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Whole child? Whole learner

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

During April, SmartBlog on Education will shine a light on educating the whole child. In this blog post, we learn about the five tenets of whole-child education and how these ideas can apply to adult learners as well.

I first came across the term “whole child” in the summer of 2012 at an ASCD conference. Gene Carter, ASCD’s executive director at the time, was sharing the power of ASCD’s Whole Child initiative, and asked all of us in attendance to repeat back the five tenets that guide whole-child thinking. As I joined in the chorus, not quite knowing yet what the tenets were, and feeling a little like the guy in the piano bar who sings along with all the songs, despite only knowing a few of them, I began to wonder why we even needed an initiative for an idea that was so much common sense.

And yet, as I became a more seasoned leader, I realized that, when it comes to education in particular, just because it is common sense, doesn’t mean it is commonly done.

The five tenets of the Whole Child initiative speak to providing students with opportunities to live healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged lives. When we think of the work we do with students, we can likely identify some of the tenets we hold to on a daily basis and others that aren’t quite as consistent. Regardless, when we consider education in general, it should be clear we have a lot of work to do.

In fact, recently I’ve been wondering if the Whole Child initiative is encompassing enough.

The tenets of the Whole Child initiative don’t just fit children.

They fit all learners.

Maybe our emphasis on the whole child, as important as it is, needs to be expanded. Maybe our focus can’t just be on safety, health, challenge, support,and engagement when it comes to working with children. After all, as adult learners, don’t we need all five of these areas to be fulfilled if we are to learn, take action and grow?

As an educator who spends roughly ninety percent of his time learning and leading with adults, a “Whole Learner” approach is extremely powerful. As I craft professional learning opportunities, or work with other educators on curriculum design, I need to make the five pillars of the Whole Child initiative also exist for the Whole Adult.

Just a few minutes ago, before writing this post, I decided to reflect on how the five tenets are addressed by my organization, particularly in relation to adult learning, just to see if we could, in fact, migrate to a Whole Learner lens. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Healthy: Our workshop participants need to feel healthy when they attend our workshops. We provide ample time for breaks, and encourage stretching and regular movement. We’ve also expanded our food offerings to include healthier alternatives for lunch (including vegetarian options and salads). Employees in our organization have a strong health plan, ample sick time and family illness time.
  • Safe: This is a tenet that our organization will be working on this summer. Our building is old and in need of repair. A capital project that is entering its third year will revitalize our facility with updated roofing, HVAC, conference space and flooring. It is hoped that our building will be reopened in August, safer, and with additional amenities for staff and the districts we serve.
  • Engaged: Professional learning looks different for everyone. As such, as we begin planning offerings for the 2015-16 school year, we’re constantly striving to provide learning sessions that address multiple content areas and utilize multiple means of facilitation. In fact, our most effective workshop leaders know that every session must be offered so it resounds for everyone in the room. This means keeping all engaged, and that means integrating various protocols, talk time activities, and individual and group learning scenarios. Personalized learning matters just as much for adults as it does for children.
  • Challenged: My organization believes that both our staff and those utilizing our services need to be challenged. As a staff member, I can say that I regularly leave work with a tired mind; so much thinking takes place on a daily basis. During a recent collaboration session, we came up with an idea for a new professional learning service, characteristics of that service, cost structure and next steps. And the kicker? We started the session with an entirely different direction in mind.
  • Supported: We learn best when we know we have people to rely on. Relationships and communication need to be at the foundation of all that we do. In preparation for a recent blended-learning workshop with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, we came in late at night to do a tech check on Doug and Nancy’s schedule, arrived early to set up, and rehearsed a number of key steps in the lead up to the event so we could provide everything our attendees needed when they asked. We want our learners to be able to focus their thinking on what they are there to do, rather than spend their energy worried about what we did not have done.

In some cases, these are fairly common occurrences. But, they speak to an important point. The tenets of the Whole Child initiative are so much more than child-focused. They’re the framework for a Whole Learning way of life.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the director of SCIENCE 21 and currently serves as assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred is an ASCD Emerging Leader and along with writing here, he also blogs at ASCD EDge.

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