I’ve just come back from running two teacher education courses for pre-primary and primary teachers and trainers in Malaysia. As well as exploring the concept of holistic learning with delegates on the courses, I had an experience over my free weekend visiting the National Conservation Centre for Elephants near Kuala Lumpur which made me feel closer to understanding holistic learning in practice.
I’ve always liked the topic of elephants (mainly because children do too) and have used them frequently in my teaching, from traditional rhymes, craft activities and stories about elephants with younger children, to texts comparing African and Asian elephants, and report sheets about elephants as endangered animals with upper primary. However, despite knowing things about elephants in a factual way, I’d never experienced elephants in a holistic way until this weekend.
To give a few examples: I was amazed by the intensity of eye contact when you stand close to an elephant, as if they’re really sizing you up and considering you as a possible friend, or not. I was also impressed by the length and layers of some of the elephants’ beautiful eyelashes. Their skilled trunk-eye coordination in continual search for the 100 kilos of food they eat every day is astounding. The sinewy flexibility and delicately targeted suction power of their trunks is remarkable. The way they carefully break open tough trunks of felled banana trees with their feet in order to eat the most tender bits first before other elephants can get them is ingenious. And the hair on their heads, even on the very young, feels spiky and sharp like a hedgehog.
Through rescuing and relocating wild elephants in over 4,000 square kilometres of protected rainforest, the Malaysian National Conservation Centre for Elephants programme combines saving an endangered species with an ecological agenda. The educational, albeit touristy, experience offered to visitors of getting close to the elephants inspires an intense curiosity and interest in all aspects of their psychology and life style, their increasingly destroyed habitat, the reasons for the rescue operations that brought them to the Centre in the first place, and the overall impact the Centre has on the survival of elephants worldwide today.
As I left the Centre to get a bus back to Kuala Lumpur, I couldn’t help reflecting that without the direct multi-sensory contact with the elephants, my interest would probably have been far less intense and the whole experience far less memorable – an analogy for the benefits of holistic learning perhaps?
Holistic learning develops the ‘whole child’. The underlying philosophy is that through engaging children’s hearts, minds and bodies in active, experiential learning, children construct ever-expanding webs of understanding in relation to themselves, others and the world around them. Special importance is given to creating a positive relationship within each child to the overall learning situation. Children are encouraged to explore their feelings and given opportunities to respond in multi-sensory ways. This leads to the development of the imagination and a wide range of cognitive and metacognitive skills. The basic assumption is that learning is more effective when all aspects of the learner are involved.
Getting young children to understand their world and use language in the way I felt I learnt about elephants that day feels a highly rewarding and worthwhile goal.
What are your views? I’d love to hear!
PS Holistic learning is an umbrella term which has a long and rich tradition in education and includes many well-known proponents such as Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner and Paulo Freire to name a few.
The elephant photos are by Hannah Matthews who accompanied me on the trip and made it so much fun.