What is Total Education?

Conventional approaches to education have not been based on a holistic view of the child. As long as he or she comes out of high school, or technical college or university, with the ability to earn a livelihood, the teachers and the system are considered to have justified their existence. Whether or not the individuals produced by them are emotionally stable, self-reliant, moral — whether or not they have principles and a sense of values and a desire to serve their fellow man is much a matter of chance. Yet all these qualities, and many others, are necessary if the individual is to lead a happy, productive life, and they can be developed by total education.

Total education is designed, then, to produce more mature, well-integrated individuals, who can realize their potential on all levels: physical, intellectual and spiritual. It is based on the principle that knowledge must evolve from within and cannot be imposed from outside. Conventional education, on the other hand, is far too often merely a process of filling empty vessels, of cramming facts into children’s heads. In the context of total education, academic or intellectual training serves a dual purpose — it gives the children the training they need to take a place in our society and, at the same time, it is used to develop the child’s character.

Mathematics and language, for example, are subjects which lend themselves admirably to being taught in such a way as to cultivate in the child a capacity for self-discipline. Similarly with physical education and sports. In conventional schools they are not integrated into the overall training of the children. The spirit of competition is encouraged and at best a few references may be made to team spirit and loyalty to the school, but without any real attempt to make the child aware of the values involved. This approach can only lead to tension, to selfishness, and in some cases, to trauma and emotional problems. Under the system of total education, competition is not used as a motivating force. The children are encouraged to do their best but not to attach any importance to the result. So, whatever the children are doing — whether it be mathematics, or cooking, or carpentry, or playing tennis, or even helping to clean up the school — the teacher’s aim is to have them do it in such a way as to develop their character.

One of the features of the system of total education is that it is the child’s needs and interests which determine the teacher’s approach. Initially children are given the opportunity to indulge in all sorts of activities, and then, when their personal interests develop and manifest themselves, the children develop those interests under the guidance and supervision of a teacher. It is the teacher’s responsibility to direct these activities in such a way as to challenge and stimulate the growth of the child’s self-confidence and feeling of achievement. As there is no competition between the children, they are not pressured to achieve or develop at a rate which is not their own. Under these circumstances, the child’s education really is a drawing out process. It is what is in the child that comes out, not what the teacher puts in, which is important. And when this happens, then the child’s personality can flourish, can mature and no foreign elements are introduced to it.

This is only possible of course with a very high teacher/pupil ratio, something in the order of one teacher to five pupils in the primary school. Such a ratio enables the teacher to give individual attention to his pupils, to satisfy their needs and develop the right relationship with them — a relationship based on love and respect. The respect which the pupils have for their teacher because of his qualities and his lifestyle is a powerful force in their training. Respect for the teacher’s knowledge and wisdom ensures that the pupil follows the advice and direction he or she is given, and the urge to gain and retain the teacher’s respect becomes a strong motivating force in the child. The most important factor in this relationship is the example of the teacher. If the teacher does not have the qualities he wants to develop in the child, if he cannot subordinate his own needs to those of others, and if he has not incorporated fundamental values into his own lifestyle, then mutual trust, warmth and respect which is essential cannot develop.

Another important aspect of total education is the introduction of quiet times into the day’s activities to help the children develop a more detached, more contemplative approach to life. The word spiritual is prone to misinterpretation these days, but in the sense of what is best in man — a capacity for altruistic love, compassion, an urge to perfect himself — this practice of a daily quiet time is essential to the child’s spiritual development. Allied to this are the storytelling sessions which play an important part in the children’s moral education. Traditional stories from all cultures are used to develop an appreciation of values, and also to acquaint the children with anger, greed, envy, jealousy and so on, so that they can be trained to accept the fact that this sort of behaviour does occur in others and in themselves and to cope with it constructively.

In the system of total education all aspects of a child’s training are related. This is not just a general attitude based on some old ideas like cold showers and cricket to build up character. Rather, it is the result of experience, of training, in just how one does develop a child’s character. To my mind there are three fundamental traits, without which a person will never have a strong character. These are patience, consistency and responsibility. For where there is impatience, inconsistency, where there is an irresponsible attitude then there can be no emotional stability, and without emotional stability there can be no happiness.

About the Author

Dr Leo Las Gourgues was a lecturer in the Department of French at Melbourne University during the 1970s. Dr Las Gourgues was also involved in the early planning and development of The School of Total Education in the 1970s and his two children attended SOTE during the 1980s and 1990s.

This overview of the philosophy and practice of Total Education was originally published in Volume 1 Number 3 of the Journal of the Helen Vale Foundation in 1977. (Published on web site: May 2011).