Whole Systems Learning

An alternative to simply doing more
of what has been inadequate in the past

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 25
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

WE STAND at a point in time from which we can review the wisdom and the skills of all human history in every culture of the world. We have at hand the technology to identify the minutest secretion of chemicals in the brain as well as the chemical composition of immense nebulae. Yet somehow, with all this accumulated wisdom and technology, we are failing to utilize what we know to educate human beings as fully as possible. The development of human capacities has fallen painfully far behind our technological progress, as the current plight of our planet attests.

In the past year innumerable committees and commissions have bemoaned the crisis in educational systems in our country. We have been bombarded with statistics and test scores indicating decline in achievement and with horror tales illustrating breakdown in discipline. Recommendations for remedy have been mostly variations on a theme of "back to basics," stronger discipline, more "time on task," longer school days, and a longer school year. The focus, it would appear, is on raising test scores at any cost. "Sit still, keep quiet and try harder" is the message being broadcast.

It is in fact quite possible to teach the basics and raise test scores by spending more time on drill and rote learning, and it appears at present that many educators and school systems are taking these recommendations as mandates to do so, despite what this emphasis may do to the human spirit. Yet we need to ask, are children "cups to be filled" or "candles to be lit"? Does this kind of emphasis develop the higher order thinking skills, creativity, and ability to deal with complex issues that our world so needs, or does it instead dampen the highest qualities of individuals?

At this time of change and uncertainty in the educational system, we need to have a clear understanding of the directions we could go before we commit ourselves to simply more of what has been inadequate in the past. Generally speaking, much of the education in our country has focused on a very narrow range of teaching and learning strategies, with major emphasis on the verbal, either spoken or written. Problem-solving, to the extent it is dealt with at all, has focused on verbal and mathematical strategies – which are only part of the array human beings are capable of employing.

To go beyond this, we need to look carefully at the information that has been emerging in recent years from the new field of Cognitive Science. Brain/mind research, learning styles research, and related approaches are all leading to a radically new vision of what is possible in educational systems. Perhaps most significantly, this research is generating diverse methods that are successfully helping individuals at every age and ability level to learn the most basic skill of all – learning how to learn.

Many of the "whole systems" teaching/learning processes are not new, but in fact go back to the times of the ancient Greeks and Chinese. What is new is that current research gives a clearer picture of processes related to brain development, function, and learning, and helps us to see how all these processes fit together into a meaningful whole. This information also provides some insights as to what might lead to the fuller development and integration of the brain, mind and body systems. There is substantial evidence to show that active learning involving not only the mind, but all of the senses and the body in positive, stimulating experiences, results in faster learning which is more apt to be stored in long- term memory. Thereby as well, richer context for further learning is developed.

Multisensory learning includes, for example, visual- spatial processes, such as mind-mapping and clustering; relaxing or energizing physical exercises coordinated with deep breathing, such as Tai Chi; physical manipulation of concrete objects such as Cuisinaire rods and models; imagination exercises, such as guided imagery and visualization; as well as learning any subject through any of the arts.

During the past four decades, I have personally experienced the effectiveness of multisensory learning processes. When I was just out of college, I was asked to teach a 4th grade class at the Bush School in Seattle using Creative Drama throughout the curriculum. It didn’t seem particularly remarkable to me at the time that my students were writing ten to fifteen page papers unassigned. Creative energy flowed throughout each day, charging the students with motivation, curiosity, and a love of learning.

The following year, several of us toured Washington State teaching University of Washington Extension Classes geared to remotivating tired teachers through demonstrating how the creative arts could be used to spark learning in every subject in the curriculum. It worked and worked well!

In the 1950s, I was Director of the Seattle Creative Activities Center, an integrated arts program for children. We danced our stories, sang our paintings, and created plays from our lives. Patterns of creativity merged with reality to help us all, teachers and children, to see, hear, and feel more vividly – literally to become more present to our lives. Quite often I would come home afterwards and spend hours working on mathematics, just like the students who kept on going after school on creative projects such as writing novels.

It is clear that once creative juices start to flow, they reach pervasively to every part of one’s being. Even without specific focus on cognitive achievement, there is something in the creative process that results in bringing about major cognitive leaps, to say nothing about meaningful learning of many basic skills.

Time and again during these years, as I have found successful experiential ways to teach different subjects at different grade levels, I have been depressed to see well-meaning educators take the first whack in any budget cut at art, music, dance and drama. First things first, after all! Students must learn to read and write and compute! Yet in eliminating the arts as primary experiential ways of learning, we remove the only ways some children can learn effectively, as well as ways that all children can deepen, enrich, and integrate learning into the very fabric of their being.

Until recently, there was not much that those of us who knew, from experience, the importance of multimodal learning could do to overcome the attitude that arts and creative programs were frills. We lacked hard evidence, but fortunately the research of the past few years has changed all that.

In 1978, I attended the Education Conference of the World Future Society in Minneapolis. I heard there, for the first time, Dr. Jean Houston, director of the Foundation for Mind Research in New York, and author of The Possible Human, published last year. She has studied for some twenty years the thinking and being of such remarkable individuals as Margaret Mead and Buckminister Fuller, as well as outstanding creative thinkers in the fields of physics, music, the graphic arts, dance, philosophy, and the social sciences. At the conference, she spoke of examining the common denominators in their thinking processes. She spoke of seeking as well the common denominators in their backgrounds that had led to their remarkable development. It appeared that whether their backgrounds were deprived or highly nurturing, they all had developed at an early age an intense relationship with their environment, exploring it in every way through all their senses. Their intellect was characterized by an ability to think in different modalities – images, music, spatial configurations. They all experienced a remarkable synthesis between external knowing and interior processes, characterized by a very real sense of context.

Dr. Houston also spoke at that meeting of the remarkable new information emerging from the cognitive sciences, especially brain/mind research dealing with hemispheric specialization and the very special functions of the "new" and "old" parts of the brain, particularly the facilitating and inhibiting functions of the R-Complex (reptilian) and Limbic System (mammalian) on higher order thinking processes handled by the Cerebral Cortex. This information clearly gave clues to understanding the relationship between creative, multisensory learning in a positive climate and the cognitive leaps that often result.

At that point I was filled with eagerness to know everything I could find related to brain/mind research and learning. Because there seemed to be no one place to study what I wanted to learn, the years since then have been spent meeting with, corresponding with and bringing to Seattle researchers and educators from many different parts of our own and foreign countries.

Four years ago, Sue Leskinen, Joan Oates and I formed New Horizons For Learning as an educational resource network to synthesize and communicate brain/mind research and models of application to learning through our newsletter and workshops. This year we became an international human resources network with members in many different professions all over the United States and in many foreign countries. We regularly receive reports from teachers, parents and corporate trainers on how much faster, more effectively and more happily learning takes place when the whole being is engaged in the learning process.

Yet this is just a beginning. We can glimpse what is possible by looking at the Intelligence Project in Venezuela. Last February I had an opportunity to visit this project which has developed an eclectic model of education utilizing many processes that engage simultaneously the mind, body, and spirit in learning, and is now making these approaches available to the whole population of that nation. The project was initiated in 1978 by Dr. Luiz Alberto Machado. I had a chance to meet him at the World Future Society Conference mentioned earlier just after he had been appointed by the President of Venezuela as the world’s first Minister for the Development of Human Intelligence.

My first visit in Caracas was to the largest maternity hospital in Venezuela, the Palazio Concepcion, where education begins on the first day of life. There I saw volunteers empowering new mothers with the understanding that what they do from the very beginning will make a profound difference in the lives of their children. They are introduced to the fact that even though their babies cannot yet speak, they are intelligent human beings, who can understand and communicate in complex ways. The mothers see beautiful videotapes introducing them to the concepts of neonatal care, nurture, and sensitive stimulation. They are encouraged to learn ways to help their children to develop their capacities to the fullest extent possible through playfully and tenderly stimulating the development of touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight from Day One on.

The learnings at the hospital are reinforced by five- minute television spots on "laying the foundations of intelligence," which are broadcast as public service announcements on all four television channels twenty times every day! Resource centers in the community offer ongoing information to families who return regularly to learn ways to stimulate the development of the children appropriate to their age and level of maturity. The children who have experienced this program seem to be remarkably different from other children, even in the same family. They are more curious, more eager to learn, better adjusted emotionally.

At three, children are introduced to the Visual Learning program developed by Parisian graphic artist, Jacob Agam, who believes that training in visual perception can lay the foundations for effective learning. In the preschool program, children experience, learn to identify, generalize from, and create their own interpretations of basic shapes and primary colors. It’s Bloom’s Taxonomy at age three! This visual training apparently not only lays the foundations for eye-hand skills and learning in general, but it also has remarkable effects on the ability to gain a sense of perspective earlier than usual, which is related to the ability to conceptualize.

Jacob Agam has since extended his program throughout elementary school and into high school. In a pilot program in the schools of Israel, many non- learners are for the first time having success in learning to learn through this method.

Venezuelan children are taught to play chess at age seven. Interestingly, this is about the time the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibers which connects the two hemispheres of the brain) completes its development and is thus fully able to transmit information back and forth between the analytic- sequential left hemisphere and the visual-spatial right hemisphere. The children are also taught how to apply the problem-solving strategies learned at the chess-board to problems in home, school and community. A ten-point rise in I.Q. has been recorded in pilot programs as a result of this program alone.

In Venezuelan schools, along with the basic subjects and skills, the creative arts are integrated into the curriculum, with special emphasis on music. Other important components are Dr. Edward de Bono’s thinking and problem-solving strategies, Dr. Reuven Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment program for teaching "intelligence" which relies on visual-spatial and abstract processes and has had remarkable success with teaching non-learners and even raising I.Q.’s of students with genetic defects, and a special project in teaching thinking skills designed by Dr. David Perkins at Harvard. The program continues through high school, and a requirement for graduation is for seniors to teach what they have learned to the lower socioeconomic groups living in the barrios.

A special training program for university professors has been developed to teach them how to ask thought-provoking questions! For the adult population, twenty half-hour television programs have been developed to offer "The Tools of Thinking." Recently, labor union employees of an aluminum plant negotiated a contract with their company guaranteeing them on-going training in intelligence.

Impressive statistics are being compiled on the success of the Intelligence Project, and the information on the methods is available to any country for the asking. At a special symposium in the fall of 1982, which drew leaders from around the world, Dr. Machado noted in his opening address that "the history of humanity has been filled with conflicts, provoked by frustrations and injustices, by the refusal of man to be allowed access to the development of all his creative potential. The experiment with which we are laying solid foundations for this slippery and aloof peace that man seeks after with hope and at times desperation, is the same one that we are advancing and that we would like to share with all the nations of the world."

As a result of the recent election of a new President in December, Dr. Machado has been replaced by a member of the new party in office; however, it is a tribute to his success that the Intelligence Project will continue. Dr. Machado will likewise continue his research and is now free to spread what he has learned more widely throughout the globe.

The Venezuelan Intelligence Project is only one example of many programs developed around the world that are effectively helping people grow into more of their full potential. Surely we need now to look carefully at how to put together these already existing, piloted, and evaluated processes into a whole new strategy for education. Knowledge of facts and skills is only the beginning of what we need to learn, and these can be learned in more meaningful, faster, and more efficient ways than are now in general use. Intellectual and cognitive education from the eyebrows up is also not enough. We must involve the whole human being in the learning process if the world is to be able to count on citizens who can think with their hearts as well as their minds to solve the complex dilemmas we face today. It is high time we begin to develop all the intelligences we have within, often lying fallow, or worse yet, unacknowledged or demeaned.

Dee Dickinson is the coordinator for New Horizons for Learning (PO Box 51140, Seattle, WA 98115) and vice president of the International Association of Accelerative Learning. She also designed and is helping to coordinate the international conference on education, "The Education Explosion", that will be held at the Tarrytown Conference Center in New York this summer which will bring together many of the pioneers, like Dr. Luiz Machado and Dr. Jean Houston, who are putting this new vision of education into practice.

Memberships in New Horizons for Learning are $15 per year and include a subscription to "On The Beam", the NHFL newsletter, as well as other benefits.