The Holistic Education Revolution

By Nancy Monson

I founded Running River in 2001, based on over 20 years of teaching in public and private schools for ages 3-18. This summer I was researching the history of education, and I found what looked like a typed manuscript called, “Deep Roots.”  Here it was ~ the legacy of holistic education.  Running River is a living example of the highest aims of holistic education. In our curriculum, in our philosophy and in our culture, we manifest the work of the great innovators both from the past and the present.  

Much of this article is taken from that manuscript, which had no author on it, but is very likely written by Ron Miller, one of the leading and most frequently cited pioneers in holistic education.

It can be hard to convince parents there are better ways to educate children than our traditional public school system. We study political revolutions in history, but what about the education revolution? All revolutions are grass roots, founded by people, and to succeed, take a collective moral force that will not stop.  The education revolution is no different.

The original state funded schools (and this is still true today) used rote memorization, drill and harsh discipline.  In the eighteenth century Rousseau was the first to challenge the traditional system that claimed that children are inherently lazy and untrustworthy, and that it is society’s role to mold their minds and characters into a socially acceptable form. He stated that it is society that is evil, not children, and they must be safeguarded from its contaminating influence.  Social institutions, especially schools, distort children into their own image, forcing them all into the same mold, regardless of the fit.  SOUND FAMILIAR?

Many names of innovative humanitarian educators have been forgotten.  For example, the Russian author, Count Leo Tolstoy, started a freedom-based school on his estate not far from Moscow.  He and Francisco Ferrer, who created the libertarian Modern School in Barcelona, were both persecuted by the state (Ferrer was ultimately put to death by the Spanish government in 1905). His martyrdom drew the attention of a circle of radical activists and thinkers in New York City, who opened a school on the Lower East Side in 1911 based on his principles.

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician in the early 1900s, who thought that children must be self-directed and independent at an early age as possible.  Her system gave children real life work in the school community, and regulated freedom with constructive, spontaneous play. Maria Montessori completely rejected the use of external punishment and rewards.  She believed children are guided by a divine life force, and endowed with an “absorbent mind,” the unconscious instinct that propels the growth process.  Learning is a response to this internal imperative. Montessori uses mixed age classrooms, large, uninterrupted blocks of learning time, student choice of activity from a prescribed range of options, learning at a self-regulated pace, and materials for learning instead of relying primarily on direct instruction. 

At the same time, in Germany, Rudolph Steiner, set out to create an educational system that allowed children to discover other dimensions of existence besides the culture’s predominant focus on the rational mind. The world is permeated with spirit, and true knowledge of the world must be spiritual knowledge.  Intellectual concepts are only one of the means we have of understanding the things of this world.  “All perceptions must be spiritualized.  We ought not to be satisfied, for instance, with presenting a plant, a seed, and a flower to the child merely as it can be perceived with the senses.  Everything should become a parable of the spiritual. In a grain of corn there is far more than meets the eye. There is a whole new plant invisible within it. That such a thing as a seed has more within it than can be perceived with the senses, this the child must grasp with his feelings and imagination.  He must, in feeling, divine the secrets of existence.” ~Steiner. Waldorf education recognizes and attempts to integrate “the inner human qualities, such as mind, emotion, creativity, imagination, compassion, a sense of wonder and reverence, and the urge for self-realization.”

In the 1920s, in Scotland, A.S. Neil founded Summerhill, a residential school where children could share power and responsibility with adults.  This was the beginning of the free school movement.

During the 1960s in the U.S. there was a mass movement for educational reform.  One of the most famous of these innovators was John Holt, who created the home school movement. “We learn best when we are deciding what we want to learn, when we learn for our own reasons and not for someone else’s, and when we have maximum control over the pace and the manner in which we learn.” “We adults destroy the intellectual and creative capacity of children by making them afraid, afraid of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, or being wrong.  Thus, we make them afraid to gamble, afraid to experiment, afraid to try the difficult or the unknown.” “Children need a society (or community) that is open, accessible, visible to all its citizens young and old, and they have the right to play an active, serious, responsible and useful part.”

These last paragraphs are written by me, and taken from various sources of holistic education.

