And the Walls Come Folding Down: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Building Awareness, Balance, and Connection in Ourselves, Our Schools, in Our Communities, and in Our World

Karen Melaas, global education magazineKaren Melaas

Curriculum/Teacher Leadership Development in Oxford, Michigan, USA /


Abstract: The twenty-first century offers educators an extraordinary opportunity to employ constructivist teaching and learning. The current era allows us, perhaps more than ever before, to honor the core individuality of every learner. There is one idea within constructivism that some have come to call transdisciplinary study. This is a study where there are no real or tangible separations between disciplines. The walls that often separate classrooms, are no longer employed or even evident. Using transdisciplinary study, students are encouraged to seek creative ways to solve complex problems, to explore healthy and empathic leadership, to address language as a core of human existence, and to internationalize their understanding of many of the issues that face humanity. Aided by technology for the twenty-first century, transdisciplinary study has the capacity to promote an authentic seamlessness between learning and living, between who we are and so much that we are able to accomplish in working together.

 Keywords: transdisciplinary, awareness, balance, connection, sustainable development, central idea

How does an idea become knowledge and understanding? Which are the factors that propel us to move our ideas to certainties? During the very busy life of a teacher, we are often asked to help students share their ideas; and it is our task to assist them with hypothesizing, experimenting, and ultimately concluding. But what of our humanity can be certain? What of an individual’s interaction with self and with the world do we want to promote in our classrooms?

In an article titled: A Morally Defensible Mission for Schools in the 21st Century, Stanford University Lee Jacks Professor Emeritus, Nel Noddings asks: “What is it that we want for our children? In work patterns, in residential stability, in style of housing, in sexual habits, in dress, in manners, in language, in music, in entertainment, and perhaps most important of all, in family arrangements . . . schools as an entity have not led us effectively.”

Maybe to a plethora of high stakes tests and other assessments that already exist across our planet we can consider including questions that ask students: ‘How might you plan to spend the next 24 to 36 hours of your life? How do you address the dimensions of your own wellness? How can you assist others around you in realizing their own best selves? Maybe preceding such questions, we can add a dozen years of school curricula, delivered in places where the walls that so often exist between and among the disciplines have been folded. Perhaps we develop schools where teachers and administrators give students permission, understanding, and encouragement toward collaboratively and thoughtfully discussing twenty-first century issues from differing intellectual and social perspectives. We are ready to sow now, in this century of extraordinary connective tissue created by the world-wide access of the internet the seeds of schools in which students learn to examine and practice a sort of personal sustainable development. This sustainable development is one that might later help to inspire yet another Nelson Mandela, another Martin Luther King, another Mulalla Yousafzai, the likes of which we know are already growing within children who reside in our communities.

As a teacher whose reach is global connection and collaboration, maybe you have entertained a few similar thoughts from your line of global latitude, while thousands of miles away, that resemble thoughts being pondered by another teacher, and somewhere else, yet another still. Every teacher in every place we teach across the globe must be certain of their ability to bring a voice to the most pivotal thoughts that we share about teaching and learning, and to help each of our students realize their greatest potentials. I am grateful to have the opportunity to here share some of my own thoughts and experiences.

The National Wellness Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA is one among a number of institutions around the globe that places a viable option on the table for a refreshing option for education in the twenty-first century, that of teaching children a systematic and scaffolded approach toward fully addressing their own personal well-being. If as educators, we can first begin to understand our own dimensions of well-being, then we can learn to approach underpinning the curricular objectives of our schools, anywhere and everywhere that we might wish to. Our study, our understanding, our own practice, and our sharing with students of the Six Dimensions of Wellness (National Wellness Institute: intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, physical, and occupational) offer us a clear formula for imparting the life-long practice and the great triumverate of mind-body-spirit well-beingA curriculum that is underpinned by teaching personal well-being is a prescription that will help to support all of humanity, that will support each and every one of us, both in and out of our schools. The Six Dimensions of Wellness (NWI) show no particular bias for language, race, creed, or faith. Rather, they offer us a platform that is pluralistic, one that has the potential to unite us toward developing, actualizing, and yes, even ultimately healing our world.

