Holistic Learning

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Pedagogical approaches that encourage learners to become civically involved emphasize the active components of learning: discovery, reflective observation, trial and error, and growing with challenges or collaboration. The ability to act as autonomous, responsible individuals, and the skill known as “civic competence” are formed in broad-reaching, heterogenous learning environments, and therefore are inherently composed of a variety of learning experiences. These experiences, in turn, need to be connected by means of a consciously designed learning process.

The more these “different learning opportunities complement each other, the more efficient and sustainable the learning process becomes.”[1] Such processes combine group interactions and experiential learning, cognitive learning, opportunities for informal learning, and reflection.

Other authors emphasize the active role of the learner in the learning process: “Learning to become an active citizen is about knowledge and attitudes, which require the use of methodologies that actively involve learners in their own learning. For example, experiential learning, project-based learning, and learning by doing based on everyday life are effective ways of increasing the appetite for learning and the acquisition of transversal skills such as teamwork.”[2]

These active approaches to learning are holistic in the sense that they apply to a broad range of fields in which a learner acts as an actual or potential instigator of change in society.

Learning opportunities in a holistic setting

Facilitators shape learning opportunities in which their participants may experience, reflect on, and develop their existing skills and resources. The Circular Learning Model is illustrating how experience and reflective observation in a curricular learning process help to aquire new learning outcome. In the best case scenario, this activates complex knowledge and establishes key competences. A training that creates opportunities to experience different aspects of learning and ways of being can make learning more relevant to “real life” situations. Linking previous and new knowledge in an interconnected network allows participants to flexibly and actively apply their new skills to a variety of situations.

The different learning opportunities that holistic learning brings to an interactive model are:

Practical experience

  • Role-playing games
  • Independent work on tasks
  • Teamwork
  • Small projects or civic initiatives
  • Simulations
  • Visiting organizations or working with experts
  • Participants presenting their experience and expertise

Acquiring knowledge

  • Involving experts
  • Sharing expertise among participants
  • Text work, media work
  • Analytical tasks

Reflective evaluation

  • Collaborative feedback
  • (Self-)evaluation of experience and outcome
  • Learning to set personal criteria for success
  • Discussion

Addressing the whole personality

Holistic learning is not only defined by the range of learning opportunities that facilitators use to create a complex and deep learning experience. Another aspect of holistic learning is that it addresses and involves the learner's whole personality and broad knowledge assets.

  • Cognitive– learning facts, theory, logical relations
  • Emotional– playfulness, feeling connected to others, experiencing positive and negative emotions by being challenged, emotions regarding values and intellectual concepts
  • Practical – turning ideas into decisions and actions, practicing skills and experimenting

If you plan a meeting, you should choose methods that require your participants to use their cognition, emotion, and experience actively. Activities that support different aspects of our personalities:



  • Thinking
  • Judging
  • Interpreting
  • Discussing
  • Reading
  • Conceptualizing


  • Feeling connected to others
  • Playfulness
  • Experiencing yourself in a group
  • Experiencing positive and negative emotions
  • Feeling capable and strong


  • Practice outside the classroom
  • Learning by doing
  • Simulation games
  • Implementing projects
  • Teamwork

Making use of unconsciously gained experience for learning

When cognitive, emotional and practical experiences are the “material” that a learner is supposed to gain, the success of that learning process depends on whether a learner knows what to do with this material, how to interpret and evaluate it. In many learning environments, we are used to reflecting primarily on cognitive processes. We rationalize practical experience. As facilitators and participants, in this case we feel less capable of reflecting on the emotional aspects associated with learning. But in reality, we experience feelings towards other people, roles or situations, even though these are less observed and reflected upon. Generally speaking, positive and negative feelings come up when we act in unfamiliar situations or deal with unknown issues. Therefore, it is not only a condition but a criteria of holistic learning that participants should uncover that treasure.

