Personalised and holistic education - a paradox of modern times - Education Matters Magazine
Curriculum, Professional Development

Personalised and holistic education – a paradox of modern times

Shona Bass and Kathy Walker of Early Life Foundations and Walker Learning discuss the inclusion of skills for life in children’s education.  

One of our greatest challenges is to remember the humanity and profundity of what we are all here for and what it is we need to provide for our young children.

Despite current trends in measurement, benchmarking, standardised testing and rankings, we must not lose track of the profound individuality of all children.  This remains one major fundamental reality in all that we do.

We have challenging times in relation to society in general which impacts upon all aspects of our children including:

  • The intrusion of ‘electronic entertainment’ in everyday life,
  • Early sexualisation of children, particularly girls,
  • Exposure of children to experiences and life opportunities earlier and earlier,
  • Overscheduled children,
  • Preoccupation by some with having “bright children”,
  • Cyber bullying,
  • Parenting and educating using extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation, and
  • Focus on outcomes rather that effort and application.

These challenges play out in how children feel about themselves (self-concept), how there is an increased incidence of anxiety occurring in younger and younger children, how children are not willing to take risks for fear of failure, and how they lack resilience and have not developed intrinsically to make decisions because they are right.

Thomas Moore stated: “Education is not the piling on of learning, information, facts, skills or abilities that are training or instruction. Education is making visible what is hidden.”

This type of education is hard to measure and ultimately has no standard or end point. It is embedded in a wisdom, something profound that is difficult if not impossible to articulate.

The contemporary philosopher AC Grayling discusses education in the following way:

“The aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased who think, question, and know how to find answers when they need them. Members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable. The contemporary view of education distorts the purpose of schooling, by aiming not at the development of individual as ends in themselves, but as instruments in the economic process.”

Of course children require instruction of literacy, numeracy and STEM. However, according to many philosophers and commentators, it is the education of the heart, the soul, the development of identity, culture, appreciation of reflection and belonging that is being lost.  We are mindful of how language, such a powerful tool for conveying meaning, has changed so much in relation to education.

As soon as we attempt to measure the success and quality of a teacher or a learner through the narrow lens of some data on a page, we turn the profound humanity of a child into a narrow number on a table that is meaningless and misleading. We turn the deep complexity of a life and learning and experience into the simplicity and narrowness of data points; benchmarks, outcomes, standards, data, testing, ranking.  Instead of using the phrase or expression child-centred learning, we use outcome-driven.  Instead of having goals and objectives for children, we now have benchmarks and standards.

We are faced with a paradox – we now know more about the individual nature of how children learn, their unique personalities, cultural influences, life opportunities (or lack of), and we speak more now about meeting individual needs, early intervention and personalizing learning, but in contradiction we are all being besieged by a data-driven, economic focus of education.

Sustained motivation for learning comes from within. What is essential to foster this intrinsic motivation is not ranking one child against another but the constant reflection of where the child was, where they are now and where they are heading.

What is quality and successful education in 21st Century?

Educators have studied in depth what it means to educate, the complexities of the individual, the influences of culture, brain development, learning styles, the differences in personality and group culture. Yet this professional rigor and integrity are compromised when educators limit themselves or are held to account by the narrowness or biases of the latest trend or government persuasion in how or what to teach and how success is assessed.

Succumbing to these influences results in a loss of the depth of skill and intellect required to teach with deep reflection, using science and evidence-based facts, and providing consistency for students as they move through their education.

All evidence shows that there are two major foci in successful education in the 21st Century:

  • Skills for Life and;
  • Skills for Curriculum


Skills for Life

Skills for Life refers to education for the ‘whole child’. In addition to (not in exclusion to) numeracy, literacy and STEM, successful learners require a myriad of other skills including:

  • Creative, lateral and divergent thinking,
  • Advanced executive functioning skills,
  • Problem solving,
  • Persistence and resilience,
  • Being a successful self-initiator who can navigate the challenges of the world with a strong sense of self, resilience and intrinsic motivation,
  • Being emotionally intelligent, reflective of themselves and others,
  • Being strong and articulate communicators,
  • Risk taking in healthy ways, and
  • To be motivated to make the right choices and decisions in the absence of punishment and reward.

It is predicted that this generation being taught will have on average six different careers and 20 different jobs. Robots will be performing the majority of automated manual tasks and the job market will be characterized by the qualities of what makes us human, or the skills of life.  The irony is that there is so much dialogue and discussion about the importance of holistic education, personalizing learning and developing the skills for life but the reality is that these opportunities are often very tokenistic and “ticked off” through a program or a session on the timetable.

To authentically develop skills for life requires leaders and educators themselves to have well developed skills of life and for education in itself to be viewed as a philosophy and pedagogy that is embedded and integrated in all aspects of a school – in leadership, the classroom, playground, parent communication, assessment and reporting.


Skills for Curriculum

Skills for Life work alongside Skills for Curriculum (literacy, numeracy, the arts, STEM and other curriculum areas), which are placed within the individual interests, collective culture and communities of the children and their families.  Fundamental aspects of this context are:

Knowledge of how children develop neurologically, developmentally and through the influences of culture and family, and

The skills and ability to set up the learning environment – indoor and outdoor learning and places and spaces that reflect a calm yet stimulating range of investigations and places to explore, experiment and learn.


Walker Learning – Personalised and Holistic Learning

Walker Learning is a holistic teaching and learning approach that is developmentally and culturally appropriate for children in early childhood and primary years of education (babies through year 7). Walker Learning is a pedagogy, not a program or tool.

In the early childhood and primary years of education, Walker Learning is designed to provide a balance of explicit teaching of literacy, numeracy, STEM, and other curriculum areas, with time for children to actively investigate a range of skills and experiences for life, either through planned play or projects depending upon their age and stage of maturity.

Walker Learning values, respects and honours the individual child, views the child holistically, and considers emotional and social development of equal importance as academic success. The starting point and emphasis is relationships with a child (and family) and personalising their experiences to set each child up for success.

Neuroscience and developmental psychology are major disciplines that guide Walker Learning’s pedagogical practice.  Brain research states that children require a mix of explicit instruction and active exploration of their environment in learning experiences that reflect their own culture, environment and community so that learning is truly relevant and meaningful.


Shona Bass
Managing Director
Early Life Foundations
Shona is the Managing Director of Early Life Foundations – an organisation that provides professional support across Australia and internationally for educators and parents of children birth to 14 years of age. Shona is renowned within Australia and internationally for her work in the education, medical and health sectors. Shona completed her PhD in the Department of Medicine at the University of Melbourne and was a Professor and Head of School at Deakin University.
Shona has published widely in international peer-reviewed journals and texts and has been the recipient of many national and international research and leadership awards.


Kathy Walker OAM
Patron Early Life Foundations
Kathy Walker OAM is one of Australia’s leading parenting and education experts, public speakers and authors. Kathy is regarded internationally as a leading curriculum, teaching and learning expert in personalised learning and play based learning. She is the designer of the first major personalised curriculum for schools in Australia (Walker Learning), which is implemented across Australia and internationally.
Kathy is a lead author with Penguin Publishing and the Australian Council of Educational Research with her texts for parents and educators.

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