How Can We Define Holistic Education, as a bigger field of study?
This section looks at some of my (Dave Till’s) background work in the past on the huge topic of holistic education – some of which I have incorporated into the SPLASH programme.
Holistic Education and learning involves the whole self and therefore includes the following parts of the person:
- Spiritual and
- Relationships between people and groups to include our relationship to nature (or co-creation with nature as it is called at Findhorn).
Conventional education mainly happens in the mental arena – passing exams, gaining qualifications and degrees; awards that demonstrate intellect or intellectual knowledge. In traditional education, the mind leads the process and is at the top of the hierarchy of learning. In holistic learning, the emphasis shifts to the importance of each part of the person and their interconnectedness. If there is a hierarchy in holistic learning, the process should be led by the higher self or the spiritual self. (See the illustration based on the model devised by PD Ouspensky).
The whole person can be likened to a carriage and driver pulled by a horse. As explained on the SPLASH introduction page, the owner is inside the carriage, the driver is high at the front with the reins of the horse in his hands. The owner represents the higher self (spirit); the carriage (body); the driver (mind) and the horse (emotions). The direction should be set by the owner, the spirit and not by the driver, the mind. Each part then has a clear function in making the carriage move to its destination. And almost every man-made trouble in the world can be traced to giving the driver a free rein! Time for a change of emphasis I think.
Here lies the shift necessary to make holistic education work. We can’t easily add on holistic techniques to traditional education because the whole emphasis needs to shift. For a holistic model to work, education has to be rethought from the base up. To use the horse and carriage analogy again, we can’t try to pretend that the driver should still be planning the journey, especially if we have been in communication with the owner for some time already.
At a centre like Findhorn, we should be proud that we don’t fit into existing degree courses or school programmes because that way we have a chance to fully explore the holistic ways of doing things. In my opinion we have to hold on to these differences, and not dilute them by trying to pretend that holistic education is a sort of interesting new branch of conventional education. It is not a branch of anything, it is a tree in itself.
COMPONENTS OF HOLISTIC LEARNING
These are in no particular order of importance – I just wrote them down as I remembered them. Feel free to add to the knowledge in your feedback to this site. Nor is this list meant to be comprehensive – it’s a work in progress.
Every group has a life of its own. Every group creates roles for its members (or perhaps the members gravitate towards roles of their own choosing). The dynamics of a group have certain laws and principles that can be learnt and understood. Because holistic education is by and large learned and practiced within a group, knowledge of group dynamics becomes imperative.
To quote Arnold Mindell, “conflict is neither good nor bad, it is just inevitable”. Throughout my time as a lecturer in higher education, I had to deal with conflict. Conflict between staff members, conflict between staff and management, conflict between students and conflicts between students and staff. Yet not once was conflict an official part of the learning even though it was so widespread and extensive in every educational group of which I was a part. Outside of mainstream education, I learned many good things about the value of conflict especially from Mindell’s Process Work. Conflict is part of holistic learning. When we made room for it, conflict was welcomed and examined in the Findhorn Community Semester (FCS) programme within the Findhorn Foundation College. When conflict arose we did our best to learn from it within the holistic model – learning from something that is usually marginalised or ignored in mainstream education. Conflict is educational.
Emotional awareness techniques
Or valuing feelings. In any Findhorn department, people share their feelings. This also happens on experience weeks or in FF workshops or in personal development workshops as practiced all over the planet. And why share feelings? Because if you don’t, then you miss out on a huge chunk of learning that has been categorised by holistic educators as emotional intelligence (EQ). Do feelings have patterns? Does catharsis work? Can you learn about feelings and hence address depression and despair? Emotional awareness is a huge area of holistic learning and no group can be fully functioning if it doesn’t make room for the emotional level. In fact learning greatly improves when feelings are addressed and students feel comfortable, accepted, encouraged and appreciated.
The learning community
When a group forms for educational purposes, a learning community can be created consciously. The learning community is different to the conventional classroom. For instance; in the LC the teaching role can move round the group – it doesn’t stay with one ‘teacher’. The ‘teacher’ is also there to learn and the teacher role becomes that of facilitator, or in Findhorn a ‘focaliser’. The LC encourages holistic education, it doesn’t try to control or ration it. The LC does not use shame and bullying as educational methods. The LC is a warm, supportive environment and is a key basis for holistic learning. The LC should be fun, funny, appreciative, supportive and exploratory. Boredom has no place here. Members of an LC take care of all aspects of themselves – spiritual, mental, emotional and physical and they value and nurture their relationships with others.