But not all unconscious learning is firstly related to emotion. A great deal of informal learning takes place in social activities. We experience the world and culture at the same time. We create relationships, explore what our purpose is, structure time, and (re-)create our engagement without thinking of it as a planned process. Here, non-formal education offers a space in which experiences may be reflected upon as “purposeful and useful”. Such learning is described as “learning in planned activities not explicitly designated as learning”, for example a gathering in a volunteer initiative or a seminar outside of school.[3]

In a way, holistic learning seeks to increase our consciousness of our behaviors and skills. This helps individuals see how self-development takes place. Furthermore, an increased capacity to observe personal experience on a meta-level helps people to become active in a targeted way. In the learning spiral, we raised the importance of learners’ capacities for reflective observation. Through the use of observation, people can see their behavior from a meta-perspective. “People can step out of their own subjective points of view, putting themselves in positions to better analyze their situations.”[4]

Therefore, holistic learning shapes opportunities for such self-observation. In a broader sense, we should encourage participants to search for the unknown, to look “beyond one 's own nose”. Anyone who can observe themselves more abstractly becomes less irritated and more inspired by diverging from the status quo or even taking on new, “strange” experiences.

Your impact: Zooming in and out of the bigger picture


On the one hand, holistic learning is about emotional learning, but on the other hand it helps us understand how many individual aspects are interconnected. In schools it is very often the case that we are not encouraged to develop this “bigger picture”. Instead, we are expected to take notes that are as detailed as possible so that we can reproduce them in an exam.

An individual's specific activity is embedded in social interactions, which are in turn embedded in larger social structures. This continues all the way up to the global level. In this sense, each individual is not a free molecule, nor a static part of a large construction. People are part of different groups and social sub-systems with whom they interconnect in different roles. For successful, targeted social activities, people need to recognize the links within such systems so that they can build a bridge between their personal behavior to larger social issues and the general (democratic) principles that shape our society. In order to deal with such complexity, participants must increase their capacity to exchange with representatives of other parts or "systems" in society. Some are better able to represent their sense of initiative to employers, so they get a job and more money (their interaction with the economic system). Alternatively, a student may be motivated to learn more about a topic and he or she starts to study independently in the library, gaining a new academic reputation from his or her new expertise (interaction with the educational system). Or, three neighbors start a public initiative for cleaning up the park and challenging the city municipality (interaction with the administrative or political system).

In this sense, thinking in systems reveals how our behavior has a social impact. It helps learners to understand how they might influence their direct environment, their larger surroundings, and also their entire society, as when other people join or copy an idea.

Engagement affects many different societal subsystems, some of which are intended to be affected, and many of which were not. Sometimes change takes place directly, but more often it takes place indirectly and you see the changes better with the benefit of hindsight. When it comes to competencies, people require the capacity to observe themselves within the bigger picture and to develop strategies for complex action. There is a variety of methods that may support this learning.

How to encourage systemic thinking

Visualizing complexity

Charts, infographics, tables, brainstorming maps, or schematic visualizations of developments increase the comprehensibility of complicated issues and help us organize. We could use such tools to clearly show interconnections.

Verbalizing complexity

In a group, every learner has a different perspective on the topic or a process. Since all of these perceptions are “true”, include these different perspectives in order to better describe what reality appears to be. Traditional facilitation often only promotes a dominant narrative, the institutions’ official version of reality.

When learning occurs in a complex process, we better adjust our vocabulary. This includes clarification, or defining what exactly we mean when we use a concrete term.

Exploring reality in all its facets

Participants need to gain a more complete picture of reality if they want to shape it with socially relevant activities. In order to achieve this big picture, individuals need to increase their capacity for observation and analysis.

Approaches like Human Centered Design or Design Thinking emphasize a deeper exploration of social conditions and needs before planning and implementing an intervention in the form of an initiative or a project.

Our working definition of holistic learning



Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Network Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email: office@dare-network.eu

Elke Heublein

Co-founder of Working Between Cultures. Co-author of Holistic learning. Facilitator since 2004, certified intercultural facilitator (Institute for Intercultural Communikation, LMU München) and trainer (IHK Akademie München/Westerham), adult education (Foundation University Hildesheim). Focus: Cooperation and leadership in heterogenouos teams, higher education, train-the-trainer.

Holistic Learning


Planning experiential, inspirational and participatory learning processes in non-formal education.


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E. Heublein, N. Zimmermann

Holistic Learning

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