What Will It Take to Promote Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving at Scale?

Three Networks Offer Promising Models


American Educator, Fall 2021

In the United States, progressive educators have long sought to transform schools to allow more student-centered, inquiry-driven, and community-connected approaches that nurture the whole child. From John Dewey, founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory School, to William A. Robinson, principal of the Atlanta University Laboratory High School and an organizer of Black progressive educators in the South,1 innovators have drawn on the sciences of learning and development as they evolved, and on their own close observations of children, to create schools that mirror the principles described in the main article.

Yet, sustaining and spreading these models remains a challenge. Classrooms and schools that support long-term relationships, student-centered learning, and strong community connections confront a wide range of institutional barriers. These barriers include the factory-model school structures that depersonalized schools at the turn of the 20th century; the textbooks and pacing guides that direct attention away from students’ interests, cultural and community experiences, and zones of proximal development; and the testing and tracking systems that presume fixed intelligence along a bell curve, reinforcing discrimination based on race, economic status, and language background. Developing and retaining the “infinitely skilled teachers”2 who can support this kind of learning (without the systemic resources it merits) has also been a challenge in sustaining progressive education reform.

Nevertheless, there are thousands of schools in the United States that have been redesigned to reflect student-centered principles. Many have now created networks that support professional development to deepen their work. For example, these three networks create positive outcomes for high school students from marginalized racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups:

  • Big Picture Learning, which has an experiential approach grounded in personalized courses of study and workplace learning, typically takes place in community-based internships.
  • The Internationals Network for Public Schools serves new immigrant students through collaborative, inquiry-based learning for new English learners.
  • New Tech Network offers interdisciplinary project-based learning that is team based and technology supported.

All of these networks enable students to “learn how to learn” by developing both content knowledge and the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and mindsets that increase self-awareness, executive function, perseverance, and resilience. These developments are made possible through

  • advisory systems that enable small groups of students to work with the same advisor who supports their social, emotional, and academic needs over multiple years;
  • teacher teams that share students and sometimes loop with them for more than one year, while collaborating on untracked curriculum that is interdisciplinary and project based;
  • restorative practices enabling strong, caring communities in which students preserve and strengthen relationships and supports for each other; and
  • linkages to community organizations providing a range of wraparound supports as well as internships and authentic learning experiences.

The three networks have planted these sophisticated models in hundreds of public schools across the United States by working closely with districts to engage communities, helping educators and members of the public see and experience new models of education, co-constructing new school structures along with pedagogies, developing knowledgeable leaders, providing curriculum supports and ongoing training and coaching to teachers and other staff, and engaging in continuous improvement. Although the work is difficult, these efforts show that it is possible and worthwhile.

Linda Darling-Hammond is the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, and a past president of the American Educational Research Association. This sidebar is adapted from her sidebar, “What Will It Take to Promote Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving at Scale?,” in Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving: A Dynamic Systems Approach, by Pamela Cantor, Richard M. Lerner, Karen J. Pittman, Paul A. Chase, and Nora Gomperts (Cambridge University Press, 2021).


1. L. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957 (New York: Knopf, 1961); and C. Kridel, ed., Becoming an African American Progressive Educator: Narratives from 1940s Black Progressive High Schools (Columbia, SC: Museum of Education, University of South Carolina, 2018).
2. L. Cremin, The Genius of American Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 56. See also L. Hernández et al., Deeper Learning Networks: Taking Student-Centered Learning and Equity to Scale (Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, 2019).

[Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson]

American Educator, Fall 2021