Holistic Education: A Comprehensive Guide

Now more than ever, educators and education administrators are looking for new ways to effectively teach students. From teachers to politicians, debates are ongoing about how to best train up the next generation.

New and innovative ways of delivering instruction have been imagined, and new philosophies of education developed. One philosophy of teaching that has received little attention by the public is the philosophy of holistic education.

Holistic education is rooted in experiential learning and centers education on the relationships that people create with each other. These relationships form the core of the educational environment. Holistic education is considered a form of alternative learning because of its emphasis on creating a different learning environment from what is typically practiced.

True to its name, holistic education places an emphasis on the whole growth of a learner instead of emphasizing only specific parts of the human experience. It deemphasizes materialism while promoting growth in all areas of the human experience: intellectual, emotional, social, and so forth.

Proponents of a holistic education argue that it promotes balanced relationships between not only people, but between people and their environment. Taken all together, holistic education emphasizes democratic learning, emotional health, and relationship growth, to a far greater degree than the traditional learning environment.


Compared to other philosophies of education, the school of holistic education is a relatively new movement that only coalesced in the 1980s. Holistic education was a response to the existing framework of education that dominated at the time, known as a mechanistic worldview of instruction. However, proponents of holistic education did not specify any one method or technique for teaching. Instead, holistic education was conceived as a challenge to traditional assumptions about how to best teach students.

The origins of holistic education can be traced to ancient concepts of instruction that emphasized the whole person rather than an individual segment of the person’s experience. As only two examples, both native indigenous cultures and the ancient Greeks conceived of the world as a single whole.

Using this as a reference frame, education cannot be separated from the rest of a person’s experience. Enlightenment ideals that emphasized analytical and scientific reason downplayed the intimate and emotional connections that individuals had with their surrounding world.

By the 20th century, there was a shift back toward emphasizing the whole of the human experience. The Waldorf school movement tried to bring together a student’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills using an integrated, holistic approach. The Montessori school movement also placed emphasis on the spiritual qualities of the child and not just the intellectual aspect.

Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori movement, felt that people underwent a spiritual development that best occurred within a nurturing environment. The 20th century therefore saw several approaches to holistic education, though there was no single idea about how to implement it.

Common Philosophies and Themes

In many respects, holistic education may come across as fragmented in implementation. However, there are several recurring themes in holistic approaches that help characterize this school of thought. These themes are grounded in the interconnectedness of people both with other people and with their environment.

Interconnectedness could be considered the overriding theme that defines holistic education. Using the holistic approach, teachers emphasize the notion that humans have a kinship with one another. People, to a degree, have responsibility for the welfare of others. As such, all decisions have to be made with consideration for how those decisions impact the community. Consequently, a second theme of holistic education is the importance of relationships. Students are taught to appreciate the different skill sets that people possess and to learn cooperatively with their peers.

Out of the interconnectedness people share, a sense of community is developed, which is a third theme common to holistic learning. Students are taught to accommodate different views and beliefs that other people possess. As such, another theme that is common is the importance of caring, and students are taught to demonstrate a caring attitude toward others.

Two related themes that underpin holistic learning include the management of personal growth and development of personal goals. Students are considered critical learners who will need to develop the life skills necessary for lifelong development. Students are taught to appropriately assess their strengths and how those strengths can benefit both themselves and others.

Part of growth includes the creation of personal goals that students can pursue. Holistic learning considers the development and pursuit of personal goals an important part of maximizing a student’s potential.

Finally, the last theme common to holistic learning is the role of the environment. Students are taught to respect the world around them. Their actions will impact not only themselves but others and future generations. As such, students are taught to assess how their actions will impact the environment, since the environment affects more than themselves.

In Practice

As can be seen by a review of the philosophies underpinning holistic education, there is a heavy emphasis on helping a student understand the impact of their choices. This goal is accomplished by encouraging self-development and taking into consideration both the world around them and other people. However, what does holistic education actually look like in practice?

Given the emphasis on how decisions impact others and the environment, it should not be a surprise that experiential learning is important in a holistic framework. In one instance, primary grade students from disadvantaged backgrounds were taught without a curriculum. Instead, teams were formed and allowed to explore different learning styles that were most effective with different children.

Projects were developed, and families involved with helping students complete those projects. Instruction was primarily done using peer teaching, discussions, field trips, and ongoing assessments of a child’s learning styles.

