A holistic solution to a broken system

Written by Louis Raphael Michael

You start school at five years old and things begin well. You spend all day playing and making and learning through fun, interactive games. The classroom is big, the teacher is kind, and there is lots of time to play and rest. But as you get older and progress upwards through the school years, the classrooms get smaller. The teachers also get harsher, and the time for playing and making is swapped out for silent, still, focused work. Worst of all, somewhere along the way the means of learning are switched out. Fun, interactive, physical games are replaced with monotonous, endless paper work, always sat at a desk. 

Secondary school takes this hardened model and makes it even harder.

From your very first days at ‘big school’ it is drummed into you by every adult figure of authority that the next seven years of academic performance will determine the rest of your life.

This becomes an exciting challenge for some, but a terrifying threat for most. The challenge is overshadowing all learning with a veil of fear. The process is set in motion early on as children are divided by intelligence, creating a quiet hierarchy and an epidemic of insecurities. Then the diminished compassion for students is majorly evidenced in how hormonal teenage changes are never accounted for. Schools’ militaristic demand that all students arrive for 8:30am remains. Even despite arguments for a later start time. School, a place where one should feel supported, be inspired and be able to discover oneself, too often becomes a place that makes students sick with stress. A place where students can end up feeling isolated and lost in the overwhelm.

The justification for the questionable bait and switch of the education system – starting soft and quickly becoming harsh – is that children must be taught to grow up and behave like adults to prepare for the adult world. But how does it make sense to try and achieve this delicate coming of age by forcing a room full of children to sit still silently for 5 hours a day? Forced to focus on work they don’t find genuinely interesting, in an unstimulating environment? Does this method work as well as we think it does?

Statistics paint a rather telling picture. In a recent nationwide poll 75% of secondary school students expressed general boredom, anger, sadness, fear, or stress while in school. 37% reported depression and anxiety symptoms.

Couple this with research carried out by Stockholm University (2016) we can see that the unfortunately high stress levels of students are actively sabotaging their natural learning processes. The university proved that stress can directly affect our abilities to create short-term memories. It is therefore more difficult to retain new information. 

To make matters worse, the teachers that the whole of education relies on fared little better themselves. In the 2022 Teacher Wellbeing Survey, 87% of teachers said they have experienced an increase in anxiousness. Further, 81% disagree/strongly disagree that government policies support schools to respond to mental health and wellbeing issues that affect teachers. 66% say that their school does not have measures in place to monitor and manage stress and burnout. 

If students are unhappy and aren’t learning effectively, and teachers feel overworked and under-supported, clearly something is wrong. But there is a deep, cultural doubt that we are too heavily invested in our current education system for any meaningful reform to be possible. It’s hard enough giving a single child a good education. Where do you begin with the United Kingdom’s 10.6 million students?

And yet, there is always hope.

Building on the common knowledge that different children exhibit different learning types, and the one-size-fits-all model of education is outdated and redundant, there has been promising research done into ‘active learning’. This is ‘an approach to education that involves actively engaging students with the course material through discussions, problem solving, case studies, role plays and other methods.’ In short, a form of teaching that is far more dynamic, creative, varied, and multidimensional. However, our country’s current National Curriculum hasn’t quite caught up to this new educational philosophy. It still takes a compartmentalised, intellectual approach to education.

Teaching separated subjects, of which the majority are academic, paper-based desk work remains the case. Students are disengaged because their classwork doesn’t reflect the real world that they are supposedly being prepared for. A common and constant complaint among students is how school doesn’t teach you about real life. Financial literacy and understanding taxes, self-awareness and understanding the self, social skills and understanding each other should be taught. Our current schooling system teaches us how to be good students, not how to be good people.

Surely there has to be a better way of raising the next generation? An alternative to simply feeding the priceless days of precious youth into the crushing conveyor belt of the exam system; to churn out a handful of conventionally successful graduates alongside untold numbers of jaded, resentful, even traumatised young adults. The culture of absurd pressure, aggressive intellectualism, and rampant leveraging of privilege over the disadvantaged has gone on long enough.

Miraculously, mercifully, there may be a solution to many of the problems previously laid out.

It doesn’t claim to be perfect, or to solve every problem, but it offers an educational alternative. This can be adapted and adopted by the current school system instead of starting entirely from scratch. It has been developing and waiting in the wings for a few decades now, perhaps until the world was ready for it. This solution is called holistic education.

Emily Marshman defines it as such: “holistic education focuses on the fullest possible development of the person. It encourages individuals to become the very best or finest that they can be and enabling them to experience all they can from life and reach their goals.” Further explanation comes from Chris Drew PhD, who says: “Holistic education is about educating the ‘whole child’. Teachers must guide the student to become happy and well-rounded adults. And we should teach students that they are interconnected with the world around them.”

Holistic education seems idealistic, even fanciful, but there have been surprisingly successful case studies and encouraging results.

Finland  (uncoincidentally named the world’s happiest country in the 2023 happiness index, as well as the last 6 years in a row) has long been lauded for its world-renowned education system. Their schools have embraced a holistic learning approach, and as such have absolutely no standardised testing. Students have less homework, prioritise cooperation over competition; they wake up later and spend less time in school. In 2021 Finland’s schools ranked 3rd in the world. If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere. With enough pressure from involved and concerned parents making their voices heard, we can demand more for our children by following Finland’s lead.

So what is holistic education in action? Is it really better than our pre-existing, or just different? Let us go back to the beginning, to our first days in primary school. If you observe a reception classroom you’ll see a wonderful model of high level holistic learning. The children are very focused when they are learning their alphabet, and how to count to 100, because they know these are vital skills for the real world. They are in flow when they are painting and making crafts, to take home to their loved ones. 

Children are happier when they see their teacher as a friend. When the younger years teacher is taught to be patient, understanding and compassionate always. This reception teacher knows the child is adjusting to school life for the first time. The atmosphere and environment is relaxed, pleasant and enjoyable. Teaching and learning is all highly effective, and yet we throw it all out after only one year. As a collective, we have been fed a falsified idea that more advanced ideas require more silent focus. However, as we have seen, that is patently not true.

There is no reason why the model of reception classrooms, of Finland, of new educational psychology, cannot be adapted.

Adapted to allow for students to spend their entire 15 years of schooling from 5 to 18 years old in one long unbroken project of holistic, lively, energetic, animated, dynamic, interconnected learning. 

For instance, a day’s work might look like painting a tree and annotating it’s biological parts. Then you could write a story about it and seeing how long you can hang from its branch. Students should be discovering the mysteries of life and the world through memorable, collaborative, emotionally engaging experiences. They could be having transformational penny drop moments every other day rather than once a year. All this would mean they were far more ready to become happy, contributing members of adult society upon leaving school. The days of being force fed a never-ending stream of words written on a whiteboard to memorize for an exam, to then immediately forget, must be left in the past.

Education is a foundational cornerstone of every civilisation in humanity’s past, present and future.

It is an eternal aspect of our human existence: to learn, grow, and understand. School is a place where inspiration should flow, to germinate the seeds of ideas that will continue to revolutionise the world. Therefore every school should be a palace of learning that is so enthusiastic and engaged that the children look like they are always playing, as they decipher the meaning of their life. We will get there, eventually. We’re already on our way. Our great-great-grandchildren will never understand how anyone could hate school.

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