Learning contracts for participants and leaders
These are self-created contracts – contracts with yourself to encourage definite learning goals. Within the FCS programme, we created learning contract sheets that encouraged students to look at all the areas of holistic learning and set themselves targets. (We did this on the advice of the Human Potential Research unit at Surrey University). In practice however, some FCS students really hated the linear thinking behind this process and just tore theirs up! This rebellion became a great learning for staff, and we happily let them rebel and then adapted accordingly – we let the students who didn’t want to fill in a linear chart choose some other way of creating a contract with themselves or even in some cases ignore the process altogether! Good feedback – a key learning situation happened when students expressed their dismay and dissent. This was holistic learning at its best.
Small sub groups who form for learning purposes are learning sets. For instance, groups who want to research a particualar area of learning and compare and contrast their notes. Learning sets encourage education in a similar way to the way meditation groups help meditation practice for the individual.
Good feedback loops
In any holistic programme you need good feedback methods to adjust and shape the programmes. This is particularly true of any programmes that are groundbreaking. (See above in learning contracts for the value of clear feedback!) Staff and students need to jointly assess their experience at the end of any course and the course needs to be modified accordingly. Feedback sheets and verbal sessions are common tools here. As holistic methods grow and evolve, feedback is essential for this to continue in the right directions.
Changing modes is a useful term to signify changing to a different aspect of the whole person and not spending long periods in one ‘mode’. For instance, if you have a very mental session of learning, you change modes by say, moving into the physical – getting up, moving, doing games, taking breaks. Or frequently the mode would change organically from the mental level to the emotional, and students would give their emotional reactions to a piece of knowledge. On the FCS programme we would encourage students to indicate when they felt they needed to change modes. If they didn’t, staff would change modes after no longer than 45 minutes in one area. We would never, ever do purely mental learning for hours at a time. Never.
Physical warm-ups, games
A good repetoire of these was very useful for changing modes. Also on the FCS programme we encouraged students to bring their own warm-up techniques and games to class. Often we would rota in who would be doing the warm-up that day. (Usually we started every session with a structured warm-up).
Sharings and intros
It is a standard practice in Findhorn that group members ‘share’ about themselves and how they are feeling at set times in a working or learning week. It is also standard practice that everyone introduces themselves when every new group forms. These techniques move the individual into emotional awareness and learning. A group that doesn’t share emotions is already disabled. A group that hasn’t introduced its individual members and heard from each of them, hasn’t formed properly.
Meditations and attunements
Another Findhorn-style way of working. Each working group at Findhorn is encouraged to have an “attunement’ at least once a week. Usually these consist of a meditation, a sharing in a circle and business. Attuning together adds a special acknowledgment of the spiritual nature of life, and moves groups into the spiritual realm. It is also the very best way to get information by which to make plans in a rapidly changing world. The spirit is encouraged to lead in the attunement process. Attunement at Findhorn can also mean the practice of the individual going inside themselves to contact their higher, intuitive self for answers. This is usually done in silence and looks like meditation.
If individual spirituality is acknowledged as the leading edge of the holistic process, a spiritual practice becomes invaluable. Regular meditations, excursions into nature, singing, dancing etc can all become spiritual practices. These are practical methods of cultivating an awareness of the higher self, and are quite different to religious practices which may depend on a belief system and rules.
Co-creation with Nature
The guiding force of the natural world is experienced within us as the spirit or higher self. They seem to be the same thing. If we come into our own as beings guided by the higher self rather than the mind, then our relationship to nature changes. We have the option to co-create with nature rather than try to subjugate and control it. The whole movement towards ecological balance, better building techniques, more care for the way we produce energy can lead back to a recognition that we are a part of the natural world and can experience it through the higher self. On holistic courses this experience is nurtured and valued as a first step towards balance with nature. Co-creation with nature then becomes a spiritual practice first and a mental, physical and emotional one later. Once again it seems important to get the priorities right.
The value of ‘service”
Still in the ‘spiritual’ sector, the value of ‘service’ needs to be reinforced and encouraged. This is the path of ‘dharma’ or in Findhorn, ‘work as love in action’. The whole path of selfless action is an ancient and well-respected tradition and needs to have its place restored in the modern world. Any self-respecting holistic education course would incorporate or practice this. A mix of education and service is common for students at Findhorn. Work becomes part of the spiritual practice for the individual and community work can become part of holistic education practice as it was on the FCS programme. As an experience service teaches a lot and can be quite blissful. Why? There is no good answer to that – just do it and find out by experience.
Models of group development – Scott Peck etc.
Groups form and develop in well-recorded ways. Scott Peck is a good source for a description of the different stages of group development. These stages need to be experienced as part of a holistic curriculum. On the FCS programme we the staff would wait patiently until new groups passed their “polite” stage and got through to some real learning or through to their authentic selves. One particularly ‘right on’ group famously had a big party where everyone got drunk, and after that they were much less ‘right on’ and much better to deal with – they were looser and more realistic. God works in wondrous ways!
