What Does “Whole Child” Mean to You?

“The only thing that kept me motivated in high school was singing in the choir.” That statement came from a very successful student who landed a scholarship at a top engineering university. Not the AP classes, not being on the championship math team, not competing for valedictorian. No, motivation came from having a chance to perform, to express himself, to use parts of the brain separate from logic and reasoning. In essence, it was the class that gave him a chance to stretch outside of academics.

If top students need the arts to stay motivated, what about those who struggle with math or reading? In all too many schools these “extras” are being cut in the push to get students “on track” with core skills. However, where is the research and common sense that says that a narrow focus will produce better mathematicians and readers? As one 11-year-old who was struggling told me, “With an extra hour of math and one of reading, I don’t get to do anything fun. Not even Spanish.”

Here’s the THREE reasons to push back on such a narrowing of the courses students take in school:

Time on task ≠ output. Check research on productivity in books such as The Pursuit of Perfect (Ben-Shahar) or The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (Schwartz). Even adults can’t work for 60-90 minutes without a substantial break. Why do we think students can? In fact, why do we ignore the evidence of more classroom management problems or even symptoms of ADD and ADHD when we ask them to?

Music, arts, industrial arts, consumer science, physical education, etc., all use other parts of our brains and bodies that allow deductive reasoning and classification areas a chance to rest and get ready for the next round. AND, physical education increases oxygen to the brain, making learning easier. Understanding music improves mathematical ability. These classes allow students with gifts other than logic/reasoning or linguistics to have an hour in the day where they can shine. As Yong Zhao points out in Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, this has been one of our strengths as a nation. Why are we throwing it away?

It wouldn’t have worked for us. Ask any adult to list their favorite classes in junior high and middle school; I’ve done it with teachers, corporate executives, PTO members, and parent groups. The majority will mention band, electronics, cooking, art, gym–not language arts or social studies. Those breaks from academics were where we got to “breathe out”–having a say in our learning and expression–rather than the “breathe in” atmosphere of the academic classrooms where the teacher set the information and products. We all need to put ourselves in the shoes of today’s students and ask, “Would I have been motivated? Could I have excelled with this kind of schedule?”

Or, FOLLOW a student through six hours of math, science, reading and social studies. Are you engaged? Could you do it day after day and absorb what is being taught? It’s usually a sobering exercise for those suggesting that the arts be cut.

Idiocy is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Why do we think that doing more of the same will improve student achievement? Yes, if those extra hours went to innovative conveyance of math and reading skills, we might see different results, but when we think a mere schedule change, rather than instructional changes, will fix underachievement, can we really expect different results?

Money is scarce. Yet worse, the students in schools today won’t have another chance to be a 5th, 8th, or 10th grader. If we don’t allow them the same exploratory opportunities we had, how many will never become who they were meant to be? Who do you know who found their calling in shop class, or learned leadership skills in marching band, or tried a sport in gym class and then joined a team?

It simply can’t be academics without the whole child. We can be more creative. We can say “Yes, there is a way,” and not give up until we find it.

Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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