What’s What in Education? №8 Probabilistic Epigenesis
Professor: What? Yes, you heard me correctly. Probabilistic Epigenesis!
Students: Grumbling and squirming in their seats.
Professor: Okay. Perhaps you would prefer the more commonly used term, Whole-Child Development.
There is a movement afoot in the U.S. education community that has received a good amount of positive response from prestigious Universities, research organizations, think tanks, and educators. It centers on a holistic view of children and how they learn. You may have seen, for example, A Blueprint for Whole-Child Education, which describes five individual components:
- Positive Developmental Relationships
- Environments Filled with Safety and Belonging
- Rich Learning Experiences and Pathways
- Intentional Development of Critical Skills, Mindsets, and Habits
- Integrated Systems of Support
TURNAROUNDUSA is an organization that promotes a Whole Child Design Blueprint, based on five related, but not identical practices. They encourage all classrooms, schools and systems to:
- Start with a shared vision and commitment.
- Create a context full of safety and belonging.
- Shift to developmental relationships — among teachers, students, leaders, and community — as the foundation.
- Set students up for success by integrating knowledge, skill and mindset development.
- Engage in transformational change together through shared leadership and ownership.
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a professional organization held in high regard by teachers and administrators, created a Whole Child Initiative and subscribes to five Whole Child Tenets, as follows:
- Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
- Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
- Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
- Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
- Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.
As you have seen, there are a few differences in how Whole Child Development is defined, but many shared beliefs and values. If you are interested in the topic and I hope you are), I would recommend two foundational documents.
First, published in 2018, Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success written by Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey. To highlight a few of their key points, consider the following insights. They state:
A summary of the research from neuroscience, developmental science, and the learning sciences points to the following foundational principles.
Development is malleable. The brain never stops growing and changing in response to experiences and relationships. The nature of these experiences and relationships matters greatly to the growth of the brain and the development of skills.
Variability in human development is the norm, not the exception. The pace and profile of each child’s development is unique.
Human relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning. Supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults are foundational for healthy development and learning. Positive, stable relationships can buffer the potentially negative effects of even serious adversity.
Adversity affects learning — and the way schools respond matters. Each year in the United States, 46 million children are exposed to violence, crime, abuse, or psychological trauma, as well as homelessness and food insecurity. Experiencing these types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) creates toxic stress that affects attention, learning, and behavior.
Learning is social, emotional, and academic. Emotions and social relationships affect learning. Positive relationships, including trust in the teacher, and positive emotions — such as interest and excitement — open up the mind to learning.
Children actively construct knowledge based on their experiences, relationships, and social contexts. Students dynamically shape their own learning. Learners compare new information to what they already know in order to learn. This process works best when students engage in active, hands-on learning, and when they can connect new knowledge to personally relevant topics and lived experiences.
To their credit, the authors go on to provide lots of classroom relevant detail and action examples in discussing these six elements in greater detail. It is a valuable resource.
Second, I would strongly recommend Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving: A Dynamic Systems Approach, published online by Cambridge University Press in 2021 and authored by Pamela Cantor, Richard M. Lerner, Karen J. Pittman, Paul A. Chase and Nora Gomperts. Having read other work by Pamela Cantor, I believe she is the driving force behind this initiative. In this book the authors call for a complete transformation of American education, based on years of research and the collective experience of education professionals. One of the most significant statements in the book is contained in a quote:
“Relationships are the precursors for learner engagement, competency development, and mastery of domain-specific knowledge, motivation, higher-order problem-solving skills, and ultimately, academic growth (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006).”
The authors make a strong case for the need to address equity issues in schools by using the knowledge we now have available to overcome institutional forces that created and maintained practices that have done great harm to minority students for over 400 years. They are not suggesting minor variations or tinkering with what we currently have. “A broad base of scientific evidence supports the case for a profound shift in the assumptions and practices that dominated 20th century education (emphasis added).”
Here are some examples of what Pamela Cantor has identified as evidence-based concepts about learning:
Contexts — relationships, environments, and experiences in and out of school — are the primary determinants of learning and development.
Talents and skills are ubiquitous. Education should be designed to reveal the talents and skills in each child.
There is no such thing as an average child; an average of anything rarely represents any attribute of the individuals being measured.
Mastery of content, competencies, and higher-order thinking skills comes when educators scaffold and teach essential skills and engage each child with challenging, relevant content within the child’s zone of proximal development (i.e., what is challenging but not frustrating) during each period of development.
The potential of a child is not knowable in advance. The purpose of education should be to develop and extend the talents and potential in each child. Human development is a jagged process with peaks and valleys along the way and with additional growth almost always possible.
Student agency and students’ and teachers’ beliefs about intelligence are highly relevant to identity formation.
Adversity can have effects on the neural systems that govern learning and behavior, but with support from caring, trusted adults, these effects are preventable and reversible; children can overcome the effects of adversity and thrive.
This book is easy to read and is filled with classroom relevant ideas, explanations and examples. By the way, I should mention that my title, Probabilistic Epigenesis, refers to the developmental process that is at the center of dynamic systems theory, the approach suggested by the authors. They refer to it briefly, but don’t hammer you with all of the technical elements of brain growth theory!
Hope this offers some light to my readers in what can be dark times these days!
ASCD Whole Child Initiative: http://www.wholechildeducation.org/about/
Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success, 2018, By Linda Darling-Hammond and Channa M. Cook-Harvey https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product files/Educating_Whole_Child_REPORT.pdf
The Whole Child Approach to Education, http://www.wholechildeducation.org/about/
Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving: A Dynamic Systems Approach Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 April 2021 Pamela Cantor, Richard M. Lerner, Karen J. Pittman, Paul A. Chase and Nora Gomperts
Building Blocks for Learning and Whole-Child Development (BBFL) Brooke Stafford-Brizard, primary author
10 Classroom Strategies to Implement Whole Child Instruction, Wednesday, February 5, 2020 https://blog.edmentum.com/10-classroom-strategies-implement-whole-child-instruction
The Power of Positive Relationships: A Primer for Teachers and Mentors Dr. Pamela Cantor, July 25, 2018 https://drpamelacantor.medium.com/?p=3377b7508dcb