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June 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 9

Two Takes on Whole

    What does it mean to educate the whole child?

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      Hear audio excerpts of the interview.
      el2007summer price
      el2007summer marshall
                   Hugh B. Price                Stephanie Pace Marshall
      The co-chairs of ASCD's Commission on the Whole Child—Hugh B. Price and Stephanie Pace Marshall—spoke with Educational Leadership about what it means to educate the whole child. Price, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and past president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, and Marshall, founding president of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, share their different—yet complementary—perspectives.
      ASCD's whole child initiative puts the child at the center of the education enterprise. What current practices in education don't place the child at the center? What practices do?
      Marshall: This might seem a bit inflammatory, but I think that almost everything we're doing doesn't put the child at the center. Right now, what drives much of schooling is a utilitarian perspective, a business context. Schooling is designed for a particular end—careers or economic success. Of course, those are important, but they're not the only reason to educate children. Learning and schooling need to go far beyond the utilitarian, far beyond just serving the needs of a culture and its drive toward economic success.
      Price: Many approaches to reforming and improving schools have to do with control and standardized testing. What ASCD and the Commission are attempting to do is start the conversation in a different place. This is about children—how to foster healthy, balanced, well-educated children. So what do children need? How do we structure schools to support those needs? What policies flow from that vision?
      Some critics call the whole child concept “fuzzy,” “squishy,” and “subjective.” How can rigor be part and parcel of the whole child curriculum?
      Marshall: There's a dimension of rigor that is rigor mortis. I don't know why we think that what we're doing now is rigorous. What we're doing is grounded in memory. It's not grounded in meaning, in deep questions, and in approaches in which kids learn to work together in teams. What we're doing is reductive and fragmented. It divides disciplines in ways they were not intended to be divided. It disallows children from bringing some enormous capacities into deep conceptual understanding and serious problem solving. Rigorous learning happens when we invite and develop the full range of children's capacities. We can ground this in Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. To me, holistic approaches to education are far more rigorous because they challenge a multiplicity of ways of knowing.
      For example, say you're faced with a complex problem that you haven't seen before. It's not confined to a neat, disciplinary domain so you don't know whether it's a chemistry problem, a physics problem, or a social problem. What is Darfur? What kind of problem is that? Is it a health problem? Is it an education problem? Is it political? Is it judicial? It's all of these things. When you cut off kids' ability to bring all these dimensions into problem solving, fundamentally you're asking kids not to be rigorous. You're asking them to be simplistic and myopic, to have quick answers, to not engage in what I call conscious weaving—thinking deeply, wisely, and integratively. If you can connect different ideas, if you can integrate concepts from one domain to solve a problem in another, if you can creatively unpack something you've never seen before and bring in new ways of thinking to solve a familiar problem—that's the most rigorous kind of learning.
      Price: The point of the whole child initiative is to foster the academic and social development of children. That is not a fuzzy concept. If you don't attend to some of the nonacademic forces in a child's life, then it's going to be difficult for these children to perform academically. Children who don't come to school in a frame of mind to learn have a hard time performing well in school. Those of us who believe in the whole child concept have to show that it tracks through to improved academic performance, but it also shows up in healthier social outcomes, a greater willingness to go to school, higher attendance and graduation rates, and a lower incidence of counterproductive behavior.
      I read the profile of a certain young woman who's about to graduate from high school in New York City. She's a capable student, but she's really struggling to hold on and stay in school. There's a lot of stuff going on in her life at home. If the school, the community, and her family can help her navigate those forces, then she has a chance at academic success. But if they can't, she's going to become a statistic. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, many children are not performing up to their potential. Many of us who are active on the Commission on the Whole Child would guess that a lot of emotional and developmental issues are intruding on these children's ability to achieve.
      The report of the Commission on the Whole Child refers to the Whole Child Compact. Why do you call it a compact?
      Marshall: We began by looking at the issue from a number of perspectives: Are we talking about a partnership? An agreement? A contract? Or a problem? We had a conversation about the relationship between elders and the young. It's not, if students show up, then we adults will give them certain things. Or that we owe them something because we're older and they're younger. It's much more significant than that. The word compact has a sense of responsibility, of ownership, of generational connectedness. It's more than inputs and outputs. It suggests a promise, between adults and children, between schools and children, between schools and family, between parents and their children, between communities and their schools, between communities and their children.
