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Nicki Davey

Saltbox Training & Events


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Why learning should be a holistic experience

Nicki Davey explains why learning should connect elements of the human condition – mind, body, heart and spirit.

What does the word holistic mean to you? Maybe you associate it with wellbeing or complementary medicine? Or perhaps it’s looking at something from multiple perspectives to get an all-round view? But have you considered what it means in relation to how we help people learn?

The word holistic means being: “concerned not only with the whole but also with the interdependence of its parts, and the belief that these parts are inextricably interconnected and their interactions can only be fully understood in relation to the whole.”

Learning that encompasses multiple layers of stimulus, meaning, experience and engages the whole person.

I use the term holistic learning to describe learning that encompasses multiple layers of stimulus, meaning, experience and engages the whole person.

It’s about working on a physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual level to create deep, meaningful learning and powerful insights which lead to behavioural change.

What makes learning holistic?

Imagine that we want to help learners to say “no” more easily (for example as part of an assertiveness, stress management or time management course).

We may want them to explore why being able to say no is so important and to identify occasions when it will benefit them. We may provide some techniques on how to say no effectively and confidently, but to make it holistic we need to ensure that:

  • Body: Learners physically experience saying no and pay attention to how this is expressed in their body (their breathing, physical reactions etc), how this relates to their emotional state, and how they can manage this effectively.
  • Mind: Learners mentally process what happens when they do or don’t say no, by analysing different components and how they link together, asking themselves questions and identifying solutions for themselves.
  • Heart: Learners care about each other, share with each other and learn from each other. They support each other and create an environment in which everyone feels safe to test out different behaviours or to share their vulnerabilities.
  • Spirit: Learners find meaning and coherence in what they are learning through becoming more self-aware and connecting their "inner work” with their "outer work".

What does the science say?

As experienced trainers most of us will already understand the importance of creating these holistic learning experiences for people, and if we look at ancient wisdom traditions and practices we can see that this understanding has been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. 

There is now also a growing body of evidence from neuroscience and behavioural science to support this approach. For example:

  • Hormones and neurotransmitters provide a constant communication between the mind and body so that our mental state and our physical state are inextricably linked.
  • The more sensory stimulation we receive, the more neural connections are formed, improving the organisation and functional activity of the brain and helping to form long lasting memories, which can be recalled easily when necessary.
  • Physical movement increases the oxygenation of the brain and the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor – essential for neural development) for improved cognitive processing, memory, and recall.
  • Physical exercise strengthens the cerebellum which is directly linked to the parts of the brain involved in memory, attention, cognitive processing, and problem-solving.
  • We use more parts of our brain and create a “mental web” of information when we look for or discover answers for ourselves rather than being given information, helping us to store, retrieve, and use what we have learnt more effectively.
  • “Neurons that are fired together are wired together” – when different experiences occur together, the neural pathways for these are physically connected in our brain, for example we may connect a particular emotion with a particular situation.
  • The brain doesn't distinguish between real or imagined activity so just by imagining or visualising doing something we can create the same physical changes in the brain as if we were doing it for real. 
  • Emotions help us to perceive an experience or information as meaningful so that the brain focuses on it, organises it and remembers it. Positive emotions help us to form strong memories that we can easily retrieve and put into practice.
  • The limbic system deals with both emotions and memory. When we experience a positive emotional state such as excitement, joy or pleasure, the neural signals from the heart to the brain increase our ability to think, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions (conversely, when we experience stress or negative emotions such as anger, fear or guilt, our heart signals reinforce these negative emotions and inhibit our cognitive functioning).
  • Our brains work best when we are socially connected and have meaningful interactions with others. The reward centre of the brain is activated and gives us more pleasure when we do something to help others than when we do or receive something for ourselves.
  • When we experience social pain such as rejection, our brain registers it as real pain and it interferes with our ability to learn. Whenwe feel understood and connected to others, we have greater feelings of wellbeing and lower stress, which enables us to learn better. 
  • When we play and have fun our brain releases dopamine (which makes us feel good, gives us more energy, and improves our memory, attention and motivation), endorphins (which aid learning by making us happier and more relaxed), and BDFN,which improves our perception, reasoning, problem solving and memory. 
  • The cerebral cortex (responsible for thinking, perceiving, processing and problem-solving) is more highly developed when our senses are stimulated and we have opportunities to play.
  • We have evolved to function best in nature-rich surroundings and being connected to nature improves cognitive function, memory, creativity and problem-solving ability.
  • Our brain is an electrochemical, neuronal network which observes, encodes, and identifies perceived patterns. These processes work better when we identify patterns in our lives and seek meaning in them. 
  • Activities which take us outside our own conscious processes, such as meditation and mindfulness have a positive effect on the brain including increasing the amount of grey matter and enhancing the connectivity between different brain regions.

Over the next few months, I’ll be writing more articles where I’ll share lots of simple, affordable, practical ideas and tips for making learning more holistic.

I hope you’ll join me on this holistic learning journey, and in the meantime, here are a few questions to help you to start thinking holistically about your training:

  • How do I ensure that learners use their body to move around, engage all of their senses, relax their bodies, and participate in practical hands-on physical activities?
  • How do I ensure that learners engage their mind to analyse ideas, see different perspectives, solve problems, and create new neural pathways?
  • How do I generate positive emotional experiences from the heart and ensure that learners care about, share with, and learn from each other in a safe environment?
  • How do I ensure that learners can connect with their true inner spirit self, find meaning, and connect with the wonder and energy of life?

For more insights on this topic, read The holistic learning handbook: a practical guide for teachers and trainers by Nicki Davey, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2020.

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Nicki Davey


Read more from Nicki Davey

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