So why would we want to approach or look at things holistically? The simple answer is: because nature is structured holistically. New science takes this into consideration. Members of organisations like IONS or others now look for a more holistic science approach. A scientist-friend of mine recently wrote me in an email about it:
"The emphasis in old style reductionist science was to try to explain everything by reducing it to smaller and smaller parts. Moreover, it was based on the assumption that the smallest parts of all, the atoms, or the subatomic particles, are dead, inert and without any form of consciousness—and that the whole of nature is governed by changeless laws which are totally without purpose.
In the holistic model there is much more emphasis on the way that at different levels of complexity nature is organized into what we could call organisms—cells, tissues, organs, societies—and that at each of these levels there's a wholeness which can't be reduced to the sum of the parts. This means that we both respect the different levels of organization in nature without trying to reduce them, and also regard nature as in some sense alive, as opposed to being ultimately reducible to particles of matter that are dead."
Holistic approaches are ultimately more stable, balanced and sustainable because they consider the whole. Look at a wild forest and compare it to a landscaped park.
I recently walked through the orchards next to where I am living and saw the rows of trees there. All aligned in perfect order.
Slowly, more and more people realize that we hit the wall with all the standardized systems and programs we have created to maximise productive outcome in our human societies. Like in monoculture orchards, it works at the beginning, however it is not sustainable practice and after a while the resources are depleted and the productive outcome can only be maintained by a high energy input from the outside (e.g. spraying, fertilizing, etc.).
And: all the species involved in the process usually suffer from health and other imbalance issues (depression, aggression, violence, obesity, sleeplessness, frustration). Because we haven’t taken the whole picture into consideration.
I use this metaphor as I think it illustrates nicely what is happening when we school in a monoculture way. Parallely to new epiphanies and insights in the field of agriculture and horticulture such as the permacultural approach or food forests etc., we slowly start to realize that maybe we need to re-form our educational systems as well and take a more holistic approach.
I choose the brain as an example for holistic functioning and to explain why it would also make sense from a neuroscientific perspective to upgrade our current mainstream education.
A) Our brain is made up of many independent modules with different "tasks":
•decode sound and understand speech
•coordinating our limbs
•processing information coming from our skin
•coordinating our vision
All modules work independently. This explains why a person suffering a stroke may lose the ability to speak but still functions in life. The brain isn’t one big supercomputer. Instead each module has its own individual way of functioning and how they affect your behaviour. There are many independent modules responsible for different aspects of our personality as a whole, and not one central place to coordinate and control the different modules forming our personality.
There is one module responsible for planning processes, and another for emotions. All the modules add together, chat together – it’s a quite complex business and often leads to conflicting directions. So, in some ways, our brain faces the same issues as societies, communities, schools, families and everywhere else where different interest groups come together. We need to find an approach that works and brings balance.
Another challenge on the way towards balance is that
B) Not all brain modules run on logic or words
There are brain circuits that run without our awareness, e.g. we don't have to learn how to be thirsty, there are already brain circuits in place to tell us when we need to drink to survive.
C) Unconscious modules
These are modules that we are not aware of. They control our behaviour and our choices without us being able to interfere because we aren’t aware of them in the first place. No matter how great and brilliant our ideas are, we won’t succeed until we become aware of these hidden modules.
It would take too long to go through all or most of our brain modules. So I won’t take an holistic approach here, but only briefly look at two of the main modules:
The Limbic System: oldest module, controls behaviour that was essential for survival (e.g. fear of heights, reproduction, hunger, anger). The LS has a hidden influence that might or might not be relevant in modern life. It is involved in helping us learn and remember because it highlights good things we want to repeat and not so good things that cause harm and need to be avoided. It is an emotional system so it doesn’t respond to logic or rational reasoning. The LS develops early under control by our genes.
The Frontal Lobes: place of the more logical and rational parts of our personality, crucial for decision-making, long-term planning, processing of experiences. If the FL don’t work properly, this leads to all sorts of behavioural issues. (Scans of violent criminals e.g. have shown that often their FL aren’t working correctly.) FL take more than 20 years to develop and are largely "unprogrammed". Whereas the LS is like a prewritten book with not much space for us to add anything, the FL are like an empty notebook, and we can write things in it through our experiences. This means: what we write into this notebook during our formative years is an imprint that has a huge effect on how we live our live!
Because the FL are largely unprogrammed they are the last modules to get wired up in humans. This partly explains why teenagers sometimes seem to be “irresponsible”: their FL circuits aren’t developed enough to control their crazy urges.
(Research source amongst others: Dr. Kerry Spackman)
So how is this relevant for education?
"If we grow powerful circuits that connect our FL with our LS then we will rise wise, kind and intelligent people: people who can experience their emotions but are not controlled irrationally by them." (Dr. Spackman)
Wouldn’t it make sense to include this knowledge in the planning of curriculums and school settings?