      We're not breaking new ground when we talk about whole children. We're born whole. We wouldn't talk about “hot” sun or “wet” water because that's what they are. The modifier sounds ludicrous and redundant. The problem is, of course, that we're living a fragmented, disconnected, and siloed kind of existence. Kids begin to wonder whether they are being valued or whether only their academic achievement matters.
      Price: We call it a compact because supporting the whole child is not the responsibility of schools alone. Schools obviously have a crucial role, but so do communities, parents, and individual teachers. If they all step up to the plate, they can improve children's prospects for success. If they don't, it makes it difficult for the other sectors. For example, if the community is doing its job but the schools aren't focusing on supporting the whole child, then children can suffer. If the schools are doing a terrific job, but there are problems going on in the family or the neighborhood, then the job of the schools becomes much tougher.
      The first imperative is to recognize that we aren't just talking about how children perform on tests—we're also talking about their social and emotional development. Right now, schools are under such pressure related to testing that they can barely breathe when it comes to addressing these other needs. Policymakers need to understand that public policy cannot concentrate on testing alone. Schools need resources for programs in the arts and for counseling and health initiatives.
      Community organizations need to play a part. They have to help reinforce the importance of achievement goals, ensure community safety, and provide after-school support. These are the kinds of conversations that need to take place in all communities, across all sectors.
      How can a whole child approach to education meaningfully address equity and the achievement gap?
      Price: We're not going to be able to close achievement gaps if we don't take a more holistic look at what's happening in the lives of children and how schools, communities, parents, and teachers can collaborate in addressing the wave of issues that intrude on the ability of kids to achieve. Many children who are achieving at high levels already have these kinds of supports. They're second nature in many communities. When you look at what's going on in the lives of children who are performing poorly in school, you frequently find weaknesses in the development supports. Schools are not attuned to these kinds of issues. They may have been attuned once, but now they have far less capacity to address these issues because of the testing pressures, which have had the perverse effect of squeezing out many of the supports that children need. If we don't ensure these supports, we'll see only marginal gains for children who are on the cusp and little progress for kids who are chronically behind.
      One criticism lodged against the current school system is that it's moored in the past, that it's not producing graduates who have the skills they need for success in work and life in the 21st century. Does a whole child approach do a better job of embracing the future?
      Marshall: Reports are coming out now that focus on the need for students in science, technology, engineering, and math, but unfortunately the focus is on “How can we make sure U.S. kids are as competitive as kids in India, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Singapore?” These concerns are driven by competition. You don't hear a lot of conversations about what we're going to do in math and science so that our kids have the tools to advance the human condition. I would submit to you that the primary grounding should be advancing the human condition. When that's the focus of your scientific, mathematical, and technological work, you're going to have an economic driver because advancing the human condition takes an enormous amount of creativity, invention, and imagination.
      What has turned off so many kids—especially girls—to science, engineering, and technology is that we've got to be competitive, we've got to make money. We had to beat the Russians during the Cold War. Now, we have to beat the Indians and the Chinese. We should step back and ask, Why are we trying to beat them?
      The kinds of minds that emerge from a whole child environment are profoundly different. For example, if I take x number of kids whom I don't know, put them in a room, and give them a messy, ill-structured problem that they have never seen before, I could pick out the kids who have benefited from a whole child environment in school—by how they approach the problem; how they work together; what questions they ask; their level of confidence; their comfort with ambiguity, paradox, and complexity; their ability to fluidly navigate concepts. That's what success in the 21st and 22nd centuries is going to look like.
      Is there any proof that a whole child approach works?
      Price: Research, which we cite in the Commission's report, shows that 14 factors correlate with achievement gaps between white and minority students. According to the Educational Testing Service, more than half of those factors correlate with out-of-school phenomena. We included some brief case studies in the report. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, in addition to concentrating on such issues as teacher quality, schools are creating more challenging and relevant curriculums. They're providing more personalized, engaging experiences for the students and are showing flexibility in meeting student needs. As a result, they've seen dramatic gains: In 2006, 74 percent of the children in those schools tested “proficient” or “advanced” in reading. The once failing schools outperformed more than 90 percent of all schools in Tennessee. That sounds good to me.
