UW’s focus on holistic education is reshaping childhood learning

As any teacher will tell you, there’s more to education than just academics. Sure, it’s important to teach students multiplication, how the respiratory system works and that the Norman Conquest occurred in 1066, but the details don’t mean much when students aren’t able to follow the lesson plan or keep up with the rest of the class. In the past, kids who fall behind have long been labeled lazy, slow learners, learning disabled or mentally ill. The University of Washington’s focus on a holistic approach to education, however, may not only keep more children from being left behind; it could also result in better outcomes, especially in inner city schools. The reason is simple, really. Instead of pondering why kids fall behind, the UW’s approach stacks the deck in their favor by looking at the factors that may have unexpected effects on performance, ranging from social and cultural to physical and emotional.

The UW’s effort is so comprehensive that it not only looks at kids from birth through the age of 20, it also covers a wide range of disciplines including psychology, sociology and medicine.

“If you were just looking at this from a disciplinary lens, you would say it’s an academic problem,” says Tom Stritikus, dean of the College of Education at the UW. “When you are interested in solving problems you have to tilt toward an interdisciplinary approach because problems aren’t solved by looking at it from just one discipline.”

The use of neuroscience is a case in point. The discipline plays an important part in research at the Institute For Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) where research focuses on the development of children’s brains and minds through age 5. One of I-LABS’s many projects looks at language acquisition, which is considered a major indicator of a child’s ability to read. At the same time, the institute’s Magnetoencephalograph creates a map of a young child’s brain, which could eventually lead to the ability to diagnose potential disabilities early enough to do meaningful interventions.

You can bemoan that they don’t know [the skill] well enough to demonstrate it. If the child’s not making progress, we need to change how we’re teaching

Ilene Schwartz, Experimental Education Unit director

Such early interventions are the stock and trade of the Experimental Education Unit. The school offers a comprehensive early childhood program that runs from birth through kindergarten for children with and without developmental disabilities. Rather than teach down to students with autism and other developmental disabilities, Director Ilene Schwartz says the program focuses on inclusion and teaching up so that all students will learn the skills they need to succeed across all domains including social, communications, cognitive and academic. Given the wide range of challenges in each classroom, it isn’t always easy to teach the skills, but that doesn’t discourage teachers in the program.

“You can bemoan that they don’t know [the skill] well enough to demonstrate it. If the child’s not making progress, we need to change how we’re teaching,” Schwartz says. Success at the EEU often means more than just a little person’s personal accomplishment. Since the school is also an incubator/research facility, the approaches that work are disseminated throughout the country.

“When I think about what we’re doing with our toddlers, it’s about access. I’m working on a program that can be implemented not just in Seattle, but Moses Lake and Wenatchee and Walla Walla,” Schwartz says. The change may not only mean a difference in the way education works, but also in how people do their jobs.

School psychologists are a good example. Professor Jim Mazza says they’ve expanded their focus from testing and placement to include issues of childhood and adolescent mental health concerns such as noncompliance in the classroom, childhood anxiety and depression.

“If you have a child that’s acting out in the classroom and a teacher keeps kicking him out, he can’t learn,” Mazza says. As part of the new approach, school psychologists consider what other concerns are causing the problem and help the student find coping skills that lead to better results as well as helping the teacher develop strategies to deal with challenging student behavior. “The belief is that the reason some of these kids may not be learning as much [is] because maybe they’re being bullied, maybe they’re depressed or have other mental health concerns. If you can work on the issues that make them feel safer, they’re able to learn more,” Mazza says.

Getting kids prepared to do academic work is just part of the battle, though. Showing them why their lessons are important also makes a difference, according to Phil Bell, director of the UW Institute for Science and Mathematics Education. “We do a lot of work to help students identify how what they are doing relates to their own personal interest,” Bell says, pointing to an early program on health for fifth-graders. The unit asked students to look at what members of their community did to stay healthy or get better when they were ill, introducing them to microbiology in the process. Another more recent effort is an after-school program designed to get young girls in South Seattle interested in earth science by centering on the science of water and how it affects life in Puget Sound.

We are aiming for adaptive transfer, the kind of learning that enables people to apply that learning in novel circumstances in the future.

Walter Parker, College of Education professor

The efforts to connect the dots continue all the way through to college with the Dream Project. The program that pairs college student mentors with high school students does more than just ease the transition to higher education; it’s also helping attract students who might not have considered themselves college material, Director Jenee Myers Twitchell says. In fact, the project that targets students in poorer school districts along the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Tacoma has proven so successful that 65 percent to 88 percent of the Dream Project participants in each school go on to college. That’s compared to the 51 percent from each school that would otherwise opt for higher education.

Academics are also part of the holistic approach. The lessons remain, but how they are taught is being rethought. Elham Kazemi, professor of curriculum and instruction in mathematics education, for example, is helping schools in Seattle change the way they train elementary school teachers. Instead of having them leave the school to attend seminars, Kazemi has encouraged math faculty to meet regularly, plan their lessons together, try them out in a class, analyze student response and then go to another classroom and try again. In addition to encouraging teachers, it also helped improve the overall math performance of students in low-performing schools. High school students taking college level Advanced Placement courses in American History have also benefitted from a UW-initiated redesign.

The change became necessary after school-reform movements successfully pushed to have AP courses opened up to more students in an effort to include more low income students, says Walter Parker, College of Education professor of curriculum and instruction. Although the goal is admirable, Parker describes the courses as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Because the learning was so superficial, many of the students didn’t learn that much about the topic.

“Knowing a lot about a little is not necessarily learning,” Parker says. “We are aiming for adaptive transfer, the kind of learning that enables people to apply that learning in novel circumstances in the future.” The UW’s AP+ team responded with an alternative course that replaced lectures with experiential learning where students participate in a series of five simulations. In the unit on the Supreme Court, the students re-litigate classic court cases. In the project on elections, they play a variety of roles, including candidates, campaign managers and reporters.

Programs like I-LABS, EEU, AP+, the Dream Project and other efforts aren’t just good ideas that are still being developed in the lab. Most have real-world applications that have been tested locally, many in underperforming schools in the area that stretches from Interstate 90 south to the lowlands of Kent, where only two out of every 10 students that start kindergarten will earn a college degree. “That’s very different from many more affluent districts within the region,” says Stritikus. “We think that’s an unconscionable opportunity gap.”

While some may see the numbers as being akin to a glass that’s less than half full, Stritikus views it as an opportunity for higher education to redefine itself. “Our goal,” says Stritikus, “is to improve education locally while serving as a national example of what’s possible when the connection to practice meets rigorous research.”