Our brain modules and the circuits that connect them are formed mainly during the first 20-25 years of our life.
The good news is: We can learn and influence how to wire or rewire all our brain modules!
I think it is high time to include current insights and knowledge in modern mainstream education, because our life performance and success (= balance & happiness) depend on how our brain modules interact with each other and how we develop them. And: we need to take into consideration that each of us is naturally wired differently because of our genes and that each module responds in a different way to different training exercises and experiences.
Our first 20 formative years are crucial for the set-up of our personality and our attitude towards life.
This is the period in our life when we usually spent most of our time in educational institutions. So-called education providers have a huge responsibility and also a huge potential to support and to help grow balanced personalities.
There are "windows of opportunities" when different regions or modules of our brain are activated and open to learn certain things. For instance, if a newborn doesn't receive visual stimulation from our eyes during the first year of our life, we will be blind. There is a language window that is most receptive until the age of 12. That is why it is more difficult to learn a language after that than before.
There is heaps more to say and there are amazing new discoveries every day. The main point I want to make is:
The first 20 odd years in our life define how we live our life later on.
This brings me to the question:
What are our goals with education?
One answer could be: education shall prepare us for leading a successful life. Definition of "successful" = balanced, happy, fulfilled, healthy.
Does current education do that? Are our current goals still compatible with old paradigm settings and structures?
The old paradigm’s goal was mainly to educate a well-functioning workforce, not independent creative thinkers & creators.
Are we achieving our goals optimally with the current existing structures?
From my own experience and observation in schools over the last 25 years, I think we need to explicitly redefine some goals and look at the opportunities we are missing with the current mainstream set-up and also become aware of the imbalances we are facing within the system at the moment. The students can be our guides on this journey. They show us what works and what not!
Some opportunities we are missing are:
Instead of opening up and integrating new ideas, latest research findings and knowledge, we mostly hold onto old structures and repeat the same-old same-old. Hans-Peter Duerr, a German physicist and member of The World Future Council, said to me a couple of years ago (!): "Most of current physic books in schools are outdated, teaching old stuff and all the new exciting findings aren’t shared with the students." In October 2002, I was part of an international conference (Unity in Duality, Munich) where leading scientists, politicians, new age people, shamans, religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama and journalists met to share their insights and knowledge. It was an amazing gathering and organisations like IONS, or the Club of Budapest, or the World Wisdom Council and many more follow up on this, making links, networking and spreading exciting information. Where is this in schools?
Mainstream education focuses on physical & intellectual programming, curriculum prescribes what is good and needs to be achieved. There is usually no individual diversity considered within one subject.
If we want to prepare and support young people to become self-responsible and balanced adults, we need to share not only the latest intellectual information but also other important life skills. E.g. how to balance emotions, develop empathy, cooperation, communication skills, etc.
Our memory and imagination skills aren’t exercised when we only accept and reward work that fits into boxes of achievement standards and ask students to repeat pre-concepts and thoughts that others have thought before them – there are studies which link the lack of memory and imagination to depression and suicidal tendencies.
There is another study that I find relevant in this regard. Researchers wanted to know the factors of a "happy long life", so they interviewed 2000 100-year-olds. The conclusion of this study:
Factors for a long happy life
· Exocentric personality
· Have and pursue a passion
· Ability to overcome disappointment
Notice: These are all mind-related factors!
If one of the goals of education is to prepare us for a happy balanced life, why don’t we include mindfulness exercises, visualization and other tools in our curriculums?
The other day I saw a postcard with the writing:
Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.
We tend to underestimate the power of our mind and our beliefs on our lives. Neuroscientist Dr. Kerry Spackman writes: "Because of the way our brains work, even demonstrably false beliefs acquired through our formative years (roughly 5-20) are remarkably immune to contrary evidence."
In schools, I meet a lot of people, young and old, who aren’t happy. I hear a lot of “I am not good at this” – “I can’t do this”. I talk with students who think of themselves as failures or not good enough in educational terms. We focus on what’s missing (achievement standards, marks, assessments) instead of fostering a can-do-attitude. Already good old John Lennon sang: Who do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are!
Education can support and nourish self-confidence and an unshakable belief in self so that true potential can be fulfilled.
New pathways will open when we shift from creating a standardised workforce to supporting diverse self-responsible individuals who cooperate and co-create. In my view, this would relieve all involved: teachers, students, parents, policy makers and be hugely beneficial for future communities.
There is a lot more to say about how we can concretely support our development, not only of our brain, but holistically as individual people forming communities which are linked to all other life forms. My main focus lies on bringing back the balance and sharing tools to enable others to balance themselves. If you are interested to learn more about how to – please, get in touch.
It’s up to us – what do we want?