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Greater than the sum of the parts: Student experience of UWCSEA's holistic education

Graham Silverthorne, Former Head of East Campus
8 April 2019

UWCSEA East students learning through play

From my earliest days as a reader, I have loved words. As today, we bump into people walking down the street, crossing roads, eating dinners and probably sleeping with their mobile phones, so once upon a time you might have been at risk from me walking into you holding an omnipresent book. I really did fall asleep with a book on my face, I really did read under the covers with a torch to avoid detection from parents who would have consigned me to the wordless void of sleep. I can well remember the agony of saving up for a book, rushing to buy it on a Saturday morning, consuming it too greedily and then being distraught that it was finished before the sun rose on Sunday morning.

Recently, after teasing myself with the idea for at least 10 years, I have purchased a Kindle. I wasn’t entirely sure that I would use it but frankly, I have hardly been able to put it down. One of the particularly happy features of my new device - which is, by the way, waterproof, for those that want to read underwater or whilst snorkelling – is the dictionary function. This luxury allows you to simply exert pressure on any word that needs explanation and there pops up definition and options for further clarification. For a man who once made lists of words he didn’t know by reading through pages of the Oxford English Dictionary (rodomontade, prestidigitator, archimandrite…I still have them all) this is a feature beyond imagining.

It was during one of my pursuits of a new word, that I came across the word ‘hologramatic’. It felt like a word I should have been able to tackle but it was clearly one that needed to be added to my list. It isn’t a common word and it is most frequently associated, in the few references that I was able to come across, with a Spanish academic called Morin who created Morin’s Hologramatic Principle in 2003 (to my shame, I can’t even reference this but I will ask you to take my word for it). In essence, as I understand the principle from the translation, it speaks of seeing life – the past and the future (existence) – as living and connected. To understand and predict the future, one must see it as the extension of what has gone before, not as something disconnected from what precedes it. This thinking appeals to the historian in me; in my mind, I see the hologram of life, turning slowly, viewable from all sides, the beginning and the end invisible but the present clearly located somewhere between the two. As with all holograms, depending upon where you stand to view it, you see the whole thing differently from another person, taking the view from a different angle.

Possibly, this is all axiomatic but it is leading me to a point.

We make assumptions that many of the things that we look at are viewed by others in the same way that we view them. It would be hard for us to function without making some of these assumptions but sometimes there is great benefit from calling in a piece of the hologram and challenging ourselves to ‘name it’ because in the differences of our language and in the use and inflections of the words that we select lie deeper shared understandings (researching this line of thought gave me the gift of another word - heteroglossia but that is for another day).

Earlier this term, a group of senior leaders at UWCSEA sat in a room with the apparently simple task of defining the concept of ‘holistic education’. Surely, if any group of learning leaders should be able to do this with ease, it would be our group. After all, we do say on our website, that: The learning programme at UWCSEA consists of five interlinking elements: academics, activities, outdoor education, personal and social education and service…The elements combine to provide our students with a holistic, values-based education that develops them as individuals and as members of a global society.

However, the exercise turned out not to be easy at all. We had decided to set ourselves the task because we have started to discuss our learning programme, those five interlinking elements, to review what it is that we are doing well and what we might do even better. The five elements are very much aligned to our UWC mission but they are unique to UWCSEA as a way of enshrining the learning goals that deliver the ambitions of the mission.

As much as we could not find the words to define the concept of holistic education, we were able, with great certainty, to say what it is that we appreciate and value about what a holistic education gives to young people.

As we wrestled with the challenge of finding the right starting place for a review, it became obvious that we needed to take things back to first principles – what lay beneath our construction of the five-element framework? After some discussion, we agreed that what lay beneath was our shared belief in holistic education. The most innocent of questions followed, “but what does that actually mean?”

After spending over an hour together using a Frayer Model to extract characteristics and examples, we had failed absolutely to come up with any shared definitions. It was engaging but also surprisingly frustrating. Setting aside the ambition to define holistic education, we decided, instead, to try and tackle it from the perspective of an appreciative inquiry*. What was it that we all valued about holistic education (this thing that we couldn’t comfortably define)? The resulting activity consumed a good number of post-it notes. We spent a little time looking at what we had achieved but there was no immediate light bulb moment. That arrived much later when I sat down with the notes at home, look for organising headings to emerge from the curling sheaf.

Once in a while, something magical happens – the moment can creep up on you in a concert or an assembly, halfway up a mountainside with a group of students, working on a local service, virtually anywhere. They don’t normally, however, occur late in the evening at home with a pile of post-it notes. As I began to sort out the notes into common areas, they fell into alignment as compliantly as if they had been directed by the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. I think only two of around 60 did not immediately aggregate to one of five immediately visible headings. It was a strangely moving moment. As much as we could not find the words to define the concept of holistic education, we were able, with great certainty, to say what it is that we appreciate and value about what a holistic education gives to young people.

This is a UWCSEA education. Of all of the various descriptors that we have on our website and other published materials, these words in their raw form capture something, for me, that transcends. Students with agency, given credit for what they choose to do and finding more within themselves in doing it; students who have the courage to try and the courage to challenge; students with possibilities in front of them, who seek out new experiences; students who are connected to and responsible for their own spirituality, their own heritage, their world; and students with humility and reverence who seek to serve others. These are UWCSEA students.

In trying to describe what we value about holistic education, we found ourselves, instead, describing the young people that we are immensely privileged to work with.

Student experience of our holistic education


  • No one success criterion
  • Appropriate challenge
  • Choice
  • Possibility for all students to excel
  • Develops confidence and self esteem
  • Builds character - the dispositions
  • Builds skills
  • Develops ‘self’

Breadth and balance of opportunity

  • Opens possibilities
  • New experiences
  • New doorways/ possible pathways
  • Multifaceted - social, emotional, cognitive
  • Individual development balanced with collaboration


  • Plus est en vous
  • Transformative
  • Inspiring
  • Radical
  • Courageous
  • Challenges traditional learning


  • We, my world, world beyond
  • Intentional joining up/transfer
  • Mind, body, spirit/soul, intellect, emotions, social,
  • Systems thinking
  • Looking out and looking in
  • Provides ‘whole’ view
  • Interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary
  • Transfer of self-esteem - contagious achievement
  • Humanistic
  • Constructivist
  • Experiential
  • Continuity

Value/ Mission-Based

  • Reverence for life/nature
  • Rights and peace building
  • Something bigger than self
  • Empathy for others
  • Values people and the world

* Cooperrider, D. L.; Barrett, F.; Srivastva, S. (1995). "Social construction and appreciative inquiry: A journey in organizational theory". In Hosking, D.; Dachler, P.; Gergen, K. Management and Organization: Relational Alternatives to Individualism. pp. 157–200.