As each of us realize our capacity for developing and managing our well-being, a wonderful new excitement stirs, and it deserves to be shared. Using the Six Dimensions of Wellness (NWI), educators, parents. . . in fact all adults may work together to forge our collective ability not to divide, but rather to work toward folding down the walls that continue to separate us in varying environments.

The Six Dimensions of Wellness, as created by the NWI offer a format for effortlessly crossing boundaries in subject matters or disciplines, in order to creatively approach complex problems, explore healthy and empathic leadership, and to address language as a core of human existence. The Six Dimensions of Wellness, offer us an approach toward the internationalizing of education in a way that is quite profound. Practice of the Six Dimensions of Wellness allow each of us, young and old, to bring our healthiest, and most unique and independent learner talents and skills to our living, to our education, and to our work.

The following are three examples of how examining the Central Idea (International Baccalaureate Organization) of well-being can be useful in a school setting in a sequential fashion. Example #1 describes how aspects of well-being can be examined and encouraged in the elementary grades, Example #2 shares an experience during middle school years, and Example #3 shares an example that is occurring right now in a Washington DC high school. These are not ‘what if’ examples. Each of the experiences I will describe have actually taken place in schools in North America. The first two were in suburban Detroit, Michigan.

Example #1:

At a K-8 International Baccalaureate-Primary Years Programme school in Oak Park, Michigan, USA, 63 second graders recently explored Key Concepts (IBO) of community, production, consumption, awareness, balance, and connection. Classroom teacher Stephanie Sulaka invited me in to participate in the investigations for two days. During our time together, students were asked what they believe a ‘balanced’ community might look, sound, feel, smell, and taste like. Numbers of students initially shared stories of meals enjoyed among families and with neighbors. They reflected on feelings of love and support they felt from parents and siblings. Students went on to agree that an odor of trash, a sight of overgrown weeds in a yard, an absence of any children in a neighborhood park might be signs of imbalance, thereby effecting the well-being of the community. Students further discussed how an awareness of imbalance might encourage them to contribute to the well-being of their own community.

Each of the students paid five dollars to decorate a four-inch clay pot. In the pots they planted flower bulbs. While the pots would later be used for annotating scientific observations, they would ultimately become gifts for family and friends. The three groups of second graders spent time researching agencies in their community that might be beneficiaries of profits generated by their funds, after covering material costs. Pots, paints, bulbs, and soil had been purchased for less that two dollars per student. With a profit margin of more than three dollars for each potted plant, students chose to donate close to $200 to the children’s ward at an area hospital, so that other youngsters whose emotional or physical well-being had kept them from the playground might sooner have a chance at re-inhabiting local swing-sets and monkey bars.

In this example, students were just beginning to explore Key Concepts (IBO) such of awareness, balance, and connection and how those concepts could be applied within their communities. The lesson was part of a larger unit within the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme, where core planning includes research and inquiry. Opportunities for students for formative and summative assessments are built into lessons.

Example #2

In 2010, while 33 South Americans were trapped deep in a mine in the southern hemisphere, five middle school teachers and I created with students an opportunity to explore the challenges and potential solutions for the miners, as the men lingered deep below the earth’s surface in San Jose, Chile. As most middle school students had been studying Spanish for some time, it was possible to add a strong bilingual element to this investigation.

During the study, the school’s math teacher helped students to use ratios to try to re-create the size of the space in which the miners were trapped. Discussions ensued about how to limit the height of the ceiling in the classroom to most realistically emulate the size of the area. The science and social studies teacher explored the topography and geologic formations of the area of Chile where the accident had occurred, in order to start a conversation about how it might even be possible for an underground rescue effort to ensue. In language arts class, students journaled and practiced public speaking skills as they shared their concerns about the unfolding crisis.

