How Is Holistic Education Different from Traditional Education?

Holistic education is an alternative way of both teaching and learning. It looks at the whole student and their life experiences.

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 It connects the different school subjects to teach them in the context of each other. The student takes more responsibility for their own learning in holistic education. Supporters say holistic education rejects rote learning to help the student build critical thinking and teamwork skills while developing greater self-confidence.

What Is Holistic Education?

Many people think holistic education is a new concept introduced in the past century. It can actually be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who looked at the world as a single whole. Its most famous practitioner may be Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, and educator. She believed children are born learners who need a supportive environment to bring out their natural talents. She did not believe tests were useful tools for assessing learning.

Echoing Montessori, the Learning Policy Institute says holistic education programs engage the student at the social, emotional, and academic levels. This is where learning happens, the institute says in a 2018 article, “Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success”

“Emotions and social relationships affect learning. Positive relationships, including trust in the teacher, and positive emotions, such as interest and excitement, open up the mind to learning. Negative emotions, such as fear of failure, anxiety, and self-doubt, reduce the capacity of the brain to process information and to learn. Learning is shaped both by intrapersonal awareness, including the ability to manage stress and direct energy in productive ways, and by interpersonal skills, including the ability to interact positively.”

The Learning Policy Institute calls holistic education “democratic learning” because it gives the student a voice in what they learn and how they learn it. Traditional teaching happens from the top down. The teacher gives information to the student, who must pass a test of some kind to prove they’ve learned the lesson. In a holistic classroom, the student shapes their own learning, applying new information to what they already know and relating it to their own personal experiences. 

Differences from Traditional Education

The overarching difference between the two forms of education is that traditional education emphasizes results in separate, unrelated subjects. By contrast, holistic education focuses on the process of learning and teaches different subjects as one interrelated whole. 

Here are 3 key ways in which the differences come to life:

A Dynamic Classroom

Traditional classrooms have rows of desks and chairs. The students sit in them and passively listen to the information that the teacher gives them. They may talk only when the teacher allows it. In a holistic classroom, students arrange the classroom in many different ways, depending on what they will be learning. They might sit in pods of three or four seats for group discussions. They might work at tables holding lab experiments or art projects. There’s plenty of noise as students share their ideas and discoveries. The activities truly engage them. 

Learning Self-Confidence

Holistic educators believe it’s their job to help students survive in the real world. That begins with instilling self-confidence. Failure is a frequent concept in traditional classrooms. When the point of a lesson is to pass a test, the student can feel discouraged from trying again. Holistic classrooms teach resilience and perseverance to help overcome challenges. They recognize that every student learns in a different way and at a different pace. It’s important to respect those differences. Students learn to value themselves and their abilities. They learn healthy ways of developing family and social relationships and how to face difficulties in life and overcome them. The result is increased confidence that sets up the student to continue learning and growing, both academically and emotionally.

Real Learning, Not Memorizing Facts

Today’s traditional classroom emphasizes testing – holistic supporters say a better word is  “obsessed” – and rote learning. In these traditional settings, teachers “teach to the test” – focusing on facts that the students will just regurgitate in a test. Holistic schools teach skills that students need in the real world, like collaboration and teamwork. Lessons focus on topics in creative ways that encourage critical thinking. Students engage in cross-disciplinary learning that inspires them to learn more. They might study science by writing and producing a short film about a prominent scientist. They could apply what they’ve learned about geometry, history and art by building a scale model of a famous monument or building. In the process, they might feel inspired to become doctors, architects or even historians.

Challenges of Holistic Education

Although holistic education has many benefits, it’s not for everyone. It’s difficult to introduce it in traditional settings, where parents and other school staff may be uncomfortable with its unconventional ideas and methods. And if a student has been in a traditional, results-oriented setting for many years, it may take a long time to adjust to a more fluid classroom. Schools can introduce elements of the holistic approach while still adhering to traditional standards. Even a small taste of holistic education can help the student develop confidence and may ignite curiosity to continue learning long after they’ve left formal schooling.