Whole Child Education Has Come Far. It Still Has a Long Way to Go.

Opinion | Whole-Child Learning

Whole Child Education Has Come Far. It Still Has a Long Way to Go.

By David Griffith and Sean Slade     Jul 21, 2019

Whole Child Education Has Come Far. It Still Has a Long Way to Go.

What does a “whole child education” mean to educators? That has been a question we’ve been helping to answer since ASCD launched its whole child initiative more than a decade ago. More recently, it’s taken on greater awareness (and confusion) with the increased attention around social-emotional learning. So it is no surprise that EdSurge would publish a research article centering around this question, given the various definitions and perceptions among educators.

We’ve seen and heard a multitude of definitions of what whole child means. To some it references providing nutritious food or breakfast in the classroom. To others it focuses on mental health and developmental social and emotional learning skills. Others still use the term to mean understanding brain-based learning and adjusting teaching to suit what we now know about memory, knowledge and meaning. Whole child can also equate to providing enough counselors in schools; developing systems for student voice and agency; encouraging that schools address the cultural context of their students; or ensuring equity and equitable access to opportunities.

To us at ASCD, it is all of these things…and more.

While different understandings of the term need to be addressed, we are pleased that the focus on developing each child holistically has now become a standard part of the educational conversation.

We launched our efforts in 2007 at the height of the No Child Left Behind era, when a few progressive school leaders and districts dared to envision a more student-centered and more comprehensive approach in response to NCLB’s narrow constraints. In the last 12 years, we have witnessed a surge of students, educators, parents, schools, organizations, departments of education and funders talking about the importance of student success beyond state test scores.

We launched our whole child work at a time when seemingly all of the conversation was centered around the fanciful notion of “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP. Our initiative was an antidote to the growing fixation with test scores and an academics-only approach to education. We asked a radically simple question during this challenging time: If decisions about education policy and practice started by asking what works for the child, how would resources—time, space and human—be arrayed to ensure each child’s success? If the student were truly at the center of the system, what could we achieve?

What we have been seeking since is a change in the conversation about what a successful school, a successful student and an effective education system should be. We sought to move the conversation about education“from a focus on narrowly defined academic achievement,” as we termed it, “to one that promotes the long-term development and success of children.”

Well, the conversation has changed.

We’ve gone from No Child Left Behind’s top down, rigidly prescriptive and punitive test-based model to the Every Student Succeeds Act’s state and locally-determined set of multiple measures of student achievement.

We’ve gone from core academic subjects to a well-rounded education.

We’ve gone from relying solely on standardized testing to measure school quality to incorporating nonacademic indicators into state accountability systems.

We’ve gone from media saturation about academics and rankings to an understanding that student success is more than math and language arts scores.

We’ve moved the dial from schools being content delivery systems to schools being places of growth, learning and holistic support.

Over the past 12 years, we have made strides in changing mindsets, passing state and federal resolutions, impacting national and global policy discussions and awarding schools around the country doing amazing work regarding a whole child approach.

Later this year we will unveil a comprehensive Whole Child Network of schools that allows schools to craft their own path utilizing a continuum of benchmarks based on our whole child approach.

Whole Child as a concept is becoming mainstream. We are pleased, but not content.

As is highlighted in Rachel Burstein’s article, there is still much to do. We may have helped in moving the national mindset about the value and importance of a Whole Child education, but there is still more to do in terms of definition, context, audience and actual implementation. We must continue to educate teachers and the public, for instance, that while social-emotional learning, school meals and chronic absenteeism are important components that support the whole child they are not, in and of themselves, a whole child education.

A couple of years ago we published A Lexicon for Educating the Whole Child (and Preparing the Whole Adult), which comprehensively addressed the “Tower of Babel” around what whole child education means. In the policy brief, Roger Weissberg of CASEL, summed it up best,

Ultimately, people join one of two different camps when it comes to terminology: "There are some people who are 'splitters' and some who are 'lumpers.' Lumpers look for commonalities and try to connect them and find synergies. Splitters look for differences, and say what's unique about an approach. In our country right now in education, we need to do a lot more 'lumping' and looking for the synergies."

Whatever educators call it, the ultimate goal remains to ensure that each child is knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically inspired, engaged in the arts, prepared for work and economic self-sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond formal schooling.

Let the conversation continue.

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