Education Opinion

Defining, Then Serving, the Whole Child

By Peter Gow — May 10, 2013 4 min read
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Somewhere back in the last century educators latched onto a term that makes everyone feel good: “educating the whole child.”

Thousands of schools have been built, or re-built, around this theme, and teachers take enormous and deserved pride in seeing themselves as serving the needs of the “whole child” in their classrooms.

I’m not enough of a scholar of the history of childhood to correlate understandings of the meaning of the “whole child” to evolving ideas of childhood’s place within our culture. My guess is that the notion of the whole child emerged at more or less contemporaneously with Progressive social concepts like curbing child labor and an expanding understanding of “child welfare"--the idea that kids were not just short, cheap-to-hire adults but rather growing organisms whose cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development required specific kinds of attention and nurturance. Equally progressive educational ideas gave us the idea that schools should provide these.

In the 1960s and early 70s a great national project was undertaken to identify and describe the characteristics of children, or for that matter of humans in general. In proper scientific manner, the researchers leading this project--Benjamin Bloom’s name is forever attached to its results--tried to break down these characteristics in ways that would be helpful to educators and others interested in child development.

Bloom’s Taxonomy identifies three “domains” of learning within which behavioral characteristics and learning objectives could be further broken down. The cognitive domain involves knowledge and thinking, the affective domain encompasses feelings/emotions, and the psychomotor domain involves physical and spatial capacities.

It occurs to me that the heyday of the kind of work that Bloom was leading came to a thudding halt about 30 years ago this past month, with the publication of A Nation at Risk. The anxieties expressed were not about how kids felt or how they moved. The emphasis was all on cognition, on the mastery (or not) of classroom content. Fifteen years later we had No Child Left Behind, and now we scrap recess so that kids can do better on bubble tests.

Teachers and schools have done all they could to keep a proportionate amount of their attention on the affective and psychomotor domains, but at some risk. Worry too loudly about how kids are feeling, and you are sneeringly dismissed as being part of the weak-kneed “Self-Esteem Movement.” Kids’ bodies? It’s either all about sports (“If she works hard for the next five years my kid’s gonna get a full ride to State for soccer!”) or obesity.

But as a teacher I’ve worried about both. As an advisor and the coach of interscholastic teams in a couple of sports, I think I’ve had plenty of opportunity to participate in “whole child” education--at four very different schools. I’m not alone; most of us, if not all of us have spent our lives doing the same. Teaching the whole child, attending to our students’ development in all kinds of ways, is what good teachers do, and creating conditions where this can happen is what schools intend to do, however they may be distracted by external emphases on other things.

(Parenthetically, if I were going to revisit Bloom’s project I might consider, especially in light of what we now see as the skills and habits of mind essential for success in the 21st-century world, adding a fourth domain. I’d back the idea of a Social Domain, which touches and incorporates bits of the Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor but that has its own definable characteristics and developmental steps. I’m not entirely sure I can present these as tidily as Bloom and Company presented theirs, but I see significant differences in the ways that kids respond to the social situations at various ages that are both differentiated and predictable as part of a developmental and learning trajectories. Think of the ways children are in school, with friends out of sight of adults, with parents, with strangers, with grandparents, with parents’ adult friends--and consider the moment, which seems to come around age 15 or so, when kids discover that a certain kind of behavior will get them taken seriously by adults. All of this, observed and tagged, might help teachers guide students toward becoming more effective leaders, collaborators, citizens, and even creators. But that’s just me. You could probably make a case for a Spiritual Domain, as well.)

I guess, though, when I hear the term “whole child” these days that I’m not always sure that my understanding--and I’ll make a claim to including everything from kids’ very individual brains and hearts and bodies to their connections with family, community, and tradition--is quite what others have in mind. I hope it is, but somehow I can’t equate an emphasis merely on the detailed enumerations of standards represented by the Common Core or on multiple-choice tests (and teaching geared toward them) with any reasonably whole children I know.

It’s a big world out there, and life is complicated and surprising. “Whole child” education as I understand it intends to prepare children as best we can for all of this. I wonder whether the masterminds devising educational policy in think tanks or campaign strategy sessions really get this. And then I wonder whether they even want this.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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