Holistic education is a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is the definition given by Ron Miller, founder of the journal Holistic Education Review (now entitled Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice). The term holistic education is often used to refer to the more democratic and humanistic types of alternative education. Robin Ann Martin (2003) describes this further by stating, “At its most general level, what distinguishes holistic education from other forms of education are its goals, its attention to experiential learning, and the significance that it places on relationships and primary human values within the learning environment.”
Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system in any field of study cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its component parts. Instead, the system as a whole determines how its parts behave. A holistic way of thinking tries to encompass and integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience rather than defining human possibilities narrowly.
Key historical contributors
It is difficult to map the history of holistic education because many feel that the core ideas of holism are not new but “timeless and found in the sense of wholeness in humanity’s religious impetus” (Forbes, 1996). On the other hand, the roots of holistic education can be traced back to several major contributors. Originating theorists include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Fröbel, and Francisco Ferrer. More recent theorists are Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, Francis Parker, John Dewey, John Caldwell Holt, George Dennison Kieran Egan, Howard Gardner, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, and Paulo Freire. With the ideas of these pioneers in mind, many feel that the core ideas of holistic education did not truly take form until the cultural paradigm shift that began in the 1960s. After this, the holism movement in psychology emerged in the 1970s where, during this time, “an emerging body of literature in science, philosophy and cultural history provided an overarching concept to describe this way of understanding education – a perspective known as holism.”
Significant forward motion was accomplished by the first National Holistic Education Conference that was conducted with The University of California, San Diego in July 1979, that included 31 workshops. The Conference was presented by The Mandala Society and The National Center for the Exploration of Human Potential.
The title was Mind: Evolution or Revolution? The Emergence of Holistic Education
For six years after that the Holistic Education Conference was combined with the Mandala Holistic Health Conferences at the University of California, San Diego, with about three thousand professionals participating each year.
Out of this came the Journal of Holistic Education and the observation that educators think they are teaching the basic three R’s: Reading Writing and Arithmetic. With Holistic Education the basic three R’s are Education for: Relationships, Responsibility and Reverence for all life.
Any approach to education must ask itself, what is the goal of education? Holistic education aims at helping students be the most that they can be. Abraham Maslow referred to this as “self-actualization”. Education with a holistic perspective is concerned with the development of every person’s intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative and spiritual potentials. It seeks to engage students in the teaching/learning process and encourages personal and collective responsibility.
In describing the general philosophy of holistic education, Robin Ann Martin and Scott Forbes (2004) divide their discussion into two categories: the idea of Ultimacy and Basil Bernstein’s notion of Sagacious Competence. 
- Religious; as in becoming “enlightened”. Spirituality is an important component in holistic education as it emphasizes the connectedness of all living things and stresses the “harmony between the inner life and outer life” (Holistic Education Network).
- Psychological; as in Maslow’s “self-actualization”. Holistic education believes that each person should strive to be all that they can be in life. There are no deficits in learners, just differences.
- Undefined; as in a person developing to the ultimate extent a human could reach and, thus, moving towards the highest aspirations of the human spirit (Holistic Education Network).
- Freedom (in a psychological sense).
- Good-judgment (self-governance).
- Meta learning (each student learns in their “own way”).
- Social ability (more than just learning social skills).
- Refining Values (development of character).
- Self Knowledge (emotional development).
In considering curriculum using a holistic approach, one must address the question of what children need to learn. Since holistic education seeks to educate the whole person, there are some key factors that are essential to this type of education. First, children need to learn about themselves. This involves learning self-respect and self-esteem. Second, children need to learn about relationships. In learning about their relationships with others, there is a focus on social “literacy” (learning to see social influence) and emotional “literacy” (one’s own self in relation to others). Third, children need to learn about resilience. This entails overcoming difficulties, facing challenges and learning how to ensure long-term success. Fourth, children need to learn about aesthetics – This encourages the student to see the beauty of what is around them and learn to have awe in life. (Holistic Education, Inc, Home Page)
Clifford Mayes and his associates have recently written a book-length study entitled Understanding the Whole Student: Holistic Multicultural Education (Rowman and Littlefield: 2007), which extends the idea of holistic education to critical issues in the theory and practice of multicultural education.
Tools/teaching strategies of holistic education
With the goal of educating the whole child, holistic education promotes several strategies to address the question of how to teach and how people learn. First, the idea of holism advocates a transformative approach to learning. Rather than seeing education as a process of transmission and transaction, transformative learning involves a change in the frames of reference that a person may have. This change may include points of view, habits of mind, and worldviews. Holism understands knowledge as something that is constructed by the context in which a person lives. Therefore, teaching students to reflect critically on how we come to know or understand information is essential. As a result, if “we ask students to develop critical and reflective thinking skills and encourage them to care about the world around them they may decide that some degree of personal or social transformation is required.” 
