How to teach holistically when you’re an analytic

Building Learning
Photo credit: Skalunda from


With the onset of Common Core  (yes, we’ve all heard the buzz) and the subsequent confusion from parents, I habitually get questioned concerning my impressions of Common Core. As a homeschooler who left public education, most parents assume I’ll be dead set against “that crazy way to teach”. I almost take great delight in shattering illusions as I reply, “I love Common Core!” Oh, the shock, the outrage, the totally confuzzlement of the expressions I see! The truth is, I do.

Let me begin by saying that I despise the way most Common Core approaches to mathematics are taught in school. It’s nonsensical. Taking an analytic approach to holistic instruction is not only bad form, it makes absolutely no sense. It’s like teaching a monkey how to swim like a fish. Yeah, that bad. Why? Just, why?


My professional experience solidifies my understanding that most Common Core instruction touted in schools as the new wave in understanding today is written from the wrong perspective-it’s written with an analytic approach about a holistic way of learning.

What’s the difference? Let me explain it holistically (with a little analytic throw in).



Case in point:

As child, I often struggled with understanding mathematical algorithms. Usually the algorithm was demonstrated to me, used in a variety of circumstances, and I was let loose with my paper and pencil to mimic what I had “learned”. It was a nonsensical approach for me (and still is) since without any background or conceptual understanding I’m unable to follow what seem to be easily understood directions by most people. Similar tasks seemed rudimentary and illogical. I felt like I was given directions on how to pick up a piece of paper step-by-step or how to drink from a cup and if a movement was incorrect, I was wrong and would have to start over. Imagine if picking up trash was micromanaged with the same approach!


Though I could usually mimic the procedure, it bore no connection to the depth of understanding I craved and was easily dismissed by my brain or, it piqued my curiosity enough to warrant further investigation. There was no middle ground of happiness. When a procedure was proclaimed test worthy, I sensed its urgency and demand for attention, but many times I categorized it as a seemingly arbitrary focus for the moment. Without deep connections, I let it go. I still use this approach for my own learning; though sometimes I can fake it better. It’s who I am.


“Analytics learn sequentially, building details into the understanding…” 

“Holistic/global students however, have a right-brain dominant, more feeling-based thinking style, learn holistically and compared to analytics often ‘backwards’. They need the big picture, an overview first and once they understand the concept then they are able to concentrate on details.”- Creative Learning Systems


For those of you whom I’m confusing further, imagine that I ask you to describe the clothing of the man who passed you at the grocery store last Saturday in the soup aisle. I’m sure I would receive a quizzical and confused expression in response to my request. As I continue to reinforce the urgency and arbitrary demand for focus, you may mentally file away that request for information so that the next time we meet you’ll be able to tell me; but it will remain a disconnected memory and one that is of little value to you. That is how we, as conceptual thinkers, perceive unfamiliar analytics. We are asked seemingly disconnected information with little explanation of connectivity and pertinence. We need more information to understand the “big picture” before we can provide you with the details.  Though we ARE smart enough, we regard analytic instruction as awkward, micromanaged, and mostly irrelevant. It makes little sense to us and if it doesn’t make sense, it’s unworthy of our time and attention.



Coping Mechanisms:

I invented my own algorithms throughout life. I’ve had few teachers who understood that common algorithms don’t work for me. Not because, I’m not smart enough to understand them, but because they offer no return on investment. Luckily, I learned short division and a quick and easy way to subtract across zeroes from those precious few teachers who understood I needed to find my way. As I learned, I passed on those new algorithms to students I encountered throughout my career. Other times, I’ve learned new approaches (some that made even more sense to me) from my students.


If you’re not learning from your students as a teacher, you’re really missing out. All of life is about making you a better person; making you more YOU. I was able to reach more students and support more connections for them because I was flexible with my guidance in the classroom. When my students told me that I was a “great teacher”, I always responded with, “No, you’re a great learner.” They could learn with or without me, but great teaching is all about reaching the learner on his own terms. Those connections will never happen without the flexibility and understanding of what makes each unique learner tick.


So, now that I’ve give you my analytic view (the best I can) of what’s wrong with teaching holistic learners like analytic learners, let me break it down into the step-by-step model that many of you embrace.


When teaching a holistic learner a new concept:


1. Relate the new concept to previous learnings in every way you can.

If it’s math, connect it to science or reading or video games (yes, I did say that). Go back and refresh his memory on a less difficult concept that relates to the new learning. Review it. Ask him if he feels comfortable and understands how to solve this earlier and more foundational problems.
If not, back up and start with an even more basic concept. Build your tower from the bottom ensuring a strong foundation.
Then, it will be time to move on.


2. Use relatable vocabulary.

When my son was being introduced to mimicry, we talked about camouflage, but I also knew that Minecraft had a relatable example for him. In Minecraft, some chests are not chests for storage at all. They look like chests and act like chests, until you try to open them. Then, you’ll discover that they only mimic chests. They are, in fact, a monster found in a mod on a pretty popular computer game these days. Though my son still struggles to explain HOW animals mimic plants and other animals, he understands the definition and what it means because of that connection.


