Educators Don’t Agree on What Whole Child Education Means. Here’s Why It Matters.

Jul 16, 2019

“How do you judge a person on one bad act that they do and what should be the parameters?” This ethical question formed the center of a thoughtful, deep discussion about an email from the school administration asking teachers to tell students not to “like” a YouTube video posted by a comedian who had been accused of making anti-Semitic statements.

“The kids were so thoughtful in what they said,” reflects Rana Hafiz, the veteran math teacher and former administrator who took time to engage her students in this ethical discussion. “I would hate to think about only their mathematical ability, whether they could solve a trig problem or not,” she adds.

The conversation was meaningful and productive, but unfortunately, the administration at the Connecticut middle school where Hafiz currently teaches hadn’t actually asked her to facilitate it. Nor had they carved out time for her to do so. Instead, Hafiz made an impromptu decision to take time to engage students in discussion after relaying the administration’s concern about students’ YouTube behavior, and noticing that her students were hungry to explore the issue further.

Hafiz has been thinking about what it means to educate the whole child for many years. Her middle school has a mission that reflects many values related to serving the whole learner, including global citizenship, social responsibility, collaboration and emotional well-being. Hafiz’s school even has a formal partnership with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence through which teachers participate in professional development workshops.

But for Hafiz, these efforts aren’t enough. Though her school’s mission statement articulates a focus on values she cares about, and her district claims enthusiasm about whole child education, something is getting lost in translation. The words haven't led to a change in instructional approach or the values and outcomes that her school community prioritizes. “It doesn’t really impact the work that we do in the classroom,” Hafiz explains.

Her school still has a strong culture of academic grading and families have high expectations around academic outcomes. As a result, although whole child education is presented as a core element, success is still defined and communicated to students and families as primarily academic.

In a community that views gaining acceptance to an elite college as the most important marker of success, Hafiz explains that it’s next to impossible for most educators to carve out time to have discussions like the one she had with her students.

According to Hafiz, serving the whole child means “supporting students in actually thinking about the world as a whole,” and figuring out how they can contribute to it. In her view, setting students up to succeed academically is only one dimension of whole child education.

For her, a true embrace of whole child education would involve a reimagining of how the school defines and communicates student success. But she teaches in a system where parental expectation and community norms see academic achievement as the ultimate goal of instruction. Serving the whole child is seen as a secondary objective without a clear and direct relationship to student success. It’s a nice-to-have.

This difference between how Hafiz understands the term “whole child education” and how her school currently implements programming around serving the whole learner has led Hafiz to feel unsupported in her teaching practice.

She is not alone.

Over the last year, EdSurge Research has been working on a project to understand how educators are shifting practice to reach all learners. For this project, we convened and facilitated Teaching and Learning Circles—local educator gatherings—in 22 cities around the country; published 60 stories of changing practice by both practitioners and reporters; and surveyed and interviewed hundreds of educators about their experience. (Learn more about this EdSurge Research project.)

Across all of these activities, we found many educators who shared Hafiz’s understanding of whole child education. But we also found educators who had different perspectives. While educators saw whole child as important, there was significant variation in how they defined it.

A Range of Definitions for the Term "Whole Child Education"

From fall 2018 through spring 2019, EdSurge Research conducted a survey of 115 educators who registered for Teaching and Learning Circles in locations around the country and educators universally told us that whole child education was important and relevant to their work. It’s no surprise that the respondents—all of whom who had voluntarily registered for an event about whole child education—all selected “important” over “unimportant” and “relevant to my work” over “irrelevant to my work” when asked which word or phrase better described their view of whole child education.

What was more surprising, however, was the fact that these educators had different interpretations of whole child education. For some, serving the whole child was about a particular type of instruction or learning outcome, while for others, it was about creating environments that are conducive to learning.

We asked survey respondents to define the term “whole child education” in their own words and categorized the 78 responses into four primary definition groups (see Figure 1).

EdSurge Research

The first and second definitions—together comprising about 72 percent of responses—both relate to practices that are explicitly designed to produce better learning outcomes across academic and non-academic areas.

The third and fourth definitions—comprising about a fourth of responses—focus on creating conditions and environments that form the basis for improved learning outcomes. These definitions included language about helping students feel safe, supported and nurtured.

These definitions are not necessarily in conflict or mutually exclusive. In follow-up interviews, educators explained that they embraced multiple interpretations. But the distinguishing factors are also telling and important.

Why Educators’ Perceptions Matter

While analyzing the survey data, we found no relationship between the definition educators provided and whether they believed whole child education to be easy or difficult to support. Nor did we find a correlation between the definitions and how supported educators felt by their school communities to integrate whole child approaches into teaching and learning practice.

Instead, how educators defined the term told us more about how they view the purpose of serving the whole learner, and therefore, how they understand their related role and responsibilities. For example, educators who view the purpose as helping students—particularly those who have not yet been able to reach their full potential—achieve better academic outcomes, may see their role as more focused on adapting their instructional techniques and curricular tools to reach different types of learners. Educators who see the purpose as supporting learners in developing character traits and skills that help them contribute to making their communities better places to live, may be more focused on using classroom time to devote time to activities and discussions that don’t have immediate impact on academic outcomes.

The way educators define whole child education and how they perceive their role and responsibilities when it comes to supporting the whole learner impacts the kind of support necessary from administrators, colleagues and other members of the learning community. Hafiz—the Connecticut teacher who engaged her students in a discussion about whether and how to confront prior hateful statements by a YouTube star—wished that she had more support from her administration in carving out dedicated time and space to engage students in a deep conversation about ethical behavior. For her, professional development workshops on whole child education from Yale weren’t enough.

An educator who sees whole child education as closely related to personalized learning and who perceives it as a style of teaching that acknowledges each student’s unique circumstances, may need more one-on-one time with students, better coordination with a family engagement coordinator or training in using edtech products for differentiation.

Whole child education was universally important to the educators involved in our research project. But there wasn’t a universal definition or interpretation of whole child education that surfaced. That matters because the way educators understand whole child education and how they perceive their related roles and responsibilities impact how school communities can best support educators interested in integrating whole child approaches in their teaching.

It also suggests that hearing educator voices is critical for the research community. Without those voices, researchers risk talking past the very audience that they’re helping to serve.


Want to learn more about this research project? Visit our project page and download our report:

Download Report


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