Second, the idea of connections is emphasized as opposed to the fragmentation that is often seen in mainstream education. This fragmentation may include the dividing of individual subjects, dividing students into grades, etc. Holism sees the various aspects of life and living as integrated and connected, therefore, education should not isolate learning into several different components. Martin (2002) illustrates this point further by stating that, “Many alternative educators argue instead that who the learners are, what they know, how they know it, and how they act in the world are not separate elements, but reflect the interdependencies between our world and ourselves” (). Included in this idea of connections is the way that the classroom is structured. Holistic school classrooms are often small and consist of mixed-ability and mixed-age students. They are flexible in terms of how they are structured so that if it becomes appropriate for a student to change classes, (s)he is moved regardless of what time of year it is on the school calendar. Flexible pacing is key in allowing students to feel that they are not rushed in learning concepts studied, nor are they held back if they learn concepts quickly.
Third, along the same thread as the idea of connections in holistic education, is the concept of transdisciplinary inquiry. Transdisciplinary inquiry is based on the premise that division between disciplines is eliminated. One must understand the world in wholes as much as possible and not in fragmented parts. “Transdisciplinary approaches involve multiple disciplines and the space between the disciplines with the possibility of new perspectives ‘beyond’ those disciplines. Where multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiry may focus on the contribution of disciplines to an inquiry transdisciplinary inquiry tends to focus on the inquiry issue itself.”
Illustration of how transdisciplinary inquiry works from the Holistic Education Network.
Fourth, holistic education feels that meaningfulness is also an important factor in the learning process. People learn better when what is being learned is important to them. Holistic schools seek to respect and work with the meaning structures of each person. Therefore, the start of a topic would begin with what a student may know or understand from their worldview, what has meaning to them rather than what others feel should be meaningful to them. Meta-learning is another concept that connects to meaningfulness. In finding inherent meaning in the process of learning and coming to understand how they learn, students are expected to self-regulate their own learning. However, they are not completely expected to do this on their own. Because of the nature of community in holistic education, students learn to monitor their own learning through interdependence on others inside and outside of the classroom.
Finally, as mentioned above, community is an integral aspect in holistic education. As relationships and learning about relationships are keys to understanding ourselves, so the aspect of community is vital in this learning process. Forbes (1996) states, “In holistic education the classroom is often seen as a community, which is within the larger community of the school, which is within the larger community of the village, town, or city, and which is, by extension, within the larger community of humanity.”
In holistic education, the teacher is seen less as person of authority who leads and controls but rather is seen as “a friend, a mentor, a facilitator, or an experienced traveling companion” (Forbes, 1996). Schools should be seen as places where students and adults work toward a mutual goal. Open and honest communication is expected and differences between people are respected and appreciated. Cooperation is the norm, rather than competition. Thus, many schools incorporating holistic beliefs do not give grades or rewards. The reward of helping one another and growing together is emphasized rather than being placed above one another.
For various reasons, many parents today are looking to alternative schools that offer different philosophies of education than mainstream schools. The diversity of alternative schools sets them apart from mainline education. Each school has its own methods and approaches to teaching. Therefore, each alternative school may have different beliefs about what education should include. Consequently, there are several types of alternative schools that have holistic values in their philosophies of education. While these schools have elements of holism incorporated in their values it would be fair to say that these schools could be placed on a continuum on how “holistic” they actually are (that is to say, some would have more holistic elements than others). Also, public and other types of private schools do not appear in the following list but that does not mean that there are no holistic values in their individual philosophies of education. In addition, many individual teachers in different venues of education try to incorporate ideas of holism into their own classrooms.
List of alternative schools that have holistic elements of learning in their educational philosophies:
- Brockwood Park School, an international educational center in England, founded by Jiddu Krishnamurti
- Camphill Schools
- Democratic school and anarchistic free school
- Friends/Quaker Schools
- Homeschooling, Unschooling, and Deschooling
- Krishnamurti Schools
- Montessori School
- Waldorf Education (or Steiner Education)
- Reggio Emilia Inspired Schools
Note on semantics
There is a debate on whether holistic education is connected to the idea of holistic education which is used to refer to education in holistic health or spiritual practices such as massage and yoga. Some educators feel that holistic education is a part of holistic practices, while others feel that they are totally separate concepts.
- Encounter, Education for Meaning and Social Justice, (journal website)
- Forbes, Scott H. Values in Holistic Education. Paper presented at the Third Annual Conference on Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child (Roehampton Institute, London, June 28, 1996). 9 pages.
- Forbes, Scott H. and Robin Ann Martin. What Holistic Education Claims About Itself: An Analysis of Holistic Schools’ Literature. Paper presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Conference (San Diego, California, April 2004). 26 pages.
- Holistic Education, Inc, Home Page
- Holistic Education Network
- Informal Education Homepage; A Brief Introduction to Holistic Education
- Jackson, Robin. Holistic Special Education: Camphill Principles and Practice. Edinburgh: Floris Books. 2006.
- Alternatives in Education: An Exploration of Learner-Centered, Progressive, and Holistic Education. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New Orleans, LA, April 1–5, 2002).
- Map of all major contributors in holistic education with influences
- Paths of Learning, Holistic Education Research