With developmentally rich contexts as a foundation, healthy, holistic learning and development requires experiences that allow students to develop cognitive skills, both “academic” skills like language and numeracy, and “learning-to-learn” skills like critical thinking and problem solving; physical skills like fine motor control; social skills like communication and collaboration; creative skills like imagination and symbolic representation; and emotional skills like self-regulation and executive function.

In considering how to design learning experiences that effectively develop this breadth of skills and set the stage for deeper learning, whole-learner approaches take a lesson from children themselves and the ways in which they naturally learn through self-directed, playful experiences. What does it look like when children are learning effectively, exercising agency, overcoming challenges, and making new discoveries? They are engaging in experiences that are: meaningful — connecting new content or concepts to things they already know and understand; engaging — hands-on, minds-on opportunities that are absorbing and limit distraction; iterative — providing the chance to experiment, learn, and retry in a self-directed cycle; socially interactive — promoting learning through communication and understanding diverse perspectives; and joyful — creating a positive emotional response that elicits interest and motivation.

Whole-learner education is based on instructional approaches that effectively weave together direct instruction (in which adults provide initial framing and explicit instruction), guided teaching and learning (in which students have the opportunity to investigate, iterate, and learn through self-directed experiences within a framework constructed by educators, with grounding in specific pedagogy), and open exploration (in which learners are encouraged to make their own choices about the content and process of learning). All with an emphasis on creating meaningful, engaging, iterative, socially interactive, and joyful learning experiences. 

Across the continuum of learning, educators have a vital role to play in designing and scaffolding learning experiences that allow for the exploration and development of self-efficacy, while remaining grounded in concrete learning goals that support the development of a breadth of skills.