Huffpost Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sean Slade Headshot

In Support of the Whole Child

Posted: Updated:

This is a joint posting by 13 Huffington Post Education, Parenting and Health bloggers: Martin J. Blank, Sam Chaltain, Peter DeWitt, John M. Eger, Larry Ferlazzo, Jenifer Fox, Shaun Johnson, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Jennifer Peck, Kate Quarfordt, Sean Slade, Dr. Jim Taylor, & Jill Vialet.

In Support of the Whole Child

We are at a crossroads in this nation regarding the direction that public education will take in the coming decades. Do we focus on a curriculum that concentrates on a few core subjects or do we gain an appreciation for how public education can develop all aspects of the child to the benefit of each of them as well as society in general? Do we place test preparation ahead of actually educating our children and test scores ahead of broader and more holistic approaches to evaluating students' competencies? These questions lay at the heart of the current debate about the future of public education in America.

The recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, which placed American children far down the rankings compared to students from other developed nations, sparked a firestorm of debate over what we must do to our public education system. Some commentators declared the results to be our Sputnik moment, prompting others to demand that we double down on the testing philosophy and regimen that emerged out of the No Child Left Behind legislation. At the same time, the results of the PISA research have provoked in many commentators more innovative thinking about what a public education system in America that is designed for the 21st century should look like.

What was pervasive throughout this debate has been a faulty assumption that our current education crisis boils down to a black-and-white choice between academic achievement or a holistic approach to teaching and learning. However, the very meaning of the word 'holistic' defies this presumption by encompassing the whole child including the intellectual, artistic, physical, social, emotional, spiritual, and civic development of students. A holistic approach brings together elements that support the development of a child who is healthy, knowledgeable, motivated, and engaged, seeking to ensure all that is required for successful life and preparation for society.

Equally pervasive following the most recent PISA results were the questions around the mechanics of education, the length of the school day, the correct amount of seat time minutes, which curricula to adopt and which to discard, and the ideal education and qualifications for successful teachers. Though all these concerns may play a role in improving the quality of our public education system, they are all just parts of a larger enterprise -- they are all the process, the steps, to achieve the goal but can only have relevance and meaning once the goal has been decided.

And so the real debate should be: what do we want to achieve out of our public education system? Before we work out the how of public education reform, we must first figure out the what and why: what is our goal and why is that our goal? Ironically, the starting point for determining this goal -- whichever path we choose to follow -- should be the same question:

What do we want our children to be like when they are 25?

Think of that child, that teenager, that young adult and describe them. What words do we use?

Prepared, proficient, adequate, struggling or resilient?

Critical thinker, problem solver, collaborator or rote-learner?

Do we just cite their grade or do we describe them?

At the core of the question is what are they like? Happy, healthy, engaged, enthusiastic, passionate? An active citizen or a bystander? Are they an adult ready for the world or one who has been tracked out of a future? These words should inspire us to map backwards and create a design for our students and we need to work together to get there.

And as -- if not more -- important is the question: what do our children want to be like when they are 25? How would they describe themselves? Are they content with an education system which at times seems more designed to sort, test and label students than develop, educate or prepare them?

The authors of this article believe that answering this question results in one response -- someone who is knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically active, artistically engaged, prepared for economic self-sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond formal schooling.

In short, a focus on the whole child -- not as proponents of one side of a polarized debate, but as champions of dissolving the false dichotomy on which the debate rests and ensuring our students get the future they deserve.

We believe that a whole child approach to education -- one that develops the child not just cognitively, but socially, emotionally, mentally, physically and civically -- is fundamental and essential to our nation and our future. It is an approach which cares as much about the health, safety, engagement and support of our students as the challenges we present to them. It is everything we need to prepare that individual of 25 and to expect, request or do anything less is a disservice to both them and our society at large.

And we are not alone in this goal:

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results. - John Dewey

I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive. - John W. Gardner

To be successful, one needs a threshold level of cognitive ability. But many other things are
just as important: creativity, personal discipline, the ability to relate to other people
- James Comer

Surely, we should demand more from our schools than to educate people to be proficient in reading and mathematics. Too many highly proficient people commit fraud, pursue paths to success marked by greed, and care little about how their actions affect the lives of others. - Nel Noddings

Excellence in education is when we do everything that we can to make sure they become everything that they can. - Carol Tomlinson

To the doctor, the child is a typhoid patient; to the playground supervisor, a first baseman; to the teacher, a learner of arithmetic. At times, he may be different things to each of these specialists, but too rarely is he a whole child to any of them. --From the 1930 report of the White House Conference on Children and Youth

This isn't rocket science, it's just common sense.

Join us as we explore these issues of importance to public education reform. Join us in demanding real change to our public education system to ensure each child, in each school, in each community, is healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.