Part III: Is Holistic Education a Solution to 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 III 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. If you have not read Part I or Part II you can read it on our blog. Enjoy!


How does interaction between the child and the environment influence the mechanisms by which the six pathways of knowledge are attained?

There are 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 Role of Significant Others

The mechanisms by which these forms and pathways of knowledge are attained vary. Some information is acquired in a solitary fashion, e.g., through the direct manipulation and observation of objects and events, and the child’s subsequent reflection upon these acts. However, the majority of our knowledge is acquired in social interactions with significant others (Vygotsky, 1962). At various points in the child’s development, parents, teachers, and peers bear primary responsibility for the transmission of culturally prescribed information. Although the child can learn from almost any individual, those best able to impart concepts and beliefs are individuals with whom the child has significant relationships, for they can dispense those rewards most valued by the child, e.g., warmth, recognition, and approval (Bandura, 1977).

Identification and Imitation

One such interpersonal mechanism is identification. In this process, the child begins to think, feel, and behave as though the characteristics of another person belonged to him/her. Individuals regarded as powerful, capable, warm, nurturing, or in some way similar to the child are likely candidates for identification. The individual with whom the child identifies then becomes the object of identification. Once the individual identified with is selected, albeit often unconsciously, the child begins to copy his/her behavior and attitudes. These actions and beliefs are subsequently internalized, i.e., adopted, such that the child comes to regard them as his/her own. Identification is the primary mechanism for the development of the child’s gender identity; appropriate sex-typed behavior, moral standards, and sense of self (Freud, 1938).

Imitation of others’ behavior and the internalization of their knowledge need not always involve identification, however. Almost any act that the child observes and is capable of copying may be imitated (Bandura, 1977). More important is what the child will act upon or seek to imitate. Those acts that the child believes will be rewarded or punished by the environment (parents, teachers, and/or peers) will, respectively, be imitated or inhibited. Thus, the child can see and learn many undesirable acts from sources such as television and peers, but refrain from these behaviors based upon the expected response by significant others, especially someone with whom the child has identified. When behavior is inconsistent with the actions and attitudes of the individual identified with, these actions will be inhibited, even in the absence of the significant role model.

The rejection of these processes is also possible. When identification or the child’s attachment to significant others are weak, estrangement from and opposition to the behaviors and values of the other may result. This alienation may be the product of the actual or perceived disapproval of the child by these individuals. The child with a weak attachment to the school and its teachers or who perceives their rejection of his/her cultural values may develop an opposition to the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors with which they are associated (Ogbu & Matute-Bianchi, 1986; Comer, 1988). This is problematic with caste groups in cultures that have traditionally and systematically labeled its members as inferior. Some caste group members may reject values and ways of the dominant group even when acceptance of these gives them an advantage with respect to upward social and economic mobility.

Language Mediation and Internalization

As previously indicated, language and speech are important vehicles through which a culture transmits societal sanctioned knowledge and beliefs to its members. According to Vygotsky (1962), most of an individual’s knowledge of concepts and processes exist twice, first on the interpersonal realm as a dialogue between a learner and a more knowledgeable other, and then on the intrapersonal plane, as information which has been internalized.

In the classroom, language is the primary medium of knowledge exchange. If the instruction is to be successful, interactions between the teacher and the child must involve communications in which both understand the meaning of the other’s gestures and concepts or can readily identify points of disparate knowledge. If, on the other hand, the teacher is unaware of the child’s pre-existing knowledge, physical needs, and/or belief systems, instructional transmissions may miss their mark.

Pre-existing Knowledge as Intellectual and Social Capital

By the time the child enters school, a wealth of knowledge has already been acquired, including concepts, values, belief systems, reasoning strategies and interactions patterns. This is the child’s pre-existing knowledge and constitutes the basis for all meaningful instruction. This intellectual and social capital is invested in the school for the purpose of its growth and expansion.

To achieve these ends, teachers must become knowledgeable of this resource. As students from diverse cultural backgrounds increasingly populate the school system, teachers find themselves more and more unfamiliar with their students’ entering knowledge. As a result, they may erroneously conclude that these children have a deficient knowledge base (i.e. the cultural deficit hypothesis) or that the child’s cognitive “problems” are the result of an inherent inability to learn (i.e. the genetic deficit hypothesis. Neither of these conclusions is true.

Pre-existing knowledge, whether consistent or inconsistent with that of traditional students, is always a strength, for it is the pathway to the child’s understanding. Teachers not only must uncover it, but also use it to create meaningful instruction.

Take Home Messages:

The metaphor of the mind is an important construct for teachers to use to understand differential performance among students. And along with the six developmental pathways, it can become the organizing framework for a comprehensive program throughout schools and classrooms to help children overcome unearned disadvantages by focusing on holistic development with an emphasis on students’ strengths. It can also be used to help parents and other adults understand how and why students learn. Educators must lead this effort.

Teachers must develop the behaviors and characteristics that promote holistic child development. They include:

  • Demonstration of warmth, sensitivity, and empathy to all students.
  • Providing the appropriate instruction, motivation, feedback, reinforcement, and time to learn academic skills.
  • Modeling the actions and behaviors expected from students.
  • Creating a classroom environment that allows students to take risks–and even fail–only to be corrected and to be encouraged to persist at difficult tasks.
  • Creating classrooms where students can learn from one another.
  • Creating classroom processes that allow students to identify individual and group needs and develop solutions to them using the democratic process.

Teaching is indeed a reflective activity, and it is paramount that those who are called to this profession be constantly reminded of the personal and professional qualities that promote student learning and overall development. In conclusion, this paper asserts that the mission of teaching is the construction of knowledge and to help students develop habits of heart that contribute to the greater good. Based on the premise that all children can learn, it is the teacher’s responsibility to achieve this goal. Differences in children’s entering behavior do not prevent learning, but rather necessitate the exploration of new instructional strategies and attitudes appropriate to accomplish this task. Knowledge of the six critical pathways and the mechanisms of learning are valuable tools. Teachers must use these tools to respond more flexibly and creatively to the individual and group differences between children.



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