Techniques of emotional catharsis or release are helpful to anyone engaged in holistic learning. Bashing cushions, yelling in sound proofed room, ‘acting into’ emotions, pushing, holding etc. can all be used. Dance styles like 5-Rhythms can be particularly good.
There are lots of these techniques, and disciplines like co-counselling have a particularly good repertoire.
Meta skills in a group
Meta skills are uncanny talents that can be tapped into when leading or participating in groups. My own meta skill that I use in a group frequently is that I can feel in my body when something is being left unsaid and can often find a voice for it. Other meta skills concern intuition, when to change modes, when to get someone to speak or the detection of unspoken emotion in a group. There are probably hundreds of these. At Findhorn, Focalisation Training (teaching how to facilitate groups) encourages the development of meta skills, I believe.
Intuition, altered states and dream work
The work of Arnold Mindell comes into its own here. His ‘World Work’ encourages the awareness of dream states, to enter into them and retrieve lost parts of the self in a shamanic way. His work with groups is extremely helpful for working in a holistic way. Intuition is also the voice of the higher, spritual self and can be cultivated and listened to – ‘inner listening’ at Findhorn. Altered states often reveal new information on a topic or problem and these can be reached naturally through such things as dance and movement (5 rhythms is particularly good for this), sweat lodges, vigorous exercise, yoga and so on. (And, more famously, by imbibing drugs! Of course you pay heavily for the short cuts!)
Group roles and Role play in a group
An understanding of roles that are likely to develop in a learning situation is very helpful and very necessary. It is also useful to see such roles like ‘teacher’ ‘enabler’ ‘fool’ etc as changeable and flexible. If someone is a ‘teacher’it will not stop them dropping roles and becoming a ‘fool’ should the moment arise. When roles are depersonalised then they become more helpful. In the same way, if an individual gets stuck in one role only, they can be encouraged by the group to change roles and see how this feels. A classic example would be to get the ‘troublemaker’ to become ‘teacher’ for a while and see how this feels. Or the facilitator can start to ask the compulsive questioner a lot of questions in order to reverse the role. (Very effective this – I’ve seen it done).
Compulsory education, learning by rote, memorised information for the sake of passing tests.
The above things are unlikely to be found in holistic education courses and programmes.
Supervision for staff.
The culture of supervision has grown in Findhorn over recent years. Each working team has sessions with a trained supervisor who will help them with any “illusions, confusions and collusions’ they might build into their working lives or into their teams. Having a supervisor (in a similar way to having supervision when you are training as a therapist) seems essential to holistic practice. It can prevent facilitators from building their own unseen patterns into holistic courses.
My Background and my search for new models
I used to teach in a Performing Arts College in the North of England. Like many arts-based disciplines, the subjects I taught never sat comfortably within the traditional educational system because the creative subjects aren’t based on rational thinking. Creativity is not a rational process, it is an intuitive, spiritual process for want of a better word. And when rationality gets hold of subjects like music, drama, and creative writing it has a tendency to misunderstand them and to try to get them to fit into mental compartments to which they don’t belong. On one practical popular music course, I saw students asked to write essays about Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos! Puh-lease!
Whilst I was teaching in a department that would always be at odds with rational, intellectual education, I also began to get interested in personal development techniques in my spare time. I learned co-counselling and techniques of group dynamics. I did rebirth and breathwork. I learned massage. I did meditation courses and yoga and shiatsu. I started to explore the map of holistic learning without having a name or framework for it. And much of the understanding I started to develop around group dynamics could have been very useful within my group at work but this would have meant getting my colleagues to move into a completely new way of doing things. And unfortunately, academics don’t do things like share how they feel as part of their working day. They might moan in the pub after work but they don’t make feelings a part of the educational process. And this is the problem. How can you introduce ‘feelings’ into the curriculum in a conventional University? The answer is that you can’t – you have to have a completely new model in a new type of University. Hence the pioneering importance of educational centres like Findhorn. And Findhorn has always put the spiritual self first, handy that when this is the first prerequisite for holistic learning.
And at Findhorn, I helped set up the Findhorn Foundation College with Malcolm Hollick and Jean Floyed and started to oversee ‘academic study’ on the Findhorn College Semester (FCS). It was here, working with degree level students, that I started to see much more clearly how holistic education could evolve. As a facilitator and educator I certainly learned a lot! All teachers in holistic learning should be prepared to be students again – I heartily recommend it.
Dave Till Oct 2014
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