      Can an education for the whole child coexist with the current high-stakes testing requirements?
      Marshall: They coexist as strange, uncomfortable partners. What we need are assessment tools, processes, and mechanisms that get at deep conceptual understanding and integrative ways of knowing, that move kids along a continuum from a novice's ways of understanding to greater levels of expertise. We need assessment tools that can discern, track, and show growth over time and that show how students solve particular kinds of problems. We have the technology to do it.
      The current structure is an input model grounded in memory, transmission, acquisition, one-size-fits-all, compliance, and punishment. It's grounded in competition and, fundamentally, in fear.
      An education for the whole child is different. It's not simply about learning information and content; it's about what you do with that information. Every way of knowing is essentially a language. In my institution, I want kids to be multilingual, to speak mathematics and science and poetry and dance and music and art and history. If we don't invite kids in—inviting their intuition, emotions, and sensitivities—then we're locking out a huge part of what they can learn. And when we fully engage kids in learning, they become confident, fearless, and able to unpack a problem and resolve it and to work together in groups. We need to look for evidence of that.
      What one thing would you advise teachers, schools, and communities to do to promote this vision of education?
      Marshall: To ensure, at the earliest levels, that the families of every child in the community have the resources and tools to understand the growing maturation of their child. Years ago, when I was visiting in South America, one country actually had a minister of human intelligence. Part of the work of this minister was ensuring that as soon as a child was born, the mother was given specific materials. Somebody in the hospital worked with the mother and family to help them understand how children develop.
      Our communities should do the same. They should ensure that the Whole Child Compact applies to all children, that children have access to health care and access to nurturing. If children are very poor, the community should ensure that they have safe places to grow and develop. The school as community center is a crucial part of this.
      Price: I don't want to suggest “one thing.” It's all more complicated than that. We need to absorb this notion of the whole child and consider its curricular implications. Teachers need to reflect on the idea and then band together with their schools and communities to fight for public policies that support it.
      I've just finished a paper on the lessons that we can learn from the military about how to educate kids who are having a hard time in school and life. Ironically, this program—the National Guard Challenge Program—is more “whole child” than what most schools do. The program focuses on eight core components: health, life navigation skills, academics, citizenship, community service, leadership and fellowship, physical training, and employment skills. What we perceive to be the most rigid of institutions is arguably more flexible than our education system.
      Looking back on your own childhood, what is one whole child moment that you'll never forget?
      Price: When I was growing up, I couldn't hit a curve ball. But in the course of pursuing my love of baseball, I devoured baseball magazines—for children as well as for adults. I discovered that if I could understand how to calculate a batting average, I'd have long division down cold. In other words, the pursuit of this first love reinforced everything that school was about. It reinforced teamwork, it reinforced my academic skills, and it reinforced my curiosity.
      I've often said that a school could take Jackie Robinson's life and turn it into a yearlong course that covers many subjects, from the migration of blacks to the North and West, to equal opportunity, to the military justice system. All these things were incorporated in his life. Moreover, kids could learn how to calculate the square footage of a baseball diamond. In the infield, the bases are laid out in a perfect square. But once you get to the outfield, you've got all these weird shapes, and you've got to learn how to analyze that. You can learn some physics too: When you throw a ball and it's fired back at you, it's coming through a certain plane at a certain speed. The education experience should really zero in on and nurture kids' passions and curiosity.
      Marshall: I was always so affirmed as a learner when I was growing up that it stayed with me and built a grounding of unshakable courage. We had a 1956 Ford when I was a child. My father chose to buy it without a radio. Why would you buy a radio, he said, when we could sing? Whenever we went on long family car trips, we made up songs, we spelled words backwards, we identified which states all the license plates were from, and we took the map with us so we knew exactly where we were in the world and in the country. We learned how to pay attention. Everything was a question. We always made up stories, puzzles, and rhymes. It was always about learning. But it wasn't about schooling. It was about learning and trying to figure things out and what would happen if. I was just so blessed.

      Amy Azzam has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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