Part II: 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 II 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. Its purpose is to present some aspects of child development, cognitive neuroscience, and learning theories, which may help them to better understand this phenomenon. Enjoy!

All Children are Capable of Learning

The vast majority of human traits are the result of complex interactions between our biology and the environment. Factors in the child’s physical and social environment facilitate the expression of the unique genetic ceiling of each human being. For example, if a child has the genetic capability to be six feet tall, but is reared in a setting where she/he does not receive adequate amounts of calcium, protein, and other nutrients necessary for optimum physical growth, she/he will be constrained by environmental limitations and not reach this potential.

Genes similarly set a potential range with intelligence; but the child’s actual intellectual performance is the result of the environment’s ability to elicit, shape, and nurture this potential. Many psychologists believe that while there may be great variation in the specific manifestations of intelligence, all normal human beings (without neurological impairments) are innately predisposed to learn and to acquire knowledge about their world (Piaget, 1952; Bruner, 1966). A parallel can be drawn using language as an example. According to Chomsky (1965) and Pinker (1994), all human beings are genetically predisposed to develop language. However, the environment largely prescribes variations in language. The environment determines what language is spoken; its dialectical form, for example, standard vs. non-standard speech; preferred methods of language communication, for example, oral, written, or pictorial representations; and the child’s relative proficiency within the various forms and modes of language. The linguistic environment that the child is exposed to in his/her formative years is a powerful force in determining how the child uses language.

Using the Six Developmental Pathways To Improve Achievement

To a teacher, a child presents a unified being, greater than the total of any constituent parts. However, behavioral scientists traditionally segment the child into several dimensions for purposes of the study. One such taxonomy is that of Comer, Haynes, Ben-Avie, and Joyner (1999), who identified six pathways critical to an understanding of the child’s development and functioning. These pathways are the physical, the psycho-emotional, the social-interactive, the cognitive-intellectual, speech and language, and the moral-ethical.

The Physical Pathway

At the most basic level, in order to grow and to develop optimally, the environment must meet the child’s basic physical needs. These needs include food, rest, shelter, and release from pain and illness. If these needs are not met, the physical distress that results will cause the child to be disinclined to focus on classroom learning (Maslow, 1968). Support for physical growth is also necessary for the child to develop the biological capacity and energy to learn.

The Psycho-Emotional Pathway

Beyond basic physical needs, the environment must nurture a sense of self in the child, that is, an understanding of, and positive regard for one’s self, as well as of one’s ability to productively contribute to society. These attitudes are largely determined by the quality of adult-child interactions. If parents and/or other significant adults are nurturing, yet foster competent independence, the child will develop a feeling that she/he has value as an individual and can produce works that are esteemed in the world (Erikson, 1963). If, on the other hand, adults are negligent, overly punitive and/or critical of the child’s efforts and acts, the child may develop a sense of inferiority and feel unable to make appropriate demands upon or make contributions valued by society. For example, a teacher who is unduly critical of a student’s efforts can inhibit the child’s school functioning by decreasing his/her motivation to engage in classroom tasks. The lowered performance that results from decreased motivation, over time erodes the child’s self-esteem specifically as it relates to intellectual and school performance.

The Social-Interactive Pathway

To learn in, and appropriately interact within a variety of social settings, the child must be able to engage in productive interpersonal relationships. These behaviors are learned through early experiences in the home and in the social network of the community. Later experiences in the school and other social institutions (the church, synagogue, temple, or civic and recreational groups) provide the opportunity for further refinement of social-interactive competence.

From the home and to some extent the community and/or references groups, the child derives a sense of belonging and esteem.

The early development of interpersonal competences and a sense of belonging and esteem provide the emotional basis to form and engage in the varied instructional relationships that the child will encounter as he/she moves through the various stages of development toward full maturation. From these settings, the child also acquires knowledge of interpersonal interaction patterns, or the prescriptions for the appropriate attitudes, verbal responses, and gestures that are “acceptable” in particular social contexts. They become aware of the role that is required of them with respect to time and place. For example, many parents correct contextually inappropriate behavior by using the phrase “this is neither the time or place for your behavior.” When behaviors learned for one setting (the home) are consistent for those appropriate to another setting (the school) general performance and interpersonal interactions are facilitated.

