7 Tips to Bring Holistic Learning to Your Classroom

A holistic learning classroom takes a big-picture approach to student development.

For example, instead of approaching your lesson with the idea of helping students learn their multiplication tables, you allow students to explore how different problems can be solved using various tools and concepts – including multiplication.

Holistic learning is student-driven and expansive, which can be difficult for teachers to implement. How can you cover a strict curriculum while still taking a whole-mind approach to student learning?

Create a Holistic Learning Classroom

The first step to implementing holistic learning is to change your classroom structure. Holistic classrooms are not static with students sitting in the same place each day. Instead, kids move around so they can collaborate when they need to and work alone when they want.

Mary Montero at Teaching with a Mountain View does a great job of creating flexible seating options for students. She has 28 kids in her class and 37 seating options — with plenty of rug space for those who want to sit on the floor. Students can choose a regular desk and chair or rest on a cushion with a kneeling-height table. They can even sit on stability balls during the lesson.

Admittedly, opening up your classroom for free seating requires trust in your students and faith in their autonomy. You need to believe that students will continue to learn and pursue their educational goals even if they aren’t sitting at even rows of desks.

“A classroom free of micromanagement is not driven by a task-oriented approach,” says Miriam Plotinsky, author of “Teach More, Hover Less: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Secondary Classroom.”

“Teachers who prioritize learning outcomes and see the bigger picture of what students need to know can more effectively manage the stresses of covering a curriculum.”

Provide Multiple Ways for Students to Prove Competency

The next step when implementing a holistic classroom is to change how students prove they understand the material.

For example, a student who isn’t a strong writer won’t receive a high grade in essay reflections on a history lesson. It’s not that they don’t understand the material; rather they aren’t able to showcase their knowledge effectively. By giving students space to take ownership of their learning, they can prove what they know.

“Without a sense of student ownership and student agency, our children are missing out on learning an essential skill they will take with them throughout their lives: initiative,” writes Jenn Breisacher at Student-Centered World. “As teachers, we should turn this on its head and instead conduct our classes in a way that makes our students feel empowered.” One of the best ways to do that is with student choice.

A great resource is Sara Segar’s article at Experiential Learning Depot. She created a post with more than 100 ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge of a concept while tapping into their interests.

For example, one student might create a mural reflecting elements of a key historical moment. They can present their mural design in class and explain why they chose it that way of demonstrating their knowledge. Other students might create a documentary, design a map or develop a puzzle. With this process, the student chooses how they reflect on and represent the information.

Student choice also provides differentiation in the learning experience. It prevents students from growing bored and disengaging from the classroom environment.

“No student who does the same thing every single unit feels like their independence and freedom are being honored,” writes English teacher Mary Davenport. “This year, instead of repeating essay after essay, we included project-based, performative, and creative assessments. The variety allowed for every student to shine at some point in a way unique to themselves.”

Young student in classroom; holistic learning classroom concept

Allow Students to Choose Projects Based on Their Interests

When a student doesn’t care about a topic or idea, they are more easily distracted and disengaged. Consider developing assignments where students use their interests to interact with the materials you need to cover. This creates a student-driven approach to learning — a keystone of holistic education.

One option is to ask students to develop passion projects, which can last a few weeks or a whole year.

“Passion projects give high school students an opportunity to pursue their topics and interests outside of school in an ungraded format,” writes the team at Inspirit AI. “Many ambitious high schoolers spend their time focusing on academics and test scores, but passion projects allow these students to also find time to pursue the topics that make them happy.”

It may take some time for students to develop their passions, but these projects allow you to tie almost any lesson back to student interests.

On a smaller scale, consider implementing a “genius hour” in your classroom. This is an open time where students can work on projects and research materials that interest them.

“In a Genius Hour project, students have several weeks where they research topics of their choice and create final products to share with the community – either their school community or the community at large,” writes Maddie from EdTech Classroom. While there is no magic formula for creating a Genius Hour project, each student needs to focus on their passions and the purpose of the work.”

Young students in classroom; holistic learning classroom concept

Work With Other Departments to Combine Subjects

Holistic education gets complicated as students get older and subjects are more siloed. As a math teacher, you might not know what students are learning in science, art or English class. However, integrated subjects are a big part of holistic learning. Brainstorm ways students can apply what they learn in other subjects to your classroom.

