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Clifford Mayes’ Holistic Teaching: Revolutionizing the American Classroom

Imagine education that makes you a better human being. Imagine education that enriches you in ways that you and those around you become more empowered and unique in goodness. That kind of education is consistent with the gospel. “But how do you transfer those principles to the public classroom setting?” Clifford Mayes asked himself this challenging question before he began writing his upcoming book Five Dimensions of Holistic Teaching: Elements of a Nurturing Pedagogy.

“I wanted to apply the broad spiritual, ethical, holistic, literary, rich images and impulses of the gospel narrative to what goes on in the classroom. If teachers could learn how to do that, they could teach in a way that is spiritual without having to say one specifically religious thing at all; they could learn how to teach in a way that their students could call them blessed in the next life,” said Mayes.

The book is intended to revolutionize the way teachers teach in the modern classroom by arguing for and demonstrating holistic teaching strategies that target current problems in standardized education programs.

Holistic teaching is based on theoretical constructs that examine the many dimensions of an individual. Mayes describes in his book how teachers and educators need to be aware of and address what he labels as the five dimensions of students in the classroom: the organic, psychodynamic, cultural, cognitive, and ethical.

  1. Organic. Students are physical beings, so to create classrooms that do not respond to children’s physical needs creates a setting where they will physically act out. Mayes explains how all kids have physical needs that cannot be ignored in the classroom. Various students come to class with embodied trauma: physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, also drug abuse, poverty, etc. Teachers need to be aware of their students’ physical dimension and ensure that the classroom is a physically nurturing place.
  2. Psychodynamic. Mayes explains how a student’s perception of his learning capability is directly tied to how he feels about himself as an individual. Mayes describes how teachers can accidentally or intentionally damage a student’s psychological self-perception. For example, a teacher may let one student know that she is a strong learner, but let another student know, directly or indirectly, that he is less capable. The first student may leave the classroom with boosted confidence, but the second will leave with a loss in self-esteem. “What you want to focus on as a teacher is not building up false self-esteem, but real self-esteem. This means teachers must seek to understand their students’ capabilities, because every student has capabilities. Some of those just require more digging to find,” Mayes says.
  3. Cultural. Teachers must understand that different cultures look at learning and teaching in different ways. Cultures differ in what is appropriate or inappropriate to say, what tests mean, what teacher-student interaction means, and what education itself means. “These are cultural differences that need to be attended to in order to nurture the whole student,” Mayes explains. “What may work for one student doesn’t necessarily work for another. The key for teachers is to learn to be aware of these differences and to accommodate them if possible.”
  4. Cognitive. Mayes explains how current education programs focus most heavily on the cognitive dimension of the student, but not in the right way. Standardized testing and assessment agendas for education are not truly interested in preparing creative thinkers who can synthesize lots of ideas. “Creativity requires a lot of courage; it requires what is called a tolerance of ambiguity,” Mayes says. “Current standardized approaches to education inherently hide from ambiguity and focus solely on teaching students to reproduce rigid answers on a test—a performance not authentic to the individual. And what do students do with this memorized data? What any sane person would do: forget it as soon as the test is over.” Teachers who strive to serve the cognitive dimension of their students should aim to develop creative, critical thinkers who can challenge ideas with arguments of their own—not memorized arguments ingrained in them by a teacher.
  5. Ethical. Students often ask themselves reflective questions: Where did I come from? What are the things that have happened in my life? Where am I now, and where am I headed? “Those questions make up a story—a narrative—of who we are,” Mayes remarks. “I think the ultimate purpose of education should be to enrich each student’s unique, individual narrative by helping her come to understand herself better and become increasingly adept at acting in responsibility and charity.” Teachers trying to respond ethically to their students should engage students in rich conversation, which can change and shape all members in the classroom, including themselves.

“When you deal with and are sensitive to each student as a whole being, that is when real education begins to take place, in the profound sense of it—education that enriches the individual as an individual, that also makes the individual a complete person worthy of living in a democracy,” Mayes believes.

The book describes the five theoretical teaching domains, including a practical classroom application for each. Mayes praises Ellen Williams, his co-author, for the classroom application sections: “I lay out the theory and argue for it, and she shows how teachers can do it in the classroom. I am more excited about this book than any of my others because it brings theory and practice together so well.”

Clifford Mayes is a professor in the EDLF department. His background in English, psychology, and cultural studies influences much of his research in developing deeper ways of thinking about and enacting the mystery of teaching and learning. In addition to Five Dimensions, Mayes has another book coming out this year: The Archetypal Hero’s Journey in Teaching and Learning: The Pedagogical Uses of Myth. Ellen Williams is a professor in EDLF who has served as a teacher, principal, district officer, and district superintendent.

5 July 2010