Science now validates what many of us know to be true from our own experiences: Ability is not static; our brains are continually rewiring and reshaping based on experiences and stimulation throughout life.13
The breadth of skills that create the foundation for success in life exist in a potential state in all children; outcomes are determined by opportunities, environment, experiences, and relationships.14
But we also know that safe environments; healthy developmental relationships; and access to engaging, learner-directed experiences are not accessible to all children. Systemic issues like disease, hunger, homelessness, persistent poverty, exposure to violence, institutionalized racism, and the experience of trauma create stress that dramatically impedes a child’s ability to learn, and constrains the capacity of parents, caregivers, and educators to provide high-quality educational experiences. In that context, education systems predicated so heavily on one-size-fits-all approaches to instruction and assessments deepen inequity and limit opportunities for growth. Student success depends on access to both the positive environments and relationships that set the table for learning, reflecting the understanding that the plasticity and malleability of children’s brains give them the ability to overcome tremendous challenges given positive context, and ensuring universal access to learning experiences that align with the interconnected, dynamic way in which all children learn.
By failing to adequately understand and nurture the inherent talent in each learner, we are leaving tremendous potential untapped and leaving children ill-equipped to thrive, especially those students already facing enormous barriers to success. Every child is potentially a future decision-maker and contributor; today’s population of students will cure diseases, build new companies, solve previously intractable social problems, design our cities for 21st century realities, create works of art, and much more, but not if we continue to perpetuate educational approaches that deepen entrenched inequities.
Evidence-based whole-learner approaches grounded in the science of brain development and learning provide the framework for customized instruction and allow for learner agency that leverages the individual assets each child possesses, and address the unique barriers they face. Whole-learner approaches that provide every child with customized, high-quality learning experiences, built on a foundation of safe environments and healthy developmental relationships, are essential to effectively bridging existing gaps in skills, opportunities, and academic achievement. Whole-learner approaches ensure every learner has the ability to envision and realize their potential. And when learners thrive, so do our communities.
13 Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context, Applied Developmental Science, 23:4, 307-337, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649.
14 Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2020) Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development, Applied Developmental Science, 24:1, 6-36, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650.