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Putting the pieces together

Educational leader Fred Ende shares how to begin shifting to a holistic educational mindset.

4 min read




I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of shifting to a whole approach when it comes to education. Whether talking whole child or whole learner, the more facets of the individual we incorporate into our teaching, learning and leading, the more effectively we can cement ideas, emotions and opportunities for growth. This doesn’t mean that a piecemeal approach is in itself a bad thing; rather, it simply means that like with a puzzle, we have to put all the pieces together in order to get the full effect, ending up with a result that makes sense. Like putting a puzzle together, getting to the big picture isn’t necessarily easy. It requires us to adopt a series of mindsets that apply just as well when talking education as they do when talking puzzle solving. Here are the three biggest frame shifts that I believe can take us from pieces to whole.

Start with what we know.

Puzzles generally have four corner pieces, all of which can be identified easily due to their solid right angles. There is something gratifying about beginning a puzzle with the four corners laid out in estimation of where the puzzle borders are. Part of the reason for this is the feeling we get when we identify patterns or ideas we are familiar with amidst a sea of unknowns. The same idea can be applied to education. When shifting to a whole learner approach, rather than getting lost in the sea of pieces we might not yet be incorporating, it can pay dividends for us to start with what we are doing well. Sometimes that is by building on our academic approach. Other times it might be starting with the classroom culture we have created as a baseline for branching out. Regardless of where we begin, it is better to start with what we know than to adopt a piece to which we can’t quite find any connection.

Recognize the power of people.

A whole child approach echoes strongly the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” While a whole model to education could occur solely on the back of one educator, the experience becomes much more relevant — and much less painful — when many share the load. Consider the last time you solved a puzzle. Likely you could have accomplished it by yourself; that said, solving with others allows for the social nature of our existence to play a role. Maybe deeper questions get asked, maybe humor gets incorporated or maybe the solving is more effective and efficient. In any case, recognizing the power of people allows us to put together the pieces in a way that is often smoother and almost always more fun.

Be nimble — and be quick.

The more dimensions we incorporate into any work we do, the more flexible we must be in our response to changing times, changing values and changing people. With so many different lenses to look through with the whole approach, we ought to embrace the nimbleness this requires and be happy to be a little unsteady on our feet from time to time. If you solve a puzzle by looking at one piece at a time, you can certainly keep your focus better, but you lose the big picture that a more holistic approach enables you to see.

Learning and leading for the whole is necessary if school is to be as meaningful an institution as it can be. This change requires many shifts in our mindset, and the three pieces shared above are a good start to completing the whole puzzle.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his


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