PEDAGOGIES OF HOLISTIC ENGAGEMENT
When we contemplate this idea of holistic engagement, it is clear that we are talking about a fundamental shift in what happens in the classroom. We believe everything will look, feel, and seem different if we actually shift toward these new pedagogies. The authors of this volume are offering their perspectives on and experiences with holistic pedagogies, articulating complementary theoretical grounding, as well as giving readers a sense of what such a classroom actually does look and feel like. Here, we offer some guiding orientation to social work and human service educators seeking to engage with their students in the development of holistic engagement skills and integrative capability.
We do not purport that there is a perfect way to teach holistic engagement. This is why we are referring to pedagogies of holistic engagement in the plural form rather than singular. We, and the authors in this volume, are aiming in holistic engagement education to cultivate an ongoing experience of oneself in the classroom and field, with opportunities to engage with other people in context. This process invites students into multidimensional experiences of the mind, body, heart, and spirit in relation to culture, geography, and politics.
Even our most challenging moments in the classroom can offer unparalleled learning if the intention includes engaging ourselves and our students directly in the full experience of the intensity. For example, consider teaching about human rights and the social worker role in advocacy in the current global context. As the issue of the role of military intervention in global humanitarian efforts emerges in a class discussion, students become polarized, with three students vehemently asserting the need for preemptive military action to prevent injustices and three students equally strong in their unequivocal opposition, citing civilian casualties, diversion of federal budget dollars away from a domestic agenda toward a military one, and the complex cultural considerations.
A handful of other students start shifting uncomfortably as the arguments escalate, becoming increasingly personal. “How can you even consider yourself a social worker if you won't do anything in your power to prevent genocide?!?” “How can you pretend that bombing villages with innocent children in them is okay as long as you kill a terrorist or two?!?” “Well, maybe you'd feel differently if some of your family members were over there!” Students start to look toward the front of the room in silent pleas to the instructor for interruption as the tension grows. “My sister is over there right now trying to help those people with the rest of her brave comrades!” “You're even worse, then! My dad was killed in his first tour of duty when I was in middle school! How can you want more families to go through this grief?” as the student dissolves into tears and runs out of the room. The instructor stands stunned, wondering how things went so quickly from the promise of a rallying discussion of human rights to a classroom crisis. Options for regaining control swirl, and she decides to invite students to take a 10-minute break. The room remains silent as students hesitate to move.
With holistic engagement, we are asking students and ourselves to enter such moments, fully and deliberately, tension and all. Instead of seeking to maintain control, we seek being and noticing all along the way, inviting experience even before all of the thinking and debating. With an awareness of the whole self, the instructor instead could enter into the discussion inviting students to notice their breathing, their hearts beating, and to consider how a planned discussion of the complex world events will engage them all with different paths having led to the discussion. She could invite the students to think about their own experiences historically, bringing to mind images from the news, their own personal or familial experiences, and then write the words “human rights,” “genocide,” “soldier,” and “social worker” on the board, asking students to silently spend 30 seconds each focused only on one word, paying attention to anything they feel. Silence is palpable. No one moves; no one talks. Together, students and teacher spend 2 full minutes engaged with these words. A few students look distracted, shifting uncomfortably. Two students' eyes pool with tears. When the time is up, the instructor asks, “What did you experience?” One by one, students start to share what they have noticed. “It was hard to stay focused.” “I kept picturing kids scared and confused.” “I felt sad.” “It made me really anxious.” “I missed my sister; she's over in Afghanistan now.” “I miss my dad—he was killed in Iraq 11 years ago—I was in seventh grade.” Students look toward the front of the room; several are in tears, as is the instructor. “This is a powerful moment we are sharing,” she says, “Let's stay with it as we consider human rights and social work.” Thus, pedagogies of holistic engagement embody a shift from the predictability of planned discussions to the unpredictability of full human experience, with the express intention of transforming ourselves together as a pathway to transforming the social constructions and social systems that oppress and marginalize us.
Pedagogies of holistic engagement create opportunities for students and instructors to include their bodies, minds, emotions, and uniqueness in the experience of learning, as we participate in the democratic and creative practices required to realize our social change aspirations. These pedagogies expand dimension, action, and the importance of paying attention to the minutia, internally and externally. The activities to catalyze these are the lessons themselves, not just the pathway to the richer discussions. The focus is on doing, being, experiencing, and noticing together inasmuch as it is on information exchange. A successful class session becomes one in which multiple dimensions of experience have been engaged and explored intentionally rather than one in which much content has been covered. The instructor role evolves into co-creator of experience and guide of integrating these experiences with and for her students and with and for herself.
Thus, the subjective experience of the educator becomes just as important as that of the students in any kind of pedagogy of holistic engagement. Such mindful attention can be a welcome antidote to the sense of disembodiment and disconnection that is perpetuated in our modernist, globalized culture and in social work education. We often offer our minds and our limited experience of emotions to the classroom, but we seldom attune into the minute changes in our bodies or spirits as we conduct our classes. We might notice and try to tune into similar shifts in our students. A pedagogy of holistic engagement depends on bringing all of ourselves and cultivating the fullest presence of others as often as possible and integrating what happens. Toward this end, at the beginning of all ofmy (LP) classes, the students and I engage in 5 minutes of quiet meditation together, the goal of which is to help us all settle in and tune into ourselves, each other, and our environment. In this meditation, I often ask students not only to notice phenomena in their own bodies and minds but also to invite their awareness into the space and people around them—for example, the sounds and smells. Bringing in such practices to academia, a traditionally disembodied patriarchal setting that embraces positivism and the empiricism of science, requires tremendous courage. I remember being terrified the first time I did this, as the voices in my head said, “They're going to hate this,” “I'm going to get fired,” and “This is so awkward.” Although sometimes these voices still appear, I have learned that students are hungry for such opportunities, and most of them actually tend to savor the stillness.
We believe that there are many existing and still to be developed pedagogical innovations and practices in social work education that can facilitate the integrative capability we are seeking. Examples include various experiential activities, service learning, group processes, creative and other forms of artistic expression, and practices of numerous contemplative traditions, such as walking meditation and qigong. Whereas we have presented the scholarly literature on such pedagogical innovations, as well as shared some of our own experiences and perspectives, the authors in this volume utilize these and many other pedagogical innovations as they and their students are transforming social work classrooms throughout the world. It is clear that holistic and transformative education is not the easy way out. Indeed, we, as educators, may find ourselves in situations in which we must confront our own fears and comfort levels with whole self engagement, negotiate support from academic administration, deal with the demands of outcomes- based education that requires us to cover so much content, and integrate these methods into online courses. Our and these authors' experiences remind us that these obstacles can be overcome through creativity, commitment, and compassion for everyone involved.