28 April 2023

Are we mature enough to become people? Holistic approach to education

Johann Friedrich Herbart, a German educator and philosopher, wrote in 1806: "A part can be measured on the whole, it can also be extended to the whole, and that is the task of education." How was the holistic movement in education born? And are we mature enough to treat each other like humans – including in schools?

Author: Maksymilian Woch,


Source: Pixabay

The sense of HTT’s activity is participation in the education transformation process, which is footing in the values of humanism and the holistic approach to education. 

Holistic Think Tank comprehends the concept of the holistic approach in education in two ways. On one side, it relates to the student’s multi-dimensional development while considering his psychological well-being based on the proper relationships with the social and natural environment, the simultaneous development of competencies, and acquiring knowledge allowing adequate functioning in the contemporary world. The second exegesis of holism is supported by perceiving school as a social world functioning based on the net of inner dependencies between its elements. A good school is a place where all its components – including students, teachers, parents, school administration, school staff, and outer educational and social institutions – realize its aims and function with a sense of mutual respect and agency for all.

The paradigm 

The paradigm of humaneness is culturally conditioned and changes through the ages. It was different in the middle ages, in the times of the industrial revolution, and nowadays, in the digital revolution era. In today’s world, deep cracks in understanding the role of the individual in society, as well as with the system of commonly respected values, are revealed, which goes along the political, economic, and cultural lines of divisions. Those facts occur despite the globalization of culture and advancing unification of cultural patterns, which, apparently, should unite the culturally differentiated world.

Prof. Pasi Sahlberg, the co-author of Finland’s phenomenal education reform, during the HTT Summit 2023 in Columbus, Ohio, contrasted two opposing views of what school should look like. One vision is based on competitiveness, the other on cooperation. The latter corresponds with the holistic vision of education, rooted in humanistic values, proposed by the Holistic Think Tank. 

The example of solutions of Finnish schools is close to the HTT’s understanding of the role of the school. Let’s only remain that the success of the Finish approach to teaching was based on the principle that every student is given the real possibility of accomplishing their potential. Such an approach reduces rivalry as a motivation toward learning, introducing at the same time an understanding that the value is discovering someone’s needs and ways of realizing them. In other words, the school is a facilitator of the young man’s development who, through education, discovers what he would like to do and, more importantly, what he can do in his life. It teaches him that his success depends on comprehensive inner development and proper relationships with the social and natural environment. 

Bringing up the mindful man 

Where does the conviction of the need for transformation in education around the globe come from? It results from the desire to change the perception of man’s place in the world as a species and how society is organized. This situation is an outcome of several challenges that humanity faces today, such as threats related to climate change, new ways of managing the processes of communication between people based on the development of digital technologies, the multiculturalism of the communities resulting from the mass migrations, and the evolvement of Artificial Intelligence technologies, among others. 

The main currents of education still emphasize the one-sided growth of the individual, particularly stressing the importance of the rational part of our psyche while constraining it mainly to the skills related to acquiring knowledge and its technical application. The less importance by far is attributed to emotional growth, including this part which pertains to the understanding of one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others while leading to the forming healthy social relationships on such base. Contemporary education in many places in the world utilizes the teaching model, resulting in individuals’ alienation from social and natural settings. Apart from that, the knowledge transmitted to the student is offered to them in an old-fashioned way, inadequate to the rapidly developing digital technologies, based on memorizing and repeating for testing, not on the will for an independent inquiry and awakening the world’s curiosity. 


As a practical approach to education, holism thrived in the mid-20th century in the United States. One of the first groups strongly promoting holism as a revolutionary solution in education was a team of American teachers from the transpersonal-holistic movement. Its relatively short activity resulted in establishing a network of holistic teachers. However, the work of two other researchers and educators, i.e., Ron Miller and John Miller, contributed to defining the concept of holistic education. For example, Ron Miller said that holism is a general approach, a paradigm rather than a specific teaching methodology or didactic tool. 

Among the pioneering works related to holism in schools, one should mention the book by J. Miller, “The Holistic Curriculum.” Then there were further publications, including R. Miller’s “What are schools for? Holistic Education in American Culture.” It is also worth mentioning that R. Miller founded the magazine “Holistic Education Review,” which exists today. In 1990, R. Miler and two other teachers established an organization called Gate (the abbreviation for Global Alliance for Transforming Education.) As a result of his activity, he published the “Education 2000: A Holistic Perspective” manifesto.

Along the way, the idea of holistic education gradually spread, mainly in the US, thanks to publishing and emerging institutions aimed at promoting it among teachers. The dissertations of Y. Nakagawa and S. Forbes contributed to the consolidation of the movement. 

The philosophical inspiration 

The word holism comes from Greek, where holos means whole. 

It’s hard unequivocally to settle the philosophical base of the holistic approach in education, as it derives from various currents of thought and spiritual traditions. Undoubtedly, eclecticism and inclusivity are its distinctive features. The theoreticians of holism in education allege the humanistic values which evolved through the centuries of Western philosophy, the rules of Dewey’s progressive education, and the broad range of transpersonal thinkers. One should start with the statement that holism is a form of monism. The declarations of uniqueness or homogeneity in a holistic approach to education are discoverable in many of its aspects. In such an approach, there is a clear will to – colloquially speaking – clump together reality dispersed by the post-modern narratives into one cohesive entirety, which then can give the anchor for formulating ethics. The holistic approach can be seen as one of the suited cultural patterns possible to utilize in the conditions of meta-modern reality as well as the answer to the impasse which encapsulates the prevailing ways of thinking about contemporary education. 

The idea of the unity of man with nature or the universe, presented in holism, is taken from assumptions of the perennial philosophy that Aldous Huxley represents. Also, they come from the indigenous traditions that resonate in contemporary social studies focused on decolonizing the epistemological perspective on culture. Unity propounded by the philosophical assumptions of holism is also visible in its inclination to treat nature and culture as inseparable entireties. Holism perceives man as an individual who integrates both biological and social aspects of human beings and, at the same time, avoids the conflict between those spheres of existence. Interestingly, the notion of “self-development” is understood within the category of self-fulfillment or the ultimate realization of the inner human potential. Such a mode of being is variously described also as an “enlightenment,” an expression rooted in other inspirations coming from Eastern Philosophy, this time mainly from the Buddhist tradition. 

Holism was also ideologically developed by the presence of feminist philosophy. Thanks to such influences, a strong emphasis was revealed to support the shaping of relationships, both those referring to the inner life of the individual and those relating to contact with the environment. In this case, it focuses on the care for someone’s well-being, as well as his relatives, but also considers a broader range of interests, including the whole of humanity, animals, plants, and civilization. On the other hand, feminist thought introduces the idea of partnership education while promoting democratic and egalitarian values. Here, expressing respect for others, empathy, peaceful conflict solutions with the rejection of violence, and the idea of equality of men and women are emphasized. 

Holistic Future Generations

During the lecture mentioned above by Professor Pasi Sahlberg, one of the participants of HTT Summit 2023 asked him a question related to the possible shape of the society of the future brought up in line with holistic ideas. Such deliberations are only speculations; however, it is worth considering that the changes within the cultural system resulting from the revaluation of its elements are predicted to some extent. 

And since this is the case, we can ask ourselves questions about the possible scenarios and results of these transformations.

Will the (still prevailing) paradigm of competitiveness as the standard of human interrelationships be replaced – as the consequence of holistic upbringing – by the common understanding that someone’s well-being depends on the well-being of others? How will future generations apprehend the concept of authority? Will they associate it with the sense of joint responsibility, not with the tool of exercising pressure and controlling the distribution of culture? Will today’s students be able to broaden in the future the notion of humaneness to such an extent that it will allow them to discern the unique human value contrasted with Artificial Intelligence? What if, in the next few decades, people put into practice the educational assumptions of Finnish schooling on a global scale? Is it possible to build a world where everyone can realize their humanity’s full potential?

Is this the utopia?