The Whole Child Movement: A Journey Between Two Nations
I have often been asked about the differences between teaching in the United States and Canada. That's often a difficult question to answer because I now consider both countries "home" and doing so often elicits a predictable follow-up question of which education system is better. This post is not an attempt to rank one over the other, as education systems between countries will have to be different to meet the needs of their given communities.
However, no matter where we are located in the world, we see in our own classrooms the practice of compare and contrast. Doing this work with our students can elicit powerful reflections about complex ideas. Having had the experience of being a teacher in both settings, and most recently as an administrator in Canada, reflecting on both the similarities and differences between the two countries has provided me with a more comprehensive picture of what can work well in education.
Whole Child Work as a Common Practice Around the World
Without a doubt, there are many schools and districts in both the United States and Canada that are already practicing or moving toward implementing the Whole Child Tenets (PDF) of each child being healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. However, the whole child movement would not be necessary if these tenets were, in fact, integrated in all schools around the world.
Much has been discussed in education circles about Carol Dweck's growth and fixed mind-sets. In fact, a whole child approach to education requires an adoption of a mind-set that prioritizes individual growth and well-being—a lens that educators around the world must consistently look through and apply in their day-to-day work.
What Does a Whole Child Approach Look Like in Action?
ASCD's 2013 Whole Child Virtual Conference featured a variety of educators around the world sharing their work with students. In particular, I took great interest in listening to the stories of the Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award-winning schools, both the 2013 recipient and previous awardees. Their stories echo similar themes of schools practicing a whole child approach both north and south of the border. While there is no one recipe for success, the following themes are common in all practicing whole child schools:
- The first priority in the school is developing relationships.
- The primary role of the faculty and staff is as a caring and supportive adult.
- Schools are seen as spaces to create opportunities for their students.
- Partnerships with the home and external community are critical.
- A strong culture based on collaboration and growth prevails.
- A strong vision exists in working for the common good of each student.
The Need for ALL Levels of Education to Work Within a Whole Child Mind-set
From my point of view, the biggest difference between the U.S. and Canadian teaching experience is how a whole child approach is supported beyond individual schools and in upper levels of the education system.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Education (similar to a state department of education) is working to embody the whole child vision both in curriculum and in policies. In other words, whole child work is embedded within the ministry's vision and identified priorities. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Education has focused on the following initiatives in recent years:
- Safe and Accepting Schools focus on positive school climate, as well as preventing bullying and harassment;
- Healthy Schools focus on daily physical activity, nutrition, and creating a supportive social environment in schools; and
- Open Minds, Healthy Minds focuses on mental health and addictions.
In fact, the Ontario Ministry of Education's most recent focus will ultimately lead to some changes in our provincial curriculum to ensure a better understanding of mental health issues for students.
The importance of this is that the vision of working toward full implementation of the Whole Child Tenets is not left up to individual schools or even districts. "Whole child" is a lens incorporated in all levels of education. This vision is passed on to districts and schools, setting the tone for this important work to be embedded in all schools.
Providing a Framework, Not All the Answers
While some ministry policies are rather prescriptive in what should be implemented, these policies are often passed down to boards and school administrations in language that notes overall outcomes to achieve. This allows districts and schools the opportunity to work on this in a way that is congruent to the needs of their specific community.
An example of this is that the ministry requires every publicly funded school to conduct a school-climate survey every other year. The survey is administered to students, parents, and staff. The results must be analyzed by the Safe and Accepting School Team to implement strategies for the school's improvement plan. While the steps to obtain such information and what to do with the information is clearly noted by the Ministry of Education, districts and schools have the ability to determine the priorities in the data and how it will then be used to influence individual school efforts.
The value of this is that the ministry provides a framework for what is required, but districts and schools still have the autonomy to determine how these policies will unfold in their schools.
The Importance of Triangulation: Standardized Tests Are Just One Part of the Picture
Standardized testing in Canada looks very different than in the United States, both in frequency and how it is used. In Ontario, students are given the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests in grades 3, 6, and 9. Grades 3 and 6 students take tests in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. Grade 9 students take a mathematics test and Grade 10 students take the provincial literacy test, which they must pass to receive their diploma.
While even in our province amongst educators you will see varying reactions to these tests and their uses, the test results themselves are not used in the ways that we have witnessed in various states. Ideally, the test results are used by school administrators to assess school academic needs and supports, and by teachers to better understand where their students are in their learning. These results are used in combination with other data sources for further learning about our practices. In fact, even the school inspections conducted by the Ministry of Education, emphasize the triangulation of multiple sources of data.
The lesson here is that standardized tests are only a small portion of the Canadian student's educational experience and are used with other sources of information to guide how we can further help our students.
Why Are These Differences Important?
Many school administrators say that what you pay the most attention to becomes the priority of the school. If we truly want the Whole Child Tenets as a foundation for every school, this must be placed as a priority across all levels of education. In addition, schools and districts must be encouraged to develop a balanced view of student data and given the autonomy to take the steps necessary for change in their given contexts. In taking these three steps, we ensure that a whole child approach to education becomes the standard, not the exception.
Dawn Imada Chan is a freelance education consultant from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader. She has taught in both the public and independent school systems in the United States and Canada. She was also a principal of a nonprofit, social justice-based school in Canada and will be returning to a school leadership role in the public system in the fall. Connect with Chan on Twitter @dawnchan.