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What global education systems can teach us about transforming education for holistic student development

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What global education systems can teach us about transforming education for holistic student development


Education systems transformation is a hot topic, as pressing concerns regarding educational equity, quality, and purpose—amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic—have primed interest. These concerns will feature centrally this week in the United Nations’ Transforming Education Summit, which will further elaborate on an accumulating global agenda for transforming education dating back to the founding of UNESCO.

One problem, however, is that policy appears to be focused more keenly on the effects of the pandemic on students’ academic development than on their holistic development. For example, in June 2022, a coalition of elite global policy actors published a report detailing dramatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on “learning poverty” around the world, which measures the share of children who cannot comprehend a simple text by age 10. While the report discussed the need to attend to students’ psychosocial health and well-being in response, it focused chiefly on accelerating the development of students’ literacy and numeracy skills. In the United States, the release in September 2022 of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress also fueled policy discourse about dramatic declines in students’ academic development in reading and mathematics, especially among historically underserved students. Yet much of this discourse again lacked commensurate attention to the dramatic consequences of the pandemic on students’ holistic development, including their socio-emotional well-being.

While there is a clear and urgent need to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic development, the need to address its effects on holistic student development are just as clear and as urgent.

Over the past year, we had an opportunity to uncover what education systems around the world can teach us about transforming education for holistic student development. Our exploration began by asking what it would take to build education systems that develop every child as would that child’s own parents. We focus on the journeys of seven education systems, situated in high-, middle-, and low-middle income countries with democratic traditions, as they center their work on the whole child. This includes national initiatives in Singapore, Ireland, and Chile; provincial, territorial, and local initiatives in Canada, India, and the United States; and a cross-national initiative in the International Baccalaureate. All seven systems operate in policy contexts pressing for measurable gains in students’ academic learning, and none seeks to compromise academic rigor. Yet all seven aim further by supporting the intellectual, physical, emotional, social, cultural, and moral development of students. These systems are also committed to ensuring that all students, regardless of circumstance and background, learn and develop in schools in ways that affirm their personal and cultural identities. While different in many ways, the seven systems bear remarkable similarities in their efforts to (re)build education systems to support holistic student development.

Seeing education system (re)building for holistic development as a process, not an event

One critical lesson from our cross-national comparison is that education system (re)building is a process, not an event. Specifically, system transformation involves three key interrelated and overlapping domains of system (re)building work for holistic student development: manage environments, build infrastructure, and integrate infrastructure into practice (Figure 1). These three domains of system building played out consistently across the seven systems’ initiatives that otherwise varied in terms of the level at which they operated, their unique historical, societal, and policy contexts; and their different visions to supporting holistic student development. Below we summarize these three domains of work and the lessons learned from our comparative study. We encourage readers to refer to our full report for a more detailed discussion and case studies.

The core domains of system rebulding

Manage environments

Education system building requires system leaders to carefully attend to and manage their institutional and technical environments to build support for holistic student development among diverse stakeholders and create the essential partnerships for supporting such transformation. Education system building requires attention to potential different and contested beliefs about equity, academic rigor, and holistic development. At times, policymakers, educators, and community members must acknowledge and deliberate about differing views on the purpose of education. A core component of managing the environments involve systems explicitly connecting values for educational quality and equity with holistic student development.

Build infrastructure

Nurturing teaching and learning for holistic student development involves not only ambitious vision and goals but education systems building and rebuilding efforts to support everyday practice. If the goals are ambitious, then so must be the infrastructure (re)building efforts. Building social infrastructures, especially shared beliefs among stakeholders about holistic student development and its entailments for teaching is critical. Holistic student development requires embracing instruction as a situated practice that teachers and students co-produce and creating the infrastructure to support the same. This places new demands on educators that require devising and coordinating designs for instructional practice; instructional resources including curricula and assessments; and social resources such as norms and values.

Integrate infrastructure into practice

Infrastructure use in everyday school and classroom practice is never a given. It must be deliberately cultivated and enacted to support holistic student development. Constructing systemwide coherence while simultaneously nurturing local adaptation requires systems to balance common conventions and local discretion. Systems will need to identify and build on the strengths of their current educational infrastructures while also identifying areas in need of improvement. Educational systems may need to dismantle old conventions that no longer serve the needs of students and pave new terrain by designing novel relationships between curriculum, instruction, and assessment—guided by values for student voice and teacher empowerment. This may necessitate new ways of supporting systemwide professional learning and building accountability systems that serve holistic student development.

Looking forward

The seven systems offer key lessons that fill the middle space between educational policy and instructional practice by offering a practical framework that details core domains of work integral to building and rebuilding systems for holistic student development. To learn together about the work of building and rebuilding systems to sustain academic rigor and support holistic student development, we need new types of collegial, cross-national learning opportunities among system leaders and stakeholders at all levels. Expanding the scope of inquiry to include a broader array of system (re)building efforts within and among countries engaged in such work, especially in systems that are being pressed to support holistic student development while striving to increase access to schooling and support foundational learning, is essential.

While there is a clear and urgent need to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic development, the need to address its effects on holistic student development are just as clear and as urgent. The seven global systems on which we focused provide evidence that education systems both large and small can transform in ways that are equally attentive to students’ academic and holistic development as they balance technical and moral imperatives in managing environments, building infrastructure, and integrating that infrastructure into practice.