Introducing Holistic Science Education

The World of Holistic Education
Holistic science education is a version of holistic education, but what is that? As you might guess from its name, holistic education is an approach to teaching that encompasses the whole student. In contrast to approaches that focus narrowly on the cognitive mind, holistic educators enthusiastically welcome the whole student into the classroom in all her glorious complexity.

The term “holistic education” does not have a precise definition in the educational literature. There are a number of different educational approaches, from Waldorf to Montessori to much of what John Dewey espoused, that would fall into this category. Still, amid the diversity, past and present holistic educational practice is united by its attention to the whole student—a mélange of potentialities, each of which has an inherent drive to engage the world.

There are various ways of conceiving of the “whole student”. Some educators refer to “hand, heart, and mind.” Others speak of “body, mind, and spirit.” Some holistic educators model the whole learner in more specific terms. For example, the Holistic Education Network posits “intuitive, emotional, physical, imaginative, and creative as well as the rational, logical, and verbal” faculties.

There has been an overall trend toward greater holism in education in recent decades, even though that trend may be hard to spot because the term “holistic education” is not commonly used. A generation ago, students worked independently at desks in straight rows. The generation before that, students were served a curriculum emphasizing rote learning and memorization, backed by strict discipline.

Today, virtually all teachers understand that there is an affective component to learning in addition to an intellectual one. Further, many teachers accept the idea of “multiple intelligences”, believing that “intelligence” is characterized by a variety of equally respectable human capacities, not all of which are of the cerebral variety. The widespread use of cooperative learning suggests that teachers in the mainstream recognize that important kinds of learning can occur only when students work together. Cooperative learning is a step toward holistic education because it integrates students’ social and intellectual growth. When you hear an educator talk about engaging both “left brain” and “right brain”, that educator is expressing a generally holistic outlook even if they are not using the label.

As we speak, the field of social-emotional learning (SEL) is gaining momentum. Teachers increasingly recognize the value, indeed the necessity, of helping students develop healthy social skills and emotional balance. Studies have been done showing that SEL improves academic content learning. Beyond teaching SEL in the service of academic learning, however, SEL competency is becoming an educational goal in itself. As the importance of EQ as well as IQ is recognized throughout popular culture, engaging the whole student—the left brain and the right brain; feeling as well as thinking—is emerging as a new and valid way to frame educational practice.

What is Holistic Science Education?
If holistic education consists of teaching the whole student rather than just the intellect, then holistic science education refers to teaching science to the whole student—engaging hand, heart, and mind rather than just the mind.

The holistic science teacher values cognitive development just as all science teachers do, but there is a broader aim. The holistic teacher views each student as a unique and complex set of potentials for learning. All these potentials are equally valuable parts of being human; they all can grow and flourish and are useful. Just as the varied tools in a Swiss Army knife make the overall instrument complete and powerful, so do all human capacities for growth make up a capable human being.

But holistic science education is a bit more than an extreme version of integrated science or cross-curricular science. What’s distinctive about holistic science integration is its emphasis on the heart in science learning. By the “heart”, I mean love and the capacity for caring. Developing empathy, compassion, the intention to help other people and the Earth is a hallmark of the holistic approach. Of all the domains of learning—hand, heart, and mind—the heart is regarded as especially precious and deserving of attention. This is because the heart is of such central importance in the development of healthy and balanced people plus the fact that, in science, the heart has been overlooked for so long.

Of course every science class centers on science concepts and science skills. Left-brain engagement is a must, and rightly so. The intention of holistic science education is not to take the science out of science education. Rather, it’s to make science learning more meaningful, accessible, and enjoyable by broadening the experience beyond strictly linear thinking. And beyond that even, the most urgent goal of holistic science education is help students use their hearts while they study the ideas, history, and practice of science—to connect science content with caring.

Teaching a Holistic Science Course
Essentially, a holistic approach to science education amounts to a change in perspective. It’s about teachers respecting the nonintellectual as well as the intellectual dimensions of the learner and allowing them expression in class. The shift in perspective is the big step. From this shift, holistic approaches to teaching responsive to diverse educational settings can follow as teachers adapt the idea to their own circumstances.

