The Philosophy Behind Holistic Education

Traditional Modes of Teaching and Learning

Social anthropologists have used the word “osmosis” to describe the way children have learned in traditional societies since ancient times, indicating just how easy it was “to acquire a wide variety of knowledge and skills without teaching; it was automatic, without effort and nobody failed.” (B. S. Hewlett, Fouts, Boyette, & B. L. Hewlett, 2011, p. 1170)

There are basically three modes of learning and teaching in traditional societies.

1. Incidental Modeling

Notice how the children are an integral part of their parent’s work world. They may not be watching at this moment, but they may still be absorbing aspects of the work – particularly the focus and intention.

Traditionally, children learned primarily through observation and imitation rather than through instruction.  This is called incidental learning. 

The adults who engage in purposeful activities in the proximity of children unconsciously model for them. I call this incidental modeling(Tsethlikai & Rogoff, 2013)

2. Purposeful Modeling

When necessary, adults guide children in their learning by  consciously modeling behaviors and techniques; a type of teaching I will call purposeful modeling. (The technical term is natural pedagogy.)

Unlike direct instruction –typical in schools – where speaking is prominent, purposeful modeling puts greater focus on demonstrating an action rather than talking about it.  (Csibra & Gergely, 2011)  



Other characteristics of purposeful modeling are…

  1. the activities are usually rooted in their natural environment
  2. they arise from a natural context
  3. they are presented in their complete form.

Direct  instruction, on the other hand, generally takes a lesson out of its natural context, presents it in stepped levels of difficulties, and typically explores it in isolation from other domains (hence the various academic subjects: math, science, language, social studies, etc. that are taught in schools).

3. Oral Tradition

Another early way of teaching was through oral tradition or storytelling.

Oral tradition dates back  150,000 years and often includes songs, movements, and chants. These are often combined together within a story context. (Stanford, 2015)

Because it was such a primordial practice, storytelling “has evolutionarily rewired the human brain so that we are all born hardwired to think, to understand, to make sense…through specific story terms.” (Haven, 2014, p. 31)

Two Modes for Processing Information in the Brain

Psychologist Jerome Bruner has identified two ways the brain makes sense of the world.  In one way, called the narrative mode, the brain understands the world as story symbols. Another way to understand the world is by compartmentalizing it for logical analysis – a way of thinking called the paradigmatic mode.

Although both the narrative and paradigmatic modes of thinking are necessary for humans to function, the degree that humans use each of these faculties varies by individual and group, with indigenous cultures favoring the narrative mode. 

The paradigmatic mode is predominant in Western societies and has been institutionalized across the world through Western education (1986; as cited in Adler, 2008) . This perspective, strengthened by a history of European colonialism, and reinforced by the pragmatic benefits of technical innovations, tends to disparage the  narrative world views of indigenous cultures (Semali & Kincheloe, 2002).

Even in Western cultures, where there might have been more traditional forms of education in previous generations, education that imbued the narrative mode, the modern phenomena of separating children from their parents for longer periods of time and at younger ages due to parental work patterns (Patten, 2015) results in children having fewer opportunities to watch their parents engage in sustenance activities (e.g., working, cleaning, building, cooking) or artistic endeavors (e.g., sewing, woodworking, crafting, weaving, playing music).

These combined effects of Westernization and modernization have shifted the natural learning process away from informal learning, a process that embraces the narrative modes, and towards an intense emphasis on logical-analytical thinking.

Jerome Bruner stressed the need to introduce the narrative mode into Western education as a way to rebalance the two forms of cognition: “It is only in the narrative mode that one can construct an identity and find a place in one’s culture. Schools must cultivate it, nurture it, cease taking it for granted” (2002, p. 24).

One characteristic of natural pedagogy is teaching focused on a single modality: Oral tradition gives prime focus to language with few visual distractions, while purposeful modeling gives prime focus to visuals without auditory distractions. Perhaps it is this focus on one sensory organ that makes traditional modes better streamlined to communicate knowledge.

Can We Blend Traditional Teaching with Modern Life?

How does decreased exposure to traditional teaching affect children’s development and overall sense of well-being in modern society?

From my own experiences, the current education system has taken the heart out of learning.

Finding balance is key – by introducing traditional learning modes into modern education we can balance direct instruction, discovery learning, and analytical thinking on the one side with adult modeling, oral tradition, and intuitive thinking on the other.


Adler, J. (2008). Two Modes of Thought: The Narrative/Paradigmatic Disconnect in the Bailey Book Controversy. Arch Sex Behav, 37, 422–425. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9318-0

Bruner, J. (2002). Tenets to understand a cultural perspective on learning. In B. Moon, A. S. Mayes, & S. Hutchinson (Eds.), Teaching, Learning and the Curriculum in Secondary Schools: A Reader. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Csibra, G., & Gergely, G. (2011). Natural pedagogy as evolutionary adaptation. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 366, 1149-1157. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0319

Haven, K. (2014). Story smart: Using the science of story to persuade, influence, inspire, and teach. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Hewlett, B. S., Fouts, H. N., Boyette, A. H., & Hewlett, B. L. (2011). Social learning among Congo Basin hunter–gatherers. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 366(1567), 1168-1178. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0373

Patten, E. (2015, November 4). How American parents balance work and family life when both work. Retrieved from

Semali, L. M., & Kincheloe, J. L. (2011). What is indigenous knowledge? New York, NY: Routledge.

Stanford. (2015, March 30). Your brain on story. Retrieved from

Tsethlikai, M., & Rogoff, B. (2013). Involvement in traditional cultural practices and American Indian children’s incidental recall of a folktale. American Psychological Association 49(3), 568-578. doi:10.1037/a0031308

Questions for Reflection

Do you know of any schools that balance direct instruction with traditional modes of teaching and learning?

What are your thoughts on traditional modes of teaching?  Please share.

One Reply to “The Philosophy Behind Holistic Education”

  1. I love the old way of teaching through modeling. I believe a child can learn so much through observation. I think that all schools should somehow when teaching a new concept also have a visual interpretation.

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