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A whole new world of whole learning

"Whole learner" approach broadens "whole child" concept

6 min read




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Let me start by writing that I love the idea of teaching to the whole child, rather than simply the academic side of the students we serve. And I’m quite taken with ASCD’s Whole Child framework where the five tenets of healthy, safe, challenged, supported and engaged serve as foundations to remembering that teaching children should never be one-dimensional.

But, I’m also torn.

Roughly 90% of the educational work I do now is with adult learners. And, whether I’m working with teachers to help them help their students, or engaging in conversation with leaders to help foster the growth of their teachers, I’m at least one degree removed from teaching and leading the whole child.

But, I’m incredibly close to teaching and leading to the Whole Learner.

During last month’s ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show, I had the opportunity to facilitate an IGNITE presentation (a five-minute talk, with a presentation where slides rotate every 15 seconds) focused on considering the value in a shift from “whole child” to “whole learner.”

During that IGNITE, I attempted to make the case that while a whole child view is incredibly important, it isn’t directly applicable to all who work in the field of education.

I know, I know, semantics, right?

But the thing is, words do make a difference. I value “whole child,” but I can’t directly act on it in my day-to-day work. But, “whole learner”?

I’m all in.

What’s so great about taking a “whole learner” stance is that those same tenets that I find so foundational to growing leaders and learners easily transfer over. Let’s take a look:

  • Healthy: In all professions, the health of those providing service (as well as those receiving it) is incredibly important. And I wonder if in school systems that is even more apparent. Teachers who are regularly absent due to illness affect their students. How can we expect for continuity when leaders of learning aren’t around? So, it is important for schools and districts to adopt wellness policies that encourage health for everyone in a school or district, not just those who might be on the nurse’s list.
  • Challenged: I work best when I feel pressured. Not the type of pressure where I feel as if a decision will have life-altering consequences, but the type of pressure that makes me want to exhibit my best. I work well with deadlines, and I love setting reachable (but close to out-of-reach goals). I also realize this isn’t the same for everyone. Still, to model the value of continuous improvement, we have to want to continuously improve. We have to build a culture of “succailure,” where it is less about whether we “fail” or “succeed” and more about how the combination of those wins and losses help us to grow. In short, we need to work in places where the nudges we provide to students are also the nudges we receive from colleagues and supervisors. And, we need to give and receive these nudges in a way that focuses more on the potential learning ON the job, and less on the potential evaluation OF the job.
  • Safety: Our moods and emotions tend to dictate how we lead and learn, regardless of how well we believe we are separating our actions from our feelings. We all deserve to feel safe, and the teacher who has to walk through a dark parking lot at night is certainly less likely to feel comfortable staying late to finish work. In addition, how can we encourage our staff to enjoy lunch and conversation outside if we don’t replace the centuries-old picnic tables on our grounds? Yes, we want our students to feel safe in our schools, but we also must make sure that our adults don’t feel as if they can’t be their best because of the space and place we’ve created.
  • Supported: As social organisms, humans of all ages need to converse. We need to feel wanted, loved and cared for. We’ve grown in our understanding of the importance of supporting young learners throughout their careers; we need to show the same understanding for our adult learners. Whether through mentorship programs that go beyond a teacher’s first year, to face-to-face or virtual critical friends-style groupings, to a handwritten note left in a mailbox, we can move the needle quite a bit towards designing schools that support the whole learner, and not just the whole child.
  • Engaged: The term “engagement” has resurfaced of late as a “focus word” in education. How do we design instruction to be more engaging for students? How do we help students stay engaged? What supports can we provide to bridge the engagement gap for students? And yet, much of what we advocate for engagement changes in the classroom hasn’t shifted to the average professional development experience for educators. Consider, for instance, the following questions: “Why do we regularly provide schoolwide professional learning rather than learning targeted for specific audiences?” “Why are our professional learning tasks not differentiated by interest or experience?” “Why are faculty meeting attendees sitting and listening rather than engaging in discussion or design work?” Engagement should never be just for the young. We are only truly alive when our minds and bodies are switched to the “on” position. How can we engage others if the learning opportunities that confront us aren’t engaging themselves?

I would never look to take away from the value of a whole child way of thinking. But, I would ask us all to consider how much more we can gain by shifting the lens to focus on all learners, rather than just our youngest. My belief is that with that switch, we can open up a whole new world of whole learning.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at, Edutopia and ASCD EDge. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:

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