Part I: Is Holistic Education a Solution for Education Reform?

Edward Joyner, Ed.D., is a retired Professor of Education and former Director of Five Year Program at Sacred Heart University.  For over 20 years, he led the most comprehensive school reform model in American Education.  Born in a small rural community in the segregated south,  he graduated from  H. B. Suggs High School in 1965 with honors and attended Elizabeth City State University in Elizabeth City, North Carolina where he graduated with high honors receiving a degree in the Social Sciences. While at Elizabeth City State, Joyner was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the vehicle that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used as the vanguard for the human rights movement. This paper by Prof. Edward Joyner is Part I of a three-part response to educators who are curious about differential performance between students, and the child development principles that are critical in addressing this persistent challenge in American education. It’s purpose is to present some aspects of child development, cognitive neuroscience, and learning theories, which may help them to better understand this phenomenon. Enjoy!

The passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation has seen tremendous pressure placed on schools to improve student achievement as measured by high stakes standardized tests. The underlying assumption of this historic public policy suggests that the collective academic ability (as measured by these tests) of our nation’s children is vital to continue national prosperity and world leadership.

On the surface, achieving excellence mandated by NCLB is a noble goal and few would argue with a national emphasis on intellectual excellence for America’s youth. Unfortunately, what is currently taught in schools does not reflect a broader definition of what it means to be intelligent. Pinker (1997) has defined intelligence as “using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles.” This suggests an emphasis on facilitating the cognitive processes necessary for probabilistic reasoning and the procedural knowledge associated with effective reading, writing, and speaking, as well as teaching students how to work collaboratively and cooperatively to solve common problems. School-specific intellect alone is insufficient to prepare students for life in a complex, conflict-ridden world. We need to consider more holistic models of education as we move through the twenty-first century.

Emerging discoveries about the brain and how it creates the mind must be integrated into the knowledge base that informs teaching and learning. We must consider how physical, social, psycho-emotional, language and ethical pathways contribute to optimal cognitive development. While some have labeled this holistic approach to child and adolescent development as “touchy-feely,” research by Comer, Haynes, Joyner, and Ben Avie (1996) has clearly made the case for the use of a holistic framework to guide teaching and learning in American schools and households. There is a qualitative difference between the wisdom that is required to build a fair and just world and the narrow, test-driven curriculum that is offered in many of our nation’s schools.

In this paper,  the first of the seven fundamental principles is discussed to account for differential performance.

A Metaphor of the Mind

How does a metaphorical representation of the mind help support the changes in teaching and learning that are needed to reduce disproportional achievement?

Exercise physiology provides us with a great insight into the nature of physical growth and development. We have seen great changes in our capacity to develop the human body because of deeper understandings of what occurs at the molecular level and upward when resistance, nutrition, and rest are used in combination to stimulate gains in strength and overall physical functioning. These discoveries have been used in rehabilitation protocols and to improve fitness in the general population. The discovery and use of electromyography have yielded information that identifies the best exercises for various muscles and combinations of muscles in the human body. We can identify the safest and most effective forms of physical exercise because of our understanding of biomechanics and what we have learned about molecular changes in the muscular system because of specific interventions. We can make weak people stronger and restore injured people to earlier levels of physical functioning because of what we know and are learning about human physiology. We develop exercise and rehabilitation regimens based on the way the human body is actually designed. Cognitive neuroscience will ultimately do the same thing for teaching and learning.

Much of what we have done in the field of education has been driven by theories based on intuition and experiential wisdom informed by countless numbers of experiments in classrooms and other learning environments over time. Much of traditional pedagogy seems to be consistent with new discoveries of the structure of the brain and the various processes that it uses to create the mind. Emerging discoveries in the field of cognitive neuroscience will confirm or deny what we regard as an effective practice in teaching by measuring the impact of certain interventions with highly reliable instruments that provide physical proof that a change has occurred because of a specific technique used to deliver instruction. We predict that these new discoveries will also affirm the difficulty and complexity of teaching, especially in contexts that do not provide adequate support for child development in the early years of life. As teachers develop a greater understanding of the brain and how it creates the mind, they will be able to modify the classroom environment and develop instructional strategies that produce better results for students. We also predict that this science will demand more resources and greater support for the professionals that work in schools. The standards movement will have to be expanded to include setting standards for the human and capital resources that schools need to be effective for all children.

