Sean Slade

The Whole Child Is Going Down Under

Whole Child Down Under

Over the next two months, we will be hosting a webinar series designed specifically for Australian educators. It has become obvious over the last year that the discussions being conducted in Australia about education reform reflect many of the same conversations held here in the United States. Whether it is the debate on the development and expansion of a national curriculum, the basis for funding for states and schools (Gonski), or even the premise and unexpected baggage that accompany initiatives that rank schools by—among other things—academic test scores (My School), there are lessons that Australian educators can learn by reviewing what has occurred in the United States. Larger than all of these discussions, yet embedded into all, is the fundamental question of "what do we want to achieve out of our education system?" Do we, as Australian Minister for School Education Peter Garrett stated, on reviewing the 2009 PISA Results, "prioritize English, Maths, and Science or see the Arts as fundamental to a fully rounded education? What do we learn from looking overseas?" (April 12, 2012).

Our answer is "yes" to all these questions: "yes" to a whole child approach to education, "yes" to a fully well-rounded education, and "yes" to learning from what goes on overseas. It's "yes" to an effective and efficient education system.

And there is one thing that Australia has done well over the years (full disclosure: I am Australian), and that is the ability to watch what goes on overseas and adopt what works and discard or ignore what doesn't. It doesn't mean replicating everything that goes on, nor does it mean having a knee-jerk reaction to international results, but rather reassessing—from the stance of the broader educational goal—how we are getting there and what we want to achieve.

Launched in 2007, ASCD's Whole Child Initiative is an effort to change the conversation about education from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement to one that promotes the long term development and success of children. It began with a Commission on the Whole Child that brought together leading thinkers, researchers, and practitioners from a wide variety of sectors. The Commission was charged with recasting the definition of a successful learner from one whose achievement is measured solely by academic tests to one who is knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically inspired, engaged in the arts, and prepared for work and economic self-sufficiency. The Commission, as stated in its resulting ASCD publication The Learning Compact Redefined: A Call to Action (2007), realized that

"Current educational practice and policy focus overwhelmingly on academic achievement. This achievement, however, is but one element of student learning and development and only a part of any complete system of educational accountability."

The Commission outlined the guiding principles of a whole child approach to education—the five tenets—which state that

  • Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  • Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
  • Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
  • Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
  • Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

These tenets can be viewed as very similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization motivations (see article by ASCD Scholar and author Tom Hoerr). The Whole Child Tenets of each child being healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged highlight the need to ensure that the foundations for student success are grounded and established. They also outline a clear belief that students cannot learn if they are not first healthy and safe, and that moreover, they won't continue to learn if they are not engaged, supported, and challenged.

Join us over the next eight weeks as we outline a whole child approach to education, highlighting the role of the principal in establishing a climate and culture in schools that is conducive to learning, changes to systems that enhance and prolong school improvement, steps to developing a school improvement plan based on a whole child approach, and the need for the sectors of health and education to align in the school setting to ensure the foundational development of a healthy and safe environment. Register for the webinars at


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