Holistic education

Jun 10, 2016 An educators’ advice for providing young minds with the skills they need to thrive in the modern world


By Urvi Shah, Director of Educational Technology and Innovation, Independent Girls School, Maryland

What qualities do you want your students to have?

Recently, I was in a faculty meeting, and we had an exercise to brainstorm qualities with which we want to imbue our students. The list included: able to solve problems, ease of teamwork, enthusiasm for learning, compassionate, innovative, curious, creative, fluent in critical thinking, etc. The results of this same activity have been homogenous across each of the schools at which I have taught; as educators, we want our students to not just be good test takers but to embody, practice, use, and grow their ability to learn, think, and create both effectively and responsibly.

Why are soft skills relevant to modern education?

Every generation above us has once before proclaimed that the jobs they perform did not exist when they were young. After the industrial revolution, the various digital/technological revolutions, and future revolutions to come, more and more jobs have been and will be created that did not exist for the previous generation. These days, the rate at which the job market Holistic Educationcreates new titles and career paths is so fast that members of a single generation have needed to reeducate themselves to keep up, sometimes more than once. What equips us and future generations to be successful in our careers amid this kind of workforce velocity? How are we preparing students to take on jobs that we’ve never heard of? Content knowledge will of course be crucial; however, more importantly, we want our students equipped with transferable soft skills such as teamwork, problem solving, asking meaningful questions, being creative, and thinking critically. Students who have practiced, failed, received feedback, succeeded, and, most importantly, reflected on the development of their skills will be able to apply their growing cumulous of knowledge to any new job or emerging career path no matter where industry moves. These transferable skills will allow our future workforce to be nimble in