Pinker (1997) has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the mind and the implications of this knowledge for teaching and learning. He has given us a metaphor for the mind that can help with instructional design as well as to provide a framework to assess the intellectual and emotional capital that children bring to the learning challenge. Pinker (1997) describes the mind as a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people”. He goes on to describe the mind as a multimedia dictionary, encyclopedia, and procedures manual. All we need to do is add a fourth metaphor, the multimedia autobiography, and we can gain greater insights into how differential experiences can account for gaps in achievement. Here is where we find a framework that helps us understand the variance in student entry-level behaviors and other factors associated with academic performance.

The plasticity of the brain allows it to create a mind designed to solve problems encountered in living. In the case of human beings, it has allowed us to develop adaptive strategies that have enabled us to settle in nearly every section of the world. Our senses allow us to take in various types of information and to process these data to meet the various demands that we face in the struggle to meet our basic needs and beyond. Our mental dictionary is organized to help us retrieve basic information about people, places, and things. The mental encyclopedia contains more in-depth information about the entries in our mental dictionary and our mental procedures manual contains all the processes, and algorithms that we need to perform multi-step tasks leading to the resolution of a problem. Some of the procedures in our mental manual are automatic and some are learned. Our autobiography contains a multimedia record of personal experiences. All four of these “books” reflect our cumulative experiences in the world. They also share and process the information that we need to reason and problem solve. What we know and are able to do is a direct reflection of the entries in these mental texts and has a powerful influence on how well we do in school and life.

Many students enter school (and the world) with unearned advantages and these advantages usually give them a head start in the race of life. Prior experiences from birth onward have given them the content and skills associated with early success in schools. They have likely been exposed to the artifacts that they will find in classrooms and have some familiarity with emergent literacy skills. If they have had cultural experiences that match those of the dominant group of educators in their school, the social interactions between the two will likely contribute to the teaching and learning process. The schema in their heads approximates that of their instructors and accentuates the vital connections that make teaching and learning possible. And although their little mental books are not as thick and elaborate as their teachers, they contain the requisite content that will add value to their school experiences.

Some students enter school with unearned disadvantages and are already behind in the race of life. If they are poor and speak a language other than the lingua franca of the school, they will face tremendous hurdles as they attempt to keep pace with their classmates. If they are poor and/or culturally different from their teachers, their struggle may be even greater. While their mental books may be in perfect working order, they may not contain the content and skills that add value to the formal learning associated with schools. They may not also be able to make the social connections to their teachers that can provide the tipping point when the learning challenge is difficult.

General performance differences between these students in the early years of school are probably related to differential experiences and not due to hardware dysfunction. In both cases students have developed minds that are a reflection of what is in their respective environments. The challenge of the schools is to provide all students with the relevant content and skills needed for school and life success while taking in to account what is already in their mental texts. This is much easier said (or written) than done and points to the complexity of teaching and the overall challenge of education in American schools.

The use of the mental metaphor of the mind helps teachers to think about their students in terms of what they already know and need to know to succeed in the classroom. The teacher can draw on a number of formal and informal sources to surmise what is in the mental texts of each child especially as it relates to the declarative and procedural knowledge that children need to achieve in school and adjust her instruction and interactions with students accordingly.


Click to read Part II and Part III of this paper.

Sources Cited

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: W Norton and Company.

Comer, J.P., Haynes, N., Ben Avie, M. & Joyner, E. (1996) E. Rallying the whole village. New York: Teachers College Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *