Whole-Learner Approaches are Key to Student Success

By Deborah Smolover

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, schools across the country continue to face monumental challenges — from providing safe and supportive learning environments, to adopting effective remote and hybrid education models, to addressing the needs of children affected by illness, economic hardship, and trauma. Faced with these challenges, old tools are no longer sufficient. To address the profound effects of COVID-19 on our nation’s students — and to make our education system more equitable for children facing entrenched barriers to healthy learning and development — schools must embrace innovative, comprehensive, whole-learner approaches to education that emphasize not only academic achievement, but also the broad range of skills that young people need to adapt, grow, and thrive.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, existing inequities in educational access, outcomes, and supports — from the digital divide, to learning loss, to food insecurity — have only deepened. Today, 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. Experts anticipate that the current crisis will result in dramatic learning loss, particularly for Black and brown students. One study from McKinsey and Company predicts that: “The average student could fall seven months behind academically, while Black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses, equivalent to 10 months for Black children and nine months for Latinos.” And many students are experiencing mounting trauma and stress as they lose family members to the virus, their parents lose jobs, and they face food and housing insecurity and the fear of falling ill themselves. While the virus may be new, the disparities it has laid bare are not.

The COVID-19 crisis demands rapid adaptation to meet the scale of the academic, social, and emotional challenges confronting students and families. Effective solutions must include innovative approaches that address the needs of the whole learner. These ‘whole-learner’ approaches to education (whether in person or virtual) are defined by an intentional focus on the interwoven development of cognitive, physical, social, creative, and emotional skills. There is no single pedagogical approach to the development of these skills. What is critical is that every learner feels engaged, is able to contextualize what is being taught, has the chance to iterate, is able to work collaboratively with others, and feels motivated to continue exploring. These types of learning experiences not only set the stage for greater academic progress (which is especially essential in the face of potentially enormous learning loss), they also help students develop the resilience, self-belief, and communication skills necessary to overcome the challenges they face — in the context of COVID-19 and beyond.

The responsibility for implementing effective whole-learner approaches cannot fall solely on either school systems or families. Policymakers and external partners have a vital role to play in providing the resources and expertise to ensure that educators have the support they need to develop effective whole-learner approaches, and that students and families have access to the tools and the safe, supportive learning environments they need to participate fully. In ongoing debates about Federal COVID-19 relief efforts and dialogues about longer-term legislative action, lawmakers now have the opportunity to move substantial educational resources to states and individual communities, to support robust partnerships between school systems and high-quality external partners, and to create the conditions for sustainable innovation that supports all learners.

And while whole-learner approaches are critically needed at this moment, the holistic approaches we develop now cannot be discarded once the public health and economic crises have abated. Before the pandemic struck, students, educators, school systems, policymakers, external partner organizations, and families were already confronting deeply embedded racial and socioeconomic inequities in our education system. Existing approaches that prioritize narrow definitions of student success limit the opportunity for the type of deeply engaging, personalized, iterative learning experiences necessary to reach the diversity of learners in every classroom. As a result, opportunity and skills gaps continue to widen, individuals, families, and communities miss out on massive unrealized potential, and our country faces serious challenges to its social health and economic competitiveness.

COVID-19 has laid bare the deep inequities in our education system — and across our communities. It has created challenges unprecedented in their scope, complexity, and urgency. But in responding to this crisis, we also have the opportunity to embrace a more holistic, whole-learner approach to education that not only helps students weather the academic, social, and emotional impacts of the crisis, but creates a more equitable, dynamic education system that prepares every learner to thrive — in school and in life.

Deborah Smolover is the Executive Director of America Forward and a Managing Partner at New Profit. You can read more about America Forward’s Advancing Whole-Learner Education initiative here.

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