|In today’s world, teachers in New Zealand primary schools struggle to meet the requirements of an over-full curriculum and pressure from politicians to raise student achievement. Despite a curriculum document that speaks of developing “lifelong learners who are confident, creative, connected, and actively involved” (MoE, 2007, p. 4), teachers are being compelled to return to traditional forms of teaching in an attempt to ensure that students are meeting required ‘standards’ in reading, writing and mathematics (MoE, 2013a).
A common theme in current educational discussions is concerns around the ‘tail of underachievement’ (Hattie, 2011; Te One, 2011) that continues to plague classrooms despite on-going professional development and the introduction of National Standards (MoE, 2009a, 2009b). This research, therefore, attempts to define a viable alternative to the status quo, holistic education, a teaching paradigm that has produced pockets of success, mainly outside mainstream education, over the last few centuries and which may hold promise for the 21st Century.
Holism is not new. It spans much of human history from early Greek philosophers in the West and traditional ways of thinking in many non-Western indigenous cultures through to the current day, although the term itself was not ‘coined’ until 1926 (Esfeld, 1998). In recent years, holism has found some legitimacy in healthcare (McEvoy & Duffy, 2008), Western judicial systems (Takagi & Shank, 2004) and even education (R. Miller, 2006).
Although holistic education has taken various forms throughout history, one overarching theme is that it is focused on the whole child – body, mind and spirit – and their relationships with others and the world around them (J. P. Miller, 2007). The literature even suggests that holistic education is a matter of the heart – a paradigm or worldview that underpins everything the teacher does in light of this understanding (Mahmoudi, Jafari, Nasrabadi, & Liaghatdar, 2012) rather than a pedagogical style. Thus, holistic teachers select from a toolbox of practices in order to find what is most appropriate for each learning situation and student.
Beginning with an analysis of research into holistic education, this thesis then considers the practises of some local teachers that appear to have holistic underpinnings, to discover how viable they are in practice, and what difference they make to the students and their learning. Interviews with teachers and their students produced data was grouped into themes. One overarching theme showed that connecting learning to the students’ lives, increased their motivation and engagement. The development of strong relationships with students was another clear theme, and the knowledge teachers gained as a result, informed their teaching decisions.
Though holistic teaching is time consuming it is rewarding, and these teachers felt the rewards far outweighed the cost, a sense that was echoed in literature on the subject (Apple & Beane, 2007). Furthermore, these teachers did not think of their practice as holistic, but clearly taught from the heart. It is this sense of a change of ‘heart’ by teachers, rather than specific practices, which suggests that holistic education could be a viable vision for today’s primary school classrooms.