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The problem with schooling: We don’t value the whole child

I am sitting here at my desk in the far corner of my kindergarten room. My room is bright and inviting, full of interesting things to discover and explore.  There is a play-kitchen center where children can use their imaginations to pretend they are a short-order chef or a store-owner.  A puzzle and games center for problem-solving.  A wooden theatre for using puppetry in the telling of creative stories and singing songs.  There is a writing station, a book area, an easel and a chalkboard.  And there are lots of toys that can be used for a multitude of purposes for which the imagination holds no boundaries.

In my classroom, there are little people.  Some of these little people like to sing.  Some like to dance and jump.   They love to roll and skip and hop and run. They love to talk and share and discuss.  Every one of them will often have so many ideas bursting through their amazing minds that they will share things with me all at once- their voices creating a cacophony of overwhelming sound.  I often have to remind them that only one person can share at a time, as Mrs. Gard (in her (ahem!) seniority), has ears that can only pay heed to one single voice speaking at once.  The fact that they delight in the ‘telling’ cautions me to never discourage them.

In my classroom, we learn how to read and count.  These foundations of learning are certainly a priority.

But we also learn the following:

*how to work out problems with a friend

*how to grow a plant

*how to share our feelings

*how to be a friend

*how to co-operate

*how to participate in group activities

*how to respect individually-owned and classroom-shared property

*how to take responsibility for our belongings

*how to ask for help

* how to take care of personal needs

*how to express ideas and feelings through play, through music, through art, through dance

* how to choose materials in our day-to-day learning and then use them in a variety of ways (one of which is our recyclable bin which often has supported the building of airplanes and robots)

* how to respect another individual’s personal space

I think most would agree- these are worth-while endeavors for learning, both in the kindergarten classroom and beyond.  Yes, reading and counting (literacy proper and numeracy proper) are valued in our kindergarten classroom.  But these ideals are not everything we believe is important for learning. For in this room, we place importance and value on more than just the children’s minds: we place value on more than merely the use of anyone’s mind-my own mind included, for that matter.  In this room, we value hearts and hands and feet and whole bodies.

Our learning is not just centered within our heads.

One way we accomplish this goal is through learning using the five senses.  When we learn about apples, we don’t just count them- we pick them and touch them and smell them and taste them.  When we learn about plants, we grow them- feeling the dirt beneath our fingernails.  When we learn about pumpkins, we plunge our hands into their slimy centers to discover the seeds that lie within.  We don’t just read about them in books or count manipulatives meant to represent them.

We discover them.

And to be honest, these things are really not all there is to the learning accomplished.  For when we are learning about apples, what we are really learning to do is appreciate that food comes from somewhere- that if we don’t grow food, we will have nothing to eat.  We are learning that  fruit growers (among other farmers) are necessary to our economy.  We are learning to value and appreciate the important work they do and the products they provide.

And when we learn about plants, we are learning how to work together in community- how to share the workload so that everyone has a job.  We are learning social responsibility and citizenship and ecological awareness.  And in learning about pumpkins, we are discovering that we can take creative risks- even for the ones who have never done something like this before.  For some have not ever experienced the joy that is pumpkin-carving. The joy that is a pumpkin seed bursting on their tongues. We are learning how to share and take turns, and in so doing- learning to value and respect one another.

In kindergarten, there has always been a strong emphasis placed on the whole child.  The child’s mind, their heart and their body.  We don’t separate the mind from the body or the heart from the mind- they all work together in harmony in this milieu.  So when we are learning in kindergarten, there are always multiple, myriad lessons underway- the most important of which are not usually academic.

I fear that in following and ascribing to the school format we have inherited and adopted that is focused on standardized testing and outcomes, we are valuing only one aspect of the child: that is, their head.  What could be defined as the cerebral. And while that is important and worthy, we are doing children a disservice if we are not appreciating the various aspects that make the whole child.  Particularly for children for whom the cerebral is not their main area of strength.  Their area of gifted-ness.

I would ask you to consider the following:

“The purpose of education has been debated for centuries.  Many educators and child development experts argue that the overarching goal of education is to promote the highest possible levels of cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and ethical development for each child.  The whole-child movement is based on the proposition that education must move beyond preparing children to become “well educated” citizens who are productive participants in the economic system.  Education must also cultivate in young people spirituality, reverence for the natural environment, and a sense of social justice.  Education must inspire children’s creativity, imagination, compassion, self-knowledge, social skills, and emotional health.  In this way, the term holistic education simply means cultivating the whole person and helping individuals live more consciously within their communities and natural ecosystems”(Miller, 2005).

In this way, education that is holistic in focus and purpose has at its focus yes, the intellect, but also the emotional composition, the social relations, the physical health and ability, the artistic sense, the creative capacity, and the spiritual potential.  “It seeks to engage students in the teaching/learning process and encourages personal and collective responsibility on the part of professionals charged with student’s development.” (Kochar-Bryant, 2010)

I believe that all classrooms are at potential risk- all classrooms are at potential crisis point.  We have sadly erred from the purpose of schooling in developing the individual as a whole in all aspects of being. But since I teach in a kindergarten classroom, I will write focused on this.  Our kindergarten curriculum is special.  Our classrooms are precious places set apart for discovery. We must not allow anyone to take away from us the joy we find in learning using our whole selves.  We must preserve the right children have to a curriculum that appreciates and understands the child as a person in all the aspects of their development. And we must encourage teachers to fight for what they believe in.

In my kindergarten room, we will (as we have always done): learn to count the desks, chairs and tables in our room and arrange geometric shapes into patterns.  But we will also learn how to care about these materials- how to respectfully use them and store them away when we finish play.  We will learn ideals about how to share and cooperate while playing and discovering.  And we will learn how to care for the materials and people with whom we interact in applying math principles to everyday living always with the intent to care and invest.

And in this room, we will also (again, as we have always done), value literacy goals like speaking and listening, reading and writing.  But we will do so for a higher purpose than just a check-mark on a report card.  We will value these foundational pillars for the ways in which they help us connect to the essential others in our world, having as our focus that learning is done so as to become the incredible friend, classmate, companion and group member we were meant to be.

This is the goal.

Nel Noddings (2003) has said that many of our schools are in a crisis of caring, failing to enable students to become caring, compassionate individuals as well as failing to model for them the same.  Let us not fail them in continuing to perpetuate the agenda that their mind was only made for the purpose of being a mathematical computer spitting out data.  Or as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge.

Let us remember: the mind was made to care.

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