Here are some ideas for making your teaching more holistic. You can probably think of other methods. Fantastic!

Some Suggested Strategies for Holistic Science Teaching:
● Use SEL strategies: Science teachers, walk across campus and see what is going on in humanities, art, and psychology in terms of SEL. If there is nothing happening there, go find a Kindergarten class. Any early childhood educator can share with you the basics of  SEL. Adapt their practices to your classroom by making them age appropriate, but keep true to the spirit of the thing: namely help students feel happy and emotionally safe in class. Pay attention to students’ emotional well being and the classroom climate. The very fact that you engage in any SEL in science learning softens the environment. Using SEL shows students that, to you, feelings matter.

● Go cross-curricular: Utilize curriculum connections. If you are teaching about the life cycle of a flowering plant, bring in fruits and flowers that are beautiful and that smell and taste good. Let the deliciousness of fresh blackberries show your students first-hand why it’s “smart” for flowering plants go to all the trouble of creating delicious fruits in order to disperse their seeds.

● Service learning: Ask your students to do a project that connects science to helping people or the environment. Possible projects include: bringing a healthy meal to someone who is ill; tutoring another student who is having difficulty in science; or showing up for a beach clean-up.

● Biographies of scientists: Encourage students to read biographies of scientists. Biographies reveal the motivations behind science practice—motivations which may be rooted in caring for a cause or for other people; in an aesthetic or philosophical quest; or a love of nature. All of these will help students appreciate science as a fully human endeavor. Further, they’ll be learning through story telling, the most ancient teaching practice of all. Story telling instructs as it entertains and is a holistic approach.

● STEAM: Use STEAM activities. That is, broaden STEM instruction by adding art. For fully holistic learning, don’t forget to add the social and emotional aspects. Be sure that love and caring are among the “emotions” that you engage, for without these there’s no heart in hand-heart-mind learning.

● Mindfulness: Mindfulness exercises such as meditation still the mind and shut off mental chatter. This is helpful for experiencing a calm, balanced emotional state conducive to learning. Even more important, calming the mind allows one to listen to one’s inner voice and to connect with the heart.

● Play cooperative games: Cooperative games are games based on cooperation rather than competition. Well-designed and well facilitated cooperative games elicit equitable participation from all players. They are inclusive by nature, which fosters the all-important sense of belonging and emotional well-being. Games have rules and challenges so they activate rational thinking. Of course they activate the social self since they are group activities. But when games are cooperative, they foster mutual respect and appreciation of others rather than simply the advancement of oneself above others. This opens the heart.

● Connect students with Nature while connecting them with science: Natural objects and settings can delight the senses, stimulate a variety of feelings and at the same time fascinate the mind. Teaching science as nature-study makes it a holistic experience.

● Tackle the hard issues: Frightening or sad topics that elicit unpleasant emotions (including climate change) can overwhelm students and make them turn away from science. As a holistic science teacher, you understand that there is no way to teach emotionally charged material from a “just-the-facts” perspective. Students need to process their feelings in order to assimilate alarming information. With the right pedagogical approach, emotionally charged topics can be among the most engaging and relevant. Just be sure to steer clear of doom-and-gloom scenarios.  Emphasize actions students can take to mitigate threats. If they see how they can use science to respond to crises, that’s an extra plus. In any case, be sensitive to the needs of your multidimensional students. Pair upsetting science topics you cover with activities involving artistic expression, group discussion, social action, etc.

● Teach the Nature of Science. Science is a method for investigating cause-and-effect relations between material things. Its scope is thus quite limited. Getting clear about what science can and cannot explain validates alternate ways of knowing, which honors many faculties for understanding, and the multiple perspectives that will always be present in any group of people. The rationality, objectivity, and materialism that characterize the scientific worldview are great for doing science. However, they can act as blinders when applied to understanding absolutely everything about the world and ourselves. The holistic science teacher enables students to enjoy and respect science—and to understand its limitations as well as its power.

© Suzanne Lyons, Child and Nature 2017