Whole Child Symposium

A Whole Child Education for Every Child: The Grand Unifying Theory of Education

If our goal is a "whole child" education for every child, here are some essential questions: How should a modern school be managed and led in a world where the ground keeps constantly shifting? How can a single educator piece together a coherent vision of "school today:" management, leadership, curriculum, teaching, tools? Does "21st-century learning" have any real and special meaning? What's certain is that the schools we're striving to create today are not your father's (or your mother's) schools.

I am not a huge fan of posts that start with a number and proceed to a command: "83 Things You Must Do To Be The Teacher You Want to Be;" "Thirteen Cs Your School Can't Survive Without." In general I find these overwhelming, dispiriting, and ultimately pointless; add them all together and you wind up with an infinitude of impossibility and a guilt-trip headache. I have used this pitch a few times, and I'm rather sorry I did.

I find my thinking on education and learning fragmented enough without reducing its elements to lists. When I've actually tried to do this, I wind up with a mental construct that looks like the Strategic Directions to Hell, a road paved in bullet-points of noble intention.

A whole bunch of things in the world of education interest me, deeply these days, and I've written about them all on my blog—in scattershot ways, no doubt, bringing me up against a stricture laid out the other day by blogger Rebekah Radice: "a 'jack of all trades and master of none' blogger is someone that has lost their way" As a writer whose work is explicitly connected with my need to earn a living, I don't want to think I've lost my way.

Rather, I believe that the way has not yet coalesced into a clearly defined path. But I need to push this process forward, if only to explain myself more coherently.

What matters to me? Kids: their connection to nature; their being treated equitably in the educational system; their mental health and vitality and authenticity of character; their understanding and experience of equity and justice in the world; their curiosity and engagement with ideas, facts, and the ways of the world; their power to draw upon their own capacities and interests; the capacity and disposition of their teachers to support them in all their necessary development and growth; the efficacy of their schools as settings for development and growth. And ideals: the highest aspirations for humanity, as expressed in venerable notions like "infinite compassion" and "love they neighbor as thyself" and "do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

It doesn't seem so hard, when I sum it all up in a paragraph.

My friend Chris Thinnes was tapped to be a panelist for the Whole Child Symposium at the recent ASCD annual conference, and perhaps the Grand Unified Theory I'm looking for is actually summed up in a single, related phrase this event calls to mind: A whole child education for every child.

First, this involves acknowledging what the whole child is: an aggregation of experience and biology, with feelings, an intellect, preferences and prejudices, skills and curiosity, hopes, dreams, worries, and loves. The whole child wants to be a whole adult, and he or she will become this. The whole child's teachers need to understand the whole child and to have both the skills and dispositions—as well as the liberty within their schools—to bring forth from the child the fullness of his or her moral, intellectual, aesthetic, civic, social, and even spiritual being. The whole child's school must be a place of freedom, respect, and vital curiosity that never rests in its excitement about the children in its care and helping them realize their full potential as moral, intellectual, aesthetic, civic, social, and even spiritual beings. (And I feel bound to say here that a school can honor a child's spiritual being without itself being in the least a place of explicit faith or spirituality.) If there must be ideology, let it be this: We believe in children. All children.

So if my blogging strays from public school "reform" to the delights of design thinking and onward to my enthusiasm for family-style meals and Twitter or skepticism about the new SAT, it's all part of the Grand Unified Theory. Educating the whole child is complex, multifaceted, hard work; the work of harnessing all the forces involved and considering all the factors to create the schools we need for every child obligates us to ponder schools and the learning process from many, many perspectives. I've been lucky to have been offered the chance to consider schools and learning from quite a few of these vantage points, but there are still many more left for me to explore and ponder. And I am going to continue that work right here, toward a whole child education for every child.

Peter GowPeter Gow has been an independent school teacher and administrator for 40 years, most recently at Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts, and is currently executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group. An active blogger, he has also written and presented for many publications and audiences on a wide range of topics related to teaching and learning; lately he has been focusing increasingly on areas where independent school and public school educators might find common ground. Connect with Gow on Twitter @pgow or by e-mail at pgow@independentcurriculum.org.

Comments (1)

Phil Brown

April 30, 2014

Peter - just ran across this post. Thanks for you honest, clear professional wisdom. Your reflections are so supportive of themes in an edited book two colleagues and I put out in late 2012 that I thought you might be interested. The Handbook of Prosocial Education is an attempt to pull a lot of diverse research, programs and experiences together in one place. It’s two volumes and not cheap, but an investment you school’s professional library might want to make - you could probably get a prof. discount if interested.  I interviewed Molly McClosky for my chapter on policy.

Phil Brown

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