Comer (1988) suggests that when the teacher deems a child’s social skills “appropriate”, children elicit positive reactions. A bond develops and the teacher joins other adults of significance to the child to support his or her development. On the other hand, when the teacher does not view the child’s social behavior as appropriate, the bond is fragile or the relationship may even become hostile. This creates a lose/lose relationship that renders the teacher ineffective and stifles the performance of the child.

Speech and Language Pathway

In human development, language has two primary functions: communication and the representation of knowledge. Early in life, the child learns that speech and language can be used as vehicles to convey messages to others, as well as to the self. He/she learns the oral and behavioral cues for imparting messages, and, simultaneously, learns to interpret the messages of others. These acquired words and symbols also become the categories through which the child reasons with him/herself.

The origins of these categories reside in culture, or settings in which groups of people communicate, think and interact with one another and the environment (LeVine, 1973). By determining how the events in the world are parceled and explained, cultures not only prescribe conceptual categories but the manner in which this information will be imparted. Between subcultures, differences exist in concepts, gestures, and dialectical patterns, which may hamper successful communication. Children bring the language learned at home and in their respective communities to schools. Many students, particularly in urban and rural schools speak a language that is a dialectical variation of the standard language encountered in the texts and speech that occurs at the formal level in most classrooms. It is important that teachers not view difference as synonymous with inferiority. For example, a teacher may misinterpret the speech patterns of some African-American and Latino children as indicative of retarded communicative development (Michaels, 1986). This may also be the view that teachers may have of poor, rural, white children from the South. To facilitate children’s language development teachers must then develop strategies to help children learn and appreciate standard language while not rejecting their dialect or first language.

The Cognitive-Intellectual Pathway

This pathway receives the greatest attention in traditional classrooms. Much of our current pedagogy, however, fails to consider the holistic nature of children or to consistently apply basic principles of learning theory.

There are several principles, however, that should be consciously applied if the goal of intellectual-cognitive development is to be met. They are the following:

  • Effective intellectual development takes place when the physical, social, psycho-emotional, and moral growth needs of children are met (Greenspan, 1997).
  • Learning tasks must be matched with the child’s maturing ability to comprehend and engage in the requisite processes involved in the learning–some learning is set by age (Piaget, 1955).
  • All neurologically unimpaired children have the ability to reason abstractly (Piaget, 1952, 1969).
  • A child’s relative facility with particular strategies and content may be a function of the extent to which the child is exposed to or familiar with them (Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition, 1983).
  • For new information to be understood, it must be embedded in the learner’s pre-existing knowledge (Piaget, 1955).
  • Teacher’s expectancy can be a significant determinant of a student’s response (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968).

The theories or principles cited above can exert a powerful influence on student achievement and overall school performance. It is important that teachers make a conscious attempt to apply them in day-to-day classroom activities.

The Moral-Ethical Pathway

In and outside of school, crucial to all human interactions is the child’s understanding and possession of sound moral and ethical standards, as well as the inclination to act upon these values. Largely, these qualities are based on socially transmitted principles, which not only prescribe the acts for which the individual is held morally responsible but just and fair consequences for moral transgression. Typically, such standards are acquired from the family, church, and school. When these institutions concur in these values, the child’s functioning in all these situations is facilitated. However, when one or more of these institutions fail to instill these values or impart values that are in conflict with other institutions, the child is likely to evidence behaviors that may be viewed by individuals in one context as morally or ethically wrong. For example, the learning style preference for collaboration asserted for many African-, Latino-, and Native-Americans may lead to classroom behavior regarded by some teachers as “cheating.”

How does interaction between the child and the environment influence the mechanisms by which the six pathways of knowledge are attained? Stay tuned for Part III


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

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Comer, J.P., Haynes, N., Ben Avie, M. & Joyner, E. (1999). Child by child: the comer process for change in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

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