The widespread adoption of whole-learner approaches in our education system is both a moral and economic imperative.
It will both enable all children to thrive today and create our productive, engaged citizens of tomorrow. High-quality whole-learner approaches that are focused on outcomes and provide for a diversity of engaging learning experiences are already being implemented in select schools across the country—but those proven best practices are not being scaled at the systems level.
Federal policymakers have a critical role to play in creating the conditions that promote the development and implementation of whole-learner approaches—by lifting up successes, providing incentives, removing barriers, and rewarding results. Embracing holistic learning environments requires not only a shift in our thinking, but also new or updated federal policies—from assessments to accountability to teacher preparation—that reflect a more accurate understanding of learning and development and a commitment to outcomes-focused innovation. Incorporating whole-learner concepts across federal policies, programs, and funding streams is not merely a “nice to have,” it is essential to advancing positive outcomes for all students: promoting healthy learning and development, increasing opportunity and achievement for all of our young people, and preparing them to thrive in an interconnected and dynamic world. Making a robust course correction now will yield rewards for our country for generations to come.
Reframing our education system to elevate and sustain whole-learner approaches that prioritize the development of a breadth of skills cannot, however, be the job of policymakers, educators, and caregivers alone. High-quality community partners, like those in the America Forward Coalition and our network organizations, play an essential role in providing the capacity and expertise to support schools and families as they implement comprehensive, evidence-based whole-learner approaches. From supporting teacher and school leader development and advancing brain science research, to modeling effective whole-learner approaches and building the evidence base for inquiry-based learning, high-quality external partners represent an enormous resource for states, districts, and schools working to implement high-quality whole-learner approaches.
Whole-Learner Approaches in Action
Imagining a system that centers itself on a whole-learner approach to education is not a far-fetched idea. Innovative whole-learner models are being implemented by school leaders and educators in districts and schools—both public and private—across the country. These approaches reflect the importance of meaningful, engaging, inquiry-driven learning experiences to improve outcomes for students, including academic achievement.
At AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation in Washington D.C., an America Forward Coalition member, 3- and 4-year-old students engage in the Every Child Ready (ECR) curriculum, an evidence- and standards-based curricular program that balances independent, play-based learning with whole and small group instruction. Through ECR, educators focus on developing cognitive, physical, social, creative, and emotional skills in early learners. The schools complement this whole-learner approach by engaging in deep professional development with their educators and intentional parental engagement.
At Bank Street School for Children in New York City, students pursue experiential learning that is tailored to each student’s individual path. The school centers its teaching on the social, emotional, and cognitive skills essential for success in school and in life.
At Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego, educators and school leaders are setting the stage for experiential, inquiry-based learning through their World of Work curriculum, which provides all students with hands-on, minds-on experiences to help them identify which of six personality traits fits them best and the careers that could be a good match. Students are genuinely empowered to visualize a future tailored to their individual, unique interests.