Holistic learning, also known as global learning, is a learning style based on the principle that students will learn more effectively when all aspects of a person--mind, body and spirit--are involved in the experience. While there are various ways to approach a holistic education, all differ greatly from traditional educational methods.
While the formal usage of the term "holistic" has been used in educational circles for only the last few decades, the basic principle has been around for over 200 years. Early ideas about holistic learning can be seen in the writings of many theorists, including Rousseau, Emerson, Thoreau, Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, John Holt, Jung and Maslow. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s, however, that advances in psychology and educational psychology brought holistic learning theories into mainstream educational thought.
Holistic education is mainly characterized by its focus on fostering learning by relating to subjects on a personal level and by its emphasis on interrelating subjects and concepts. The holistic method strives to mimic the way the brain learns information naturally; that is, with related bits of all subjects--history, science, literature--connected together. Subjects are not learned separately, but rather in relation to one another and in relation to what the student already knows. Concepts are studied from many different perspectives and rote memorization is strongly de-emphasized. By contrast, traditional educational methods keep subjects strictly separate, with subjects and concepts compartmentalized and few connections made between them. Concepts are generally presented from one perspective and learning depends heavily on repetition and memorization.
Most holistic teaching methods generally incorporate two main approaches: whole brain learning or multiple intelligences. In whole brain learning, the subject to be learned is approached from multiple perspectives, especially those that involve as many senses as possible. The goal is to let the student experience the subject matter on a sensory, emotional and intellectual level so that they can build up a neural network related to the subject. Multiple intelligence learning is based on identifying the student's particular intellectual strength or learning style (for instance, auditory, kinesthetic or musical) and gearing the student's learning of a subject to include that strength.
Most educational experts consider the following three steps to be essential for holistic learning:
- When approaching a new subject, draw out or visualize as many aspects of the information as possible.
- Relate what you are trying to learn to something you already know. By thinking about new information from the perspective of something that it is similar to, you are creating a neural connection between the old and new information.
- Learn as much as possible about the subject from every possible angle.
Holistic learning has drawn criticism on several points. Proponents of traditional educational methods consider holistic education to be academically weaker than traditional methods, as well as being more difficult for a teacher to accomplish in a public school setting with a relatively large class size. In addition, holistic methods work better with some subjects than others (excellent for science and history; not so well with a subject like spelling) and is not appropriate for teaching specific skills.