H is for Holistic

20 05 2012

I took delivery of two books last week, both of which make liberal use of the term holistic. One (Samuda and Bygate, 2008) is about task-based learning, and its first chapter is titled ‘Language use, holistic activity and second language learning’. The other (Goh and Burns, 2012) is called Teaching Speaking and has the strap-line: A Holistic Approach.  But now I’m wondering if the term hasn’t become a little overused, to the point of becoming meaningless. What, for example, do the following have in common: holistic approaches, holistic learners, and holistic testing – not to mention whole-language learning, and whole-person learning?

According to Wikipedia, ‘The term holism was coined in 1926 by Jan Smuts, a South African statesman [and, somewhat ironically, an advocate of racial segregation], in his book, Holism and Evolution. Smuts defined holism as “The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution”‘.

Holism seems to have been co-opted into psychology (particularly Gestalt psychology), and thence into education, where a holistic approach can mean one of two things: either “an approach to language teaching which seeks to focus on language in its entirety rather than breaking it down into separate components” (Richards and Schmidt, 1985:240), or – very differently – an approach that engages the whole learner: intellectually, emotionally, and even physically.  Thus, Legutke and Thomas (1991: 159), for instance, talk about “the holistic and multisensory nature of learning which involves head, heart and hands”.

In this latter sense, holistic learning is virtually synonymous with whole-person learning, and often used to characterize such humanistic learning methods as the Silent Way, Total Physical Response (TPR) and Community Language Learning (CLL) . Thus, according to Richards and Rodgers (1986: 117) “CLL advocates a holistic approach to language learning, since ‘true’ human learning is both cognitive and affective. This is termed whole-person learning. Such learning takes place in a communicative situation where teachers and learners are involved in ‘an interaction… in which both experience a sense of their own wholeness’ (Curran 1972:90)”.

Whole-language learning, on the other hand, is the preferred term (in the US at least) for those approaches that are holistic in the first of the senses I outlined above, i.e. that ‘learning proceeds from whole to part’ (Freeman and Freeman 1998: xvii), and that, by experiencing whole language – e.g. as whole texts or as communicative tasks – you internalize the parts. It’s a ‘deep-end’, experiential approach. Thus, you learn speaking by speaking, reading by reading, and so on. This is why Samuda and Bygate (2008: 7) align task-based learning with holism: ‘One way of engaging language use is through holistic activity. Tasks are one kind of holistic activity’.

Goh and Burns (2012: 4), too, label their approach to speaking instruction as holistic, but only in the sense, it seems, that it “addresses language learners’ cognitive, affective (or emotional), and social needs, as they work towards acquiring good speaking competence”. In terms of a methodology, however, they reject a ‘learn-to-speak-by-speaking’ approach, arguing that “both part-practice activities and whole tasks are necessary to facilitate the automatization of various components of the complex skill of speaking” (op. cit. p. 148), adding that “speaking lessons should include opportunities to focus on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation at appropriate stages of the learning sequence” (ibid.).

This is consistent with what Cazden calls ‘whole language plus’, where the primary focus is on task performance, but where there is recognition of the need for ‘temporary instructional detours’  in which the learner’s attention is directed to lower level features ‘at the point of need’.  Moreover, such a two-pronged approach is more likely to accommodate the learning style preferences of both analytic and holistic learners, where the latter are defined as learners who “like socially interactive, communicative events in which they can emphasise the main idea and avoid analysis of grammatical minutiae” (Oxford, 2001:361).

More recently, complexity theory and an ecological perspective have deepened our understanding of what ‘whole-ness’ entails.  As Ellis and Larsen-Freeman (2009: 91) put it: ‘Cognition, consciousness, experience, embodiment, brain, self, human interaction, society, culture, and history – in other words, phenomena at different levels of scale and time – are all inextricably intertwined in rich, complex, and dynamic ways in language, its use and its learning’.

Maybe this more elaborated and multi-layered view will serve to conflate the two senses of holistic as applied to approach. Could a focus both on whole-language and on the whole-learner help blur the distinction between learning and using, and between learner and language, forming one complex system, such that (to borrow Yeats’s image) we cannot ‘tell the dancer from the dance’?

I’ll let Leo van Lier (2004: 223-224) have the last word:

An ecological approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit.  It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning.  The teacher provides assistance, but only just enough and just in time (in the form of pedagogical scaffolding), taking the learners’ developing skills and interests as the true driving force of the curriculum.

(Don’t know about you, but it sounds oddly familiar to me!)

References:

Cazden, C. (1992) Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ, New York: Teachers College Press.

Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (2009) ‘Constructing a second language: analyses and computational simulations of the emergence of linguistic constructions from usage’, in Ellis, N., and Larsen-Freeman, D. (eds.) Language as a Complex Adaptive system, Special issue of Language Learning, 59.

Freeman, Y.S. and Freeman, D.E. (1998) ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goh, C, and Burns, A. (2012) Teaching Speaking. A Holistic Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Legutke, M., and Thomas, H. (1991) Process and Experience in the Language Classroom, Harlow: Longman.

Oxford, R. (2001) ‘Language learning styles and strategies’, in Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd edition), Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds.) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Samuda. V. and Bygate, M. (2008) Tasks in Second Language Learning, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

van Lier, L. (2004) The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural perspective, Norwell MA: Kluwer.

 Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.