“When subjects are taught in an integrated or combined approach, we double the chances for students to be engaged in a lesson,” writes John Maresca, assistant adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University. “Some students would not be interested in adding random numbers together or doing rote calculations, but they can be motivated and excited to add numbers together to figure out how much money they earned or saved to buy the new video game they want.”

Integrated learning also better prepares students to approach problems outside of school. It’s rare for adults to face problems that require only one concept or skill set to succeed, so isolating subjects for students won’t help them once they leave the classroom.

“The world isn’t neatly divided into different subjects, so why should classroom education have to be?” writes Lauren Chiangpradit at STEM Sports, a K-8 educational curriculum provider. “Cross-curricular learning gives students the ability to problem solve and connect ideas with what they are learning to real-world value.”

Connect Lesson Plans to Real-World Experiences

Speaking of the real world, look for ways to help students apply what they are learning to actions and issues outside of the classroom. This answers the age-old “when will we ever use this?” question while also piquing the curiosity of students who want to know about the world around them.

“We live in a world where everything and everyone are connected,” says Ayushi Singh at Teachmint. “These connections can make us learn new things every day.”

How can we expect students to discover their passions and apply lessons to them if they don’t have touchpoints and interests related to the world? Connecting your lessons to the outside world also encourages students to ask questions and pursue their interests in education, which is essential for holistic development.

“Putting learning in context can make the learning experience more engaging and internally motivating for the student,” write Alexandra Osika, Stephanie MacMahon, Jason M. Lodge and Annemaree Carroll for the University of Queensland. “This in turn can connect the learning experience more closely to life outside the classroom, thus making it relevant and memorable and reducing difficulty when applying new concepts to unfamiliar situations.”

A student might approach a concept with uncertainty. However, by using their own interests and existing knowledge, new ideas become less scary. Kids can feel like they are building on something they already know rather than facing foreign information.

Student projects displayed on classroom wall; holistic learning classroom concept

Talk About the Role Students Play in Society

Holistic education prepares students to be active, engaged adults in their communities. This means teachers need to help students understand the roles they play in and out of the classroom. Students don’t have to live siloed lives in schools until they are adults. They can make a difference and participate in their communities even from a young age.

“It’s wonderful when kids gain an interest in a cause that impassions them and gets them excited, and if that comes from social media or something they are seeing online, that’s great,” says Gal Beckerman, author of “The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideals.”

“The role of a parent can be to help them figure out what to do with it.”

That parental role can also be the role of a teacher.

This is another way for teachers to engage students in the material when they might be distracted by issues in their communities or curious about different subjects than the ones you need to cover.

“By having constructive conversations and asking students to share their thoughts, opinions, and perspectives, educational leaders can quickly and effectively discover exactly how to keep their students engaged,” writes Dara Fontein at ThoughtExchange. “When students have a voice and an opportunity to share their ideas, they naturally become invested in their own learning experiences.”

When you approach learning like a web of connected ideas, not like a train running on a straight track, you can start to incorporate various types of information into your lesson plans.

Take Time to Check on Students Socially and Emotionally

One final way to bring holistic learning to your classroom is to spend time focusing on the mental and emotional health of students. When students don’t feel safe, they can’t open their minds to new ideas. You can take steps to create open communication and emotional intelligence in your classroom.

“At elementary age, some students may not even be aware that their feelings have a name, or how they impact their ability to succeed in learning activities and other areas,” writes the team at learning platform Kami. “Emotional check-ins help students begin to recognize the different feelings in themselves and identify triggers that lead to certain moods.”

Schools ask a lot of students. Most kids don’t have the luxury of mental health days and are asked to pay attention at the same level of engagement each day. Holistic learning takes into account that students won’t always perform at their best — as no human can.

“I have a third grader who has to be reading to learn,” says Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach for America. “But I also know that my son cannot be reading unless he is happy, in a state where his brain allows access to learning. And that means that we’ve got to tend to our kids, and meet them where they are.”

There are a lot of moving pieces that contribute to holistic learning. Teachers need to consider how the classroom is structured, what students learn, and where they can be free to explore their own interests. This style of learning can lay a strong foundation for future learners: When students discover how to learn at a young age, they can maintain their curiosity and passions into adulthood.

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