Whole Child Education: The Era of False Choices Needs to End

Whole Child Education: The Era of False Choices Needs to End
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP

As educators and advocates, there are many topics on which we, the authors, disagree. Despite our differences though, we are aligned on perhaps the most urgent challenge in K-12 schooling today―the need for schools and communities to embrace children as individuals and future citizens, and ensure that they don’t feel like test-taking cogs in a bureaucratic enterprise.

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This week, the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released recommendations to help schools and communities do just that, by helping students feel safe at school; cultivating traits like responsibility and perseverance; developing an emotional foundation for academic success; and teaching students to respect and listen to one another in the face of differences.
This embrace of social, emotional, and academic learning is a moment of opportunity. Done wisely and well, it’s an opportunity to translate growing knowledge about how people learn into real-world practices that benefit students. It’s an opportunity to focus on values and student needs that matter deeply to parents and unite Americans across the ideological spectrum—things like integrity, empathy, and responsible decision making. 
Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to put an end to the era of false choices in education. Schools should not have to choose between chemistry and character; between trigonometry and teamwork. Since the dawn of the republic, teachers and schools have been tasked with teaching content and modeling character―at issue is whether we want this to be done consciously, carefully, and effectively. What might strike some as a faddish enthusiasm for the “whole child” should be nothing more than a measured call for schools to once again unapologetically be about academic achievement and also the social and emotional skills that equip students for citizenship, life, and work.
Delivering on this opportunity won’t be easy. It requires a rigorous commitment to evidence, open-eyed skepticism, and a fierce willingness to face down those riding personal hobbyhorses. For starters, “whole child” efforts must be about building the capabilities that promote learning, academic success, and responsible citizenship. It cannot be an “anything-goes” invitation to displace content instruction, burden teachers, or justify dubious pedagogy.
Doing any of this capably requires teaching practices, classrooms, school-family partnerships, and community settings that move these ideas from theory to practice. Anyone who has tried to help kindergartners focus and collaborate, or urged adolescents be kind to all of their peers, knows that these skills and habits are far from innate. Worse, done clumsily, such efforts can become a distraction from academic instruction. After all, any seasoned educator can recall a litany of well-intended education reforms that ultimately proved to be disappointing distractions. This means that strategies need to be research-based, deliberately implemented, sensibly integrated, and carefully monitored. 
What about evaluation? We should examine a school’s climate, and can learn how young people and teachers alike feel about their environments and relationships.  Such measures can be valuable tools for school improvement. But measures of social and emotional dynamics must not be used in accountability systems or for purposes of grading districts, schools, teachers, or students.
There is a need for training to help educators, school staff, families, and community members do these things. The familiar concern is that most professional development in schooling does not improve teaching and learning. Often, it does more to annoy educators than to assist them. Cheerful talk about “quality training” will not solve that problem. In fact, the Commission suggests something much more fundamental: every teacher should be trained in child and adolescent development and the science of learning. This would require, of course, major improvements in educator preparation that must be accompanied by ongoing professional support for teachers and other adults who work with young people. This is an extraordinary challenge, and the failure to answer it will be a recipe for disappointment and frustration.  
The existence of a national commission should not be mistaken for an invitation to federal policymakers. The Commission’s work to synthesize and share its findings should not obscure the fact that the work of ensuring it is done well needs to be owned and shaped by local communities. This leadership needs to flow from the parents, civic leaders, educators, students, and others who live in the communities in question. And those champions of “whole child” education must be guardians of quality, unapologetically calling out charlatans, weeding out ineffectual programs, articulating shared values, and taking the potential pitfalls seriously.
Done wisely and well, the integration of social, emotional, and academic development can help transcend some of the divisions that plague American schooling. The focus on the “whole child” is an opportunity to embrace both the “real work” of math and English instruction and the civic and personal skills that help students succeed, in school and in life. History should leave us humble and prepared for challenges ahead, but schools that more fully reflect America’s best self is a goal worth the pursuit.