics and economics of an area. Holism, on the other hand, would view the entire chain of cause and effect that leads to – and away from – automobile manufacturing.

This made me think what if this holism concept was applied to education? With the amazing amount of brain wave technology, many Physical Education teachers are showing the data reflecting the benefits of physical activity as it is related to learning.

Paul Zientarski has been using this data for over 10 years and has enough to show a direct link with increased learning, especially from struggling students, if Physical Education happens before Math and Language Arts classes. Paul has gone beyond developing an excellent fitness based PE program. He has been looking at student learning in a holism way.



This nondescript picture has been one of my inspirations on my new passion of combining Physical Education, Health, and sustainable nutrition into a holism teaching approach. This is a corner of an activity yard of the prison on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Far back in this corner, Nelson Mandela grew and maintained a vegetable garden. He used this garden for multiple purposes; it gave him something to do. Being in charge of something that is growing was a symbol of resilience and a feeling like his political influence was always growing. Not only did he stash notes to be smuggled to civil rights leaders on the outside, he gave the vegetables to fellow prisoners in the kitchen to make soups. These soups were then to be shared with both inmates and guards (a way to bring people together).

If we look at gardens in the same way at schools how could they provide a holism education? First of all, gardening provides a sense of physical activity. In 2011-2012 I taught a self-contained Continuation Class of 8th graders in Northern California. In California this means taking all the high risk students out of the mainstream and put them in one classroom for the first four periods of the day (think Season 4 of The Wire). On the surface, this looked like I had students with gang affiliations who were dealing drugs on campus. But after developing a relationship with the students I noticed by mid-September nearly half my class had lost a parent or sibling. A third had been homeless. These students had emotional issues. Something that lessons of caring, growing, and resilience may have helped.

This is why to me, if I was designing a school, I would put a garden in the middle. This holism approach would incorporate nutrition, home gardens, physical activity, and health into one center-point of the school. Who knows, maybe we could give the food to the kitchen and students who were supposed to be enemies could break bread together similar to what Mandela made happen in South Africa.

I have a current colleague, Ray Timm, that created the same type of fitness based program nearly 20 years ago in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Ray, being a former Division 1 Gymnast at the University of Michigan, and a super successful coach in Michigan, has always told me that he would have a PE space be the middle of any school. Ray’s philosophy is to get as many types of equipment out as you can. “If they are locked away in a closet, then no one will use them.” So at our school now in the courtyard you will see a climbing wall, slack line, pull up bars, and sometimes even stilts and row machines.

Q1: If we are thinking 21st century holism education, what would be in the middle of your school?

Q2: What successful cross curricular units have you taught that teaches multiple skills?