Expeditionary Learning Schools, founded in 1992, are models of comprehensive school reform based on the educational ideas of German educator Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound. They are exemplified by project-based learning expeditions, where students engage in interdisciplinary, in-depth study of compelling topics, in groups and in their community, with assessment coming through cumulative products, public presentations, and portfolios. Students undertake tasks requiring perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. Challenging experiences outdoors powerfully impacts a young person’s intellectual, physical, spiritual, social and moral development. The primary task of the teacher is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they thought they could.

Mindfulness is entering our educational system. With roots in ancient religious and spiritual traditions, contemplative practices promote belonging and connecting, awareness and awakening, conscious daily living and wholesome lifestyle.  The book, The Spiritual Child, by Lisa Miller, states: “We know that an “inner spiritual compass” is an innate, concrete faculty and is part of our biological endowment.  It has a biological basis, which can be cultivated.  The evidence is hard, indisputable, and rigorously scientific.  Our children have an inborn spirituality that is the greatest source of resilience they have as human beings.

J.W. Wilson, Director of the Advanced Learning Institute and author of, Cracking the Learning Code has studied neuroscience for 20 years. He says, “There is no learning without meaning. Science is now telling us what we have intuitively known: We remember what is meaningful to us and forget almost everything else. Personal meaning is the criterion by which virtually all information is selected into our long-term memory banks. From the viewpoint of biology, genetics, and neuroscience, meaning and learning are joined at the hip. Authoritarian learning systems, which rely primarily on reward and punishment to impose learning, create a neurological climate that not only inhibits learning but may breed out our ability to create personal meaning in our lives. Each human on earth is continually striving each second of every day to stimulate the large preexisting networks that hold what is personally meaningful to us, which, in turn, prompts the production of neurochemicals that allow us to have focus, fulfillment, and pleasure in life. When we are not able to pursue what is personally meaningful, a neurological climate is produced that makes our lives boring, unfulfilled, and joyless. This is true for ALL AGES.”

The entire country of Finland has undergone an education revolution that originated in an attempt to improve their economy. Their children start school later (age 7) go to school for 9 years (not 12) and have no homework! Their teachers are chosen from the top 10% of graduates – in other-words, teaching is a coveted profession. Their methodology: whatever it takes.  Understand every child, how they learn, what they need, and dedicate yourself to their successful education.  They now lead the world in their educational outcomes.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in Education.  His latest book, Creative Schools ~The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Schools, states: “The four basic purposes of education are personal, cultural, social and economic. The aim of education is to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.”  “Research and practical experience show time and again that the critical factors in raising student achievement on all fronts are the motivation and expectations of students themselves.”  “The proper starting point is to ask what students should know and be able to do as a result of their education.  The four basic purposes suggest eight core competencies that schools should facilitate if they are really going to help students succeed in their lives.  These are:  Curiosity (the ability to ask questions and explore how the world works); Creativity (the ability to generate new ideas and to apply them in practice); Criticism (the ability to analyze information and ideas and to form reasoned arguments and judgments); Communication (the ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly and confidently in a range of media and forms); Collaboration (the ability to work constructively with others); Compassion (the ability to empathize with others and act accordingly); Composure (the ability to connect with the inner life of feeling and develop a sense of harmony and balance); Citizenship (the ability to engage constructively with society and to participate in the processes that sustain it).

Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior.  He says, “ The best sort of school is organized around problems, projects, and questions. Knowledge is acquired in a context and for a purpose.  Emphasis is on depth and breadth, discovering ideas rather than on covering prescribed curriculum.  Teachers are generalists first and specialists (in a given subject matter) second; they commonly collaborate to offer interdisciplinary courses that students play an active role in designing. All of this happens in small, democratic schools that are experienced as caring communities.”  Kohn is a leading renouncer of standardized testing and grades and has written a book called, Punished by Rewards.

Dan Siegel is an award-winning educator and currently clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.  He has brought clarity to how a child’s brain is wired and how it matures, as well as how we connect with children both as parents and teachers. In addition, his book, Parenting from the Inside Out, teaches us to understand ourselves and our own childhood history before we can deeply understand the children in our care.

There are many other dedicated educators speaking out, writing, and starting schools (myself included) who are part of the holistic educational path.  They all have one thing in common:  A DEEP LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING OF CHILDREN and an emphasis on compassion, character development, socialization, individual actualization, and connection to all of life, which delivers a host of “immeasurable outcomes” even more important for our children—and our society—as we embrace the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.