Inclusive practices have also been used in which youth were taught how to assess social problems within their neighborhoods and develop solutions that could address those problems. Goals that instructors set included the acquisition of observation and listening skills, the development of data collection skills, and the creation of interpersonal relationships.

A holistic framework was also adopted for use in education within a prison population. This approach included the creation of study groups among prisoners who had, for the most part, failed to complete their schooling. These teams identified problems within their environment and created projects meant to address those problems.

Prisoners found former educators within the prison who reviewed the work they did, while the student prisoners themselves learned how to compile data, conduct surveys, and develop findings that addressed the problems they faced in their environment.

Education programs put into effect at the higher education level made attempts to integrate the transformative and spiritual aspects of holistic education. As a part of his instruction in critical analysis, Edmund O’Sullivan, the director for the Transformative Learning Center at the University of Toronto, had students analyze film. These students were asked to look for elements such as consumer patterns, differences created by ethnicity, and power structures that were present in the films.

O’Sullivan asked his students to reflect on the patterns of behavior they saw in the film and discuss ways of living an earth friendly lifestyle. This type of approach allowed for class wide participation in an engaging activity that encouraged critical analysis of existing social constructs.

O’Sullivan’s course went one step beyond just analyzing these films. He also encouraged the formation of communities that could work against the patterns the class identified. This took the critical analysis beyond just theory and into the area of practice. Through this approach, O’Sullivan encouraged his students to go beyond the requirements of the classroom and to become independently involved in various social movements.

Another example of holistic education implemented at the higher education level was found in the work of Bob London, a professor of education at California State University. London and his peers created Saturday sessions that explored a different theme every weekend. These thematic classes included sessions that covered topics such as how to use the arts to create meaning and how to use technology as an artistic medium. This approach was among the most experimental uses of holistic education and focused on contemplative approaches to exploring different issues.

This was an example of a course designed almost entirely around the concept of introspection. While many other attempts at holistic education attempted to blend the holistic philosophy with real world problem solving, London’s work was highly spiritual and contemplative in its design.

As one example, London’s students designed a labyrinth that they walked, allowing them to collectively work together. Afterward, students wandered the labyrinth and reflected on how art could be a communal activity. Students also learned the value of slowing down in a world that typically pushes a high pace of living.


When reviewing holistic education, it becomes clear that there is no one method of implementing its principles. Holistic education is less concerned with designing specific practices and more concerned with changing assumptions about how to approach the education process.

Holistic education encourages students to reflect on how their actions impact others and the world around them, which requires greater contemplation and less focus on rote memorization of facts and techniques.

However, there are some consistent trends in how holistic education is implemented among students of all ages. It’s clear from a review of how holistic education is practiced that centering problem solving on real world issues is a key part of this educational approach.

Students were often asked to apply critical thinking skills to problems in their community. Whether these meant adolescents tackling problems within their disadvantaged communities or prisoners addressing issues within the prisons they lived in, students were asked to apply critical thinking skills to real world issues. Holistic education places an emphasis on applying necessary skills in a real-world context exactly because it reminds students that their decisions impact their environment and others.

In the course of dealing with these real-world issues, students acquired numerous skills that are important in higher education and in the workplace. Students learned how to develop questionnaires, analyze the data they produce, and report on that data. Most importantly, they learn how to reflect on issues and think critically about them. Holistic education allows educators to frame the skills that students learn within a real-world context, and those skills can be transferred and used in multiple circumstances.

A separate segment of holistic education placed an emphasis on the spiritual and mental health of students, as best exemplified in the work of Bob London. This element of the holistic approach may be more difficult to implement within classrooms, given how drastically different it is from normal classroom approaches. However, rather than attempt to implement specific contemplative techniques, it may be effective to consider the student as a whole, including their emotional selves. Encouraging a few moments in the classroom for students to reflect on their learning or designing school days to include contemplative periods may help encourage the emotional well-being of a student.

However, it remains clear that holistic education is still an area ripe for exploration. New practices are being developed that attempt to be integrate the principles of this new philosophy of education. While other schools of thought remain more popular in the education field, holistic education may have much to offer through its emphasis on well-being, critical thinking, and the development of solutions to societal issues.

Read Also:
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Game Based Learning Guide
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Personalized Learning Guide
Place-Based Education Guide
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