July 22, 2024

Now is the time for learner-centered, whole-child education

Now is the time for learner-centered, whole-child education
Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

A student stands quietly on the grass and does a yoga pose during PE at Dover Elementary in San Pablo on July 14, 2021. West Contra Costa Unified is among several districts prioritizing social and emotional learning and student wellness check-ins during the first few weeks of school.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, we have seen students, families and educators leaning into the unknown. By reflecting on what we have learned and what we want to keep, we may be able to build on the silver linings of this most difficult period in our lives.

Devin Vodicka

One of the most important insights that relate to all constituencies is the long-overdue recognition of the “whole child” and the undeniable interconnectedness of our physical, social and emotional well-being with our cognitive and academic development. And just as we use the term “whole child” with regard to students, we have seen that applying the same lens to our families and educators is equally important. It is by meeting the needs of the whole person that other accomplishments become possible.

Similarly, we now see in stark relief that students learn in many ways, in many places, from many experiences — and that too is a lesson we should hold onto and around which we should build enabling systems.

Kim Smith

If it wasn’t evident already, parents and students are now pretty clear: a narrow academic focus on math and English isn’t enough. It’s demoralizing and boring and too narrow to really prepare young people for life. We need a balance of social and emotional life skills and a way to help learners feel the usefulness of what they’re learning. Developing a sense of agency and interest-driven learning leads to growth that students and parents recognize as valuable.

Unfortunately, the combination of our desire for some return to “normal” and our conditioning to the status quo may be pulling us back to what was familiar before the pandemic.

Jen Holleran

Primary on the list of misaligned considerations is the reality that we do not yet have a common framework to gauge progress with respect to whole-child development or more interest-driven learning — and we need these.

Lacking them, we are reverting to what we have traditionally measured, which tends to focus exclusively on academic development in reading and mathematics.

To be clear, we are strong proponents of these foundational literacies, but we must also expand our view of success to further recognize the development of habits and skills that we have not historically emphasized.

Jean-Claude Brizard

Measuring and recognizing whether a school is supporting the broader development of all aspects of the whole child — social, academic, mental and physical — will be imperative as we evaluate the progress of individual learners and of our collective system.

The new target we are aiming for must include knowledge, habits and skills. Just as there are common-sense problems if we swing too far on the pendulum and ignore the critical nature of core knowledge, there are also legitimate hazards if we focus myopically on a narrow set of academic outcomes.

Research on the overall impact of test-driven improvements that lead to a lack of interest in the subject should be part of the conversation about how we transition out of the pandemic and into a new and better system of education for all. For example, a study from the University of Maryland found that teachers who were found to be more effective at raising test scores also had a statistically significant negative effect on student happiness. Even more alarming is the global data showing that high performance on standardized tests is associated with poor attitudes about the academic subject area. These studies remind us that we need to expand our view of student success.

Now is the time to make the shift to a new and improved model of education for all learners.

To guide our efforts, instead of measuring our progress exclusively through tests, we should instead clearly articulate whole-child outcome frameworks through learner profiles (such as the one used by Logan County Schools in Kentucky) and then develop strategies that align with these aspirations. We need multiple tools that take into account student self-reflection, peer feedback and educator observations to support this move to learner-centered, whole-child education so that we avoid re-doing the one-size-fits-all approach that we know has not worked for all students.

This is a particularly acute need now when students are all coming to school from the pandemic gap back at different places in their learning depending on how much they learned through different learning experiences or lack thereof. We must find better ways to understand what each child knows and can do.

Just as students, families and teachers have adapted through the pandemic, it is time for our educational systems and structures to evolve as well.


Devin Vodicka is the CEO of Learner-Centered Collaborative and the author of Learner-Centered LeadershipKim Smith is the founder and former CEO of NewSchools Venture FundBellwether Education Partners and the Pahara Institute. She focuses on enabling entrepreneurs and innovation to achieve excellence with equity in our public schools. Jen Holleran is a philanthropic adviser who brings an equity-based, learner-centered, whole-child vision to the future of learning and school design. Jean-Claude Brizard is the president and CEO of Digital Promise and a former schools superintendent in Chicago, Rochester and New York City public schools. 

A longer version of this commentary is available on the Learner-Centered Collaborative website.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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Now is the time for learner-centered, whole-child education