Each of the Six Dimensions of Wellness (National Wellness Institute): Social, Intellectual, Vocational, Spiritual, Physical, and Occupational were used to attempt an in-depth examination of how individual aspects of wellness are defined, and approached with the greatest of care. Each of us shared our thoughts, and applied personal perspectives to this extraordinary collaboration. Students offered examples of what they believed an individual might need in order for optimal well-being in the mine.

The ability to use the internet to stay in continuous contact with the situation as it unfolded in Chile was an extraordinary gift for this unit of study. The spontaneity of investigations, the dynamism that each and every one of us experience in day to day living made this a very authentic learning experience for students. Excited middle schoolers arrived at school each morning during the tenure of our project with sound- bites, newspaper clippings, and stories of radio broadcasts. Each student realized that they were being given the opportunity to make a contribution to both the interpretation and to the solving of what had come to be seen, heard, and felt as a global dilemma. This transdisciplinary study was not simply an chance to share how work and life intermingle; rather it was for both students and faculty an outstanding learning opportunity, where the Six Dimensions of Wellness and technology were partner vehicles in a convoy. In a most constructivist manner, students and teachers were in essence ‘living’ curriculum through connection, collaboration, knowledge, and synthesis.

The second lesson, like the first, took place in an International Baccalaureate Organization authorized school; but it was further supported by removing walls that divided core disciplines of math, science, social studies, and language arts. Simultaneously we approached the teaching using what was for students a second language. Time spent among students and teachers was an example of serving learners’ needs well with a meaningful context , rather than incremental skills to be acquired (IBO). In this unit, an exploration of well-being was more intimately approached. We might say that a transition occurred from exploring well-being of communities on a macro level, to looking at well-being on a micro level. The Central Idea (IBO)of well-being that was earlier explored in reference to communities, became a transdisciplinary idea, now explored in reference to individuals.

#3 The highly acclaimed non-governmental organization, World Visions International is currently involved with faculty and youth in a Washington DC high school. Those students and faculty whom are involved are attempting to demonstrate successful engagement in an economic development relationship with youth in Kenya and Tanzania, Africa. The ultimate goal of the project is to help Maasai women to create a website for marketing their craft of beaded jewelry, and thereby provide the women with the capacity to sell their jewelry worldwide.

On behalf of World Visions International, the creator of the project, Louis August cites, “By creating these global relationships and leveraging the resources of schools and partners, programs like these could rapidly spread across the globe, including in USA schools. It would also help address America’s most pressing problems: Education that is relevant, and real twenty-first century economic opportunities for our youth — all the while providing international business experience for all.“

At the ground level, students and faculty in the DC school are exploring and discussing the aspects of achieving well-being that are most challenging for Maasai women, including their emotional, intellectual, and physical wellness. This is in part a result of strains placed on Maasai communities by the absence of the fathers of their children.

In Example #1 well-being is as examined as it relates to communities. In Example #2, students example well-being as it relates to human kind. In Example #3, students are using their personal strengths, such as computer repair and website creation to help effect change in the life of another human being. They are indeed attempting to help others to achieve well-being in a remote part of the developing world. Through awareness, balance, and connection, a Central Idea (IBO) of ‘well-being’ becomes a transdisciplinary ideaacross communities, across disciplines and across continents.

As teachers, it is among our many callings to help our students to develop awareness, seek balance, and look for ways to connect. That we undertake the endeavor alongside our students is one of the many gifts of a constructivist and transdisciplinary education. In Spanish, it is said, “Aun Aprendemos”– We are still learning. The National Institute of Wellness’ Six Dimensions of Wellness offer us a place to begin to explore, to learn about, and to practice our capacity to carefor ourselves, to grow ourselves, and to heal ourselves, all of which are paramount for the greater collective productivity that we want our world to experience. There is an approach to teaching and learning, an approach that begins with personal sustainable development that is fully available to each of us, simply because we human. Using the Six Dimensions of Wellness is just one road we can travel with students that helps all of us to realize our true purpose and what we are fully capable of accomplishing, as we first learn to care for ourselves and then ultimately help others to do the same.

This article was published on 8th March: International Women´s Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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