What Does "Whole-Child Learning" Mean?

Posted by Office Manager on 08/01/2018


While Keystone does not claim to be a traditional democratic school, it does follow many of the principals observed in democratic schools. At its core is the goal to educate the whole child – social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and academic – so that students build a solid sense of self-concept and a sense of how to work within the community both inside and outside the school. As Kahne and Westheimer point out, “academic study does not guarantee our humanity, and it will not sustain our democracy. If we care about educating democratic citizens, we must enlarge and enrich both our educational priorities and our practices” (2004, p.65). A firm tenet of Keystone is that growth--social, emotional, and academic--happens when the child feels secure and safe enough to take risks and social/emotional skills are always at the forefront.

As Westheimer points out, “it is foolish to expect students to be well-versed in the democratic skills of deliberation and debate if they do not gain experience in these activities in school” (2004, p.233). Therefore, schools should help students practice the skills that are integral to democratic action. The three visions of the democratic citizen, as Budin points out, are comprised of one who is personally responsible, takes a participatory role in civic life, and who can analyze and respond to social issues around him (p.6). In that sense, students should, as Budin again points out, have a solid basic sense of literacy and communication skills (p.13). They should be able to read, write, research, and synthesize information. They need practice solving problems, from the most simple to complicated and messy problems. They need to be exposed to the “gray” areas of life and find multiple points of view instead of merely the simple pro and con. Students need to know themselves as learners and contributors and need plenty of practice making decisions. Finally, and most crucially, students need to learn to do all of this collaboratively with good practice in deliberation. Keystone, as a primary school, gives students a firm foundation in all of these areas.   

Keystone has no set curriculum. First and foremost, it is Keystone’s belief that school is life, not just preparation for life. This core tenet lines up well with Budin’s assertion that “schooling is not just practice for life but is part of life, and the skills and dispositions we learn in school should be those we continue to use as adults” (p.7). Everything that we do at Keystone is done to help students participate in life to the fullest extent. Teachers work to get to know each individual student in their classrooms and throughout the school first through a combination of observation, conversations, and formative assessments. They then work on a constant basis with the student and the student’s parents to formulate a learning plan that fits that particular student and their interests in a way that helps the student progress emotionally, physically, socially, and academically. There are activities and projects that are done as a whole class or a whole school as well. In these, students participate in a way that fits them, and the teachers help to facilitate that participation in a way that is appropriate for the individual.

Whether in response to the individual or a group, flexibility is a key component to life at Keystone. Teachers work to teach students to respond flexibly to the environment around them. As teachers, we also must flexibly respond to the environment and the moment. For instance, in response to the recent swarms of small earthquakes, I planned a small mini-unit to investigate the basics of plate movement and to show students how to track these quakes in our local area. The students were so fascinated by the topic, that they then led the way with questions that furthered our investigation into sink holes, calderas, and much more. What started as a simple introduction to a topic led to a week-long investigation. Because students were so invested and interested, I was able to take advantage of the moment. Also, in this moment, students were able to exercise their voice in asking questions to investigate further. They learned that their voice holds weight and matters. As a faculty member, I was truly open to listen and help to guide their investigation.

This leads directly to the fact that Keystone connects learning to experience every day. Dewey mentions that “there is a standing danger that the material of formal instruction will be merely the subject matter of the schools, isolated from the subject matter of life-experience” (1916, p. 9). However, at Keystone the experience is the primary guide. Whether it be in actual practice like in caring for the animals, tending the garden, caring for the physical school grounds, or investigating the animals in the local environment, or in created situations like our diner, our mock city, gaming, or our scale-model animal museum, the experience of learning is largely situated in experience and a strong sense of purpose. Dewey mentions that “skill obtained apart from thinking is not connected with any sense of the purpose for which it is to be used” (1916, p.165). Therefore, all of our experiences are connected to a time and space for reflection and discussion so that students have the opportunity to verbalize and communicate the things that they learned from the experience.

As teachers, our job is to find or create those experiences that help students develop the skills of life in a way that promotes their participation in society. Dewey points out that “the first office of the social organ we call the school is to provide a simplified environment. It selects the features which are fairly fundamental and capable of being responded to by the young. Then it establishes a progressive order, using the factors first acquired as means of gaining insight into what is more complicated” (1916, p.21). Therefore, experiences are not solely haphazard or subject only to the whim of the student. These experiences are a living, breathing thing that springs from a combination of teacher input, students input, parent input, and the surrounding environment and opportunities. We take advantage of the moment when we can, but we also sometimes work to create scenarios to help students practice their skills of problem-solving, collaborative decision-making, communication, and critical thinking.


Budin, Howard. Notes: Technology and Democracy (from conference talk)

Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education [Kindle ed.].

Kahne, Joseph and Joel Westheimer. Teaching Politics: What Schools Need to Do. Phi Delta Kappa,                 Sept. 2003, pp. 34-40, 57-67.

Westheimer, Joel. Introduction: The Politics of Civic Education. Political Science and Politics, Vol.    XXXVII, Number 2, April 2004, pp. 231-246.


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