3. Find connections.

Connections are crucial. Without connections, the vocabulary, the concept, and the details will vanish….if they ever appear as learning in the first place. The Commutative Property in mathematics is a concept that takes precedence in standardized testing. Basically, students need to be able to match a commutative property example with the term. The Commutative Property happens when numerals switch their place in an addition or multiplication equation. Pretty much, it’s a concept that a kindergartner can understand. Ask her to find the answer to 3+4. If she knows it’s 7, ask her to find the answer to 4+3. Most kids will smile and respond with, “That’s the same thing, 7!”

Third graders assume you’re talking down to them, but it’s not the concept that standardized tests want, it’s the terminology. Most testing is analytic. That’s where the struggle comes in for holistic-minded kids. They think, I know all about it and they do. The difficulty is in explaining it to others. (Something I continue to struggle with as a holistic-minded adult.) They have to focus on remembering the word but conceptually it’s very vague.

I’d draw little cars around the numbers (often mistaken for turtles) to encourage “commute” as a connection. I’d have students hold number cards and ask them to “commute” to the other end of the board simulating the changes in commutative equations; anything I could do to reinforce that term in their heads. As students entered and exited the room I told them to, “have a safe commute” to their next class. During bus duty in the afternoon, I told them to, “have a safe commute home.” When they arrived in my classroom, I asked several if they “had a safe commute”. Bothersome? Maybe. Irritating? To some. But, the connection of commuting as going from one place to another stuck in many heads long enough for the test. To this day, that’s the only way I remember commutative as an adult. I need connections. Did some kids memorize the term easily without my gimmicks? Yep. Did it always work? Nope. Why did some forget? Because there wasn’t enough of a connection. I did what I could.

Photo credit: Earl53 from morguefile.comConnections


 4. Provide context surrounding the learning.

Without context, the “WHY?” is going to pop out of the mouth of a holistic child. They’re honestly not being sassy, disrespectful, or bothersome. I was told that enough as a child and grew to believe it all my life…until as an adult I came to realize that many adults mindlessly follow authority without question. It’s still shocking to me! I have always questioned everyone and everything. Yes, I’ve taken LOTS and LOTS of slack for it and stopped asking questions for several years just to save myself distress, but I’m happy to report I’m back to questioning everything. While it makes for some uncomfortable situations, I’ve embraced my natural curiosity and need for understanding as who I am.

So, how do you provide context? Use connections, but also where the concept, term, or instruction fits into the big picture. Yes, provide a child learning about meteorology with a big picture graphic or outline that gives information about all of science. While it seems like an overload of information, let him know that all you’re focusing on is meteorology, but here’s the why, the connections, and the context.


5. Schedule more time than you think. 

If I hand you the information linked above, you may be overwhelmed. I was, but I was also intrigued. Some people can immediately move past all of the content (and in fact, prefer to) to hone in on the specific details. Then, there are the rest of us.

We need to explore; but we need the time to explore. Yes, it’s more time up front, but it will save you time and connections later. Some learners need the big picture first. Tell us where it fits in an outline, tell us about the root word, the prefixes, let us play with the tools, do simulations, and make connections to the topic. Then, we can breeze through the rest of it.

We need time to go off on tangents and then come back to regroup. It’s about the journey for us; not the destination. It takes time and wandering for us to feel ready to focus on the specifics of what you’re talking about. The good news is, later, we’ll have already built connections that we can access and link together to expand our knowledge. Other learners won’t have so many connections and will have to continually add on. We want all of the blocks….now.


6. Let us talk or write or draw or express our understandings.

We will ask you tons of questions. My bet is that you’ll find many of them irrelevant, off topic, and possibly surprising. Answer them all. Let us discover what we need to know and get it all out there. Let us explain, question, rephrase, connect, doubt, and discover. You’ll probably be exhausted by the time we’re done. Then, we’ll be ready to listen.


7. Help us focus.

This is the toughest hurdle for the holistic-minded. We don’t naturally focus on one topic, one concept, one procedure, or one term. We want to embrace it all. Unfortunately, for us, most of the world demands the opposite. It’s difficult. It’s a struggle for us. What’s easy for you, is very difficult for us. But what is difficult for you, is easy for us. We almost can’t believe you don’t understand. It’s just so…easy.

Help us focus in on what you want us to understand. S-p-e-l-l i-t-o-u-t. Once we’ve been able to let loose, begrudgingly we may be able to better focus on what you want. It’s difficult to leave our utopia behind, but necessary sometimes. We’ll get to grin when we ask you to design something for us and you draw a tree.

In the meantime, lay it out for us. Let us know you want this, this, and this. Let us demonstrate this, this, and this in our own way though. When you don’t understand, ask us to identify your expectations within our vision. Probe further. It’s in there. You’re just able to simplify it better than us.


And for that we need your help.


(Word count is 2075. Time to go back and pare it all down analytic-style. haha….I went back to revise and ended up with a word count of 2160. Some things never change.)


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