21 September 2022

Educational journey into the unknown begins with leaving the familiar port


We sometimes hear the expression of a rather melancholic notion that we were, in fact, born too late to have discovered any new continents but, at the same time, too early to explore the cosmos. It is true indeed, yet it does not mean that becoming enchanted with the journey through the unknown and discovering the unchartered is beyond our grasp. Each and every one of us embarks on an expedition simply by coming of age. Our education, taking place both inside and outside of the school, is a kind of trail allowing us to follow into the footsteps of the likes of Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Marco Polo, and Roald Amundsen.

What makes our respective journeys into the unknown special is the fact that they never really run their course; there is always something new to be experienced, to be learned and explored further. As a part of the Holistic Think Tank we are fortunate enough to have turned discovering into our profession. By addressing an important yet broad question, namely “What the school ought to teach?,” we have, in a way, created a new world to be explored.

Leaving the familiar port

Each journey begins in something that may be called a home port. For us, the building blocks of this port were the collective knowledge and experience of our team along with the mission we pursue. As stated by Michał Dziuda in his text, „The Holistic perspective on education is fundamental to our Think Tank’s message. Life is a whole. The bond between knowledge and wisdom, both derived from life and designed to serve life, constitutes a holistic unit. Education is not a mere collection of stand-alone disciplines; history is not merely history, nor geography merely geography. The said subjects are also to be found in physics and chemistry, biology and philosophy, literature and ethics. Education is a whole.”

So, a part of our newly created world had been already known to us. However, all daring enterprises are characterized by sailing into unchartered waters. In order to embark on it, …

we had to do away with the unnegotiable conviction that the Western culture along with its understanding of societal processes – including the educational process itself – has to be always positioned at the centre of all things. As a result, we opened ourselves to other viewpoints. The research on holistic education is a process that taps into the heritage of numerous cultures, and that is precisely what makes it so powerful.

Therefore, in our research journey we, first of all, reached the Far East and South-East Asia. It is there, at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, that An Guiqing and Xie Anbang are employed, the two researchers who have been investigating holistic education for years. According to the latter scholar, Xie, the basis of this type of education is an assumption that each person is sure to find their identity, meaning, and purpose in life thanks to the relationships they enter into with community, natural environment, and spiritual values. The fact of the foregoing thought being embedded in cultures frequently called collectivistic is not, however, tantamount to shedding individualism. An Guiqing emphasizes in this context the role of holistic thinking as a particular way of perceiving the world: as relational, transformative, and spiritual. In Xie’s opinion, in turn, the gist of holistic education is to be responsive to variegated learning styles and individual needs of thriving, developing human beings.

Another inspiration we came across while exploring the world of holistic education, was a thought derived from Persian culture. Sirous Mahmoudi from the University of Isfahan, Iran, worded it in the following way:

holistic education seeks to avoid excluding any significant aspects of human experience. For this very reason, it constitutes a movement that is both eclectic and inclusive, centred upon life experience rather than narrowly defined “skills” and/or “knowledge”.

To Mahmoudi’s mind, such educational experiences favour an outlook on life that is less materialistic and more spiritual, as well as viewing reality through a more transient, dynamic, and holistic lenses. Holistic education is a gateway to the above-mentioned path of great discoveries, which in this approach pertain to relations present in the world: between different facets of the individual (intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional, social, aesthetic etc.), but also between the individual and other people, the individual and natural environment, emotions and the reason, various knowledge disciplines, and different ways of cognition.

Compelling thoughts and valuable research on the subject have been discovered by us in countries with a commonly acknowledged good academic standing, namely, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Sweden, and Finland, but also in those states and regions that have not achieved an equally high position, yet are able to offer an interesting perspective, to mention Estonia, Latvia, and Hong Kong. Observing the worldwide trends in educational research, we have been able to pinpoint some regional peculiarities, however, when approached more broadly, the scope of their interests seems quite similar.

Into the engine room

Since our journey through this world is hardly near its end. Let us, for a moment, come down from our ship’s foretop, which has provided our expedition with a broad intellectual horizon, and step into the engine room below the deck, where our well-oiled intellectual cogs and turbines propel us into conducting reliable academic analyses.

One of the initial steps relating to the analysis of the available academic articles on what the school ought to teach consisted in tracking international trends in education and ordering the said publications in accordance with topics they undertake. It allowed us to outline the current of the analysed research attracting the greatest interest from scholars. As it appears, the foregoing description points to Curriculum Studies, that is, designing the basis of study content. This field is most widely commented upon in the Anglophone countries (Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, and US) and investigated into by local researchers of the said states. To name but a few representatives of this numerous group, they are: Joy Cullen enquiring into early childhood education, Peter J. Fensham focused on Science curricula, and Christine Winter doing the same for the subject of Geography. What is more, we are able to distinguish particular academic centres especially devoted to and acknowledged for their research into Curriculum Studies  (Oxford, Stanford, Seattle University), not merely in terms of published studies, but also papers delivered at conferences. Aside from obvious examples derived from English-speaking countries, it is worthwhile to mention the National Institute of Education in Singapore as an important centre for Curriculum Studies. 

Of course, Curriculum Studies is not the only trend which could be distinguished among the analysed texts. Equally fascinating are the ones relating to the education for the future, for instance those represented by Alex Ryan from the University of Gloucestershire and Weng Kin Ho of the National Institute of Education in Singapore, dealing with the issues of problem-based learning.

Connecting the dots

All in all, observing the said trends and currents allowed us to arrive at two conclusions. First, there are numerous researchers all around the world who ponder the issues related to education. However, insofar as many of them discuss issues related to curriculum and adjusting education requirements to the contemporary world, a considerable portion of them do it in a broad, if not broad-brushing, yet rather shallow manner. It means they rarely, if ever, provide particular, comprehensive solutions, necessary to formulate a curriculum in a given field of knowledge. In our journey analogy, their insights might be likened to colours on a map or a globe, wherein blue signifies water bodies, whereas orange roughly represents mountains.

Yet, the mountain summits are marked by black dots, and dots are what the research interests of the second discussed group may be likened to. For the second conclusion of our hitherto research says that there is also a group of scholars dealing with education studies, especially within the areas of specific didactics (i.e. referring to specific school subjects) but only as a part of a narrowly-defined specialty, which is hardly exhaustive when it comes to the school-teaching overall. By way of example, we may indicate here David Muñez and his article “Core markers of arithmetic competence in preschool children.” It is experts like Muñez that should compose working teams for elaborating curricula in given subject fields.

At the same time, however, we must not forget that school, apart from its traditional didactic role, fulfils a number of functions pertaining to social life and equipping students to function in the contemporary world. Scholars and scientists who address the needs of the participants in the educational process broadly (let us not forget the teachers in this respect!) point to the non-content related, but also cross- and trans-content related needs that may be summarized as learning skills per se, social skills prerequisite for learning (e.g. ability to cooperate), or cognitive skills. Both of the described trends, namely,

the narrowly-focused specialists in didactics and the cross-disciplinary experts painting a broad picture, facilitate the development of a comprehensive model of the new school, the urgent need for which is more and more palpable.

The intellectual journey through the world of education studies proved to be neither shallow nor one-dimensional. It may be narrated from at least two different perspectives, both of which are worthwhile. Therefore, our further journey shall henceforth bifurcate into two separate paths and voices. Each of the two stories will be commenced from two different starting points and represent different standpoints. The first one is going to lead from the particular curricular outlines observed through a magnifying glass, and proceed towards general trends, while the second one, designed entirely in reverse, shall start with a bird’s-eye view, to rapidly hunt down the particularities, as determinedly as a buzzard diving to attack its prey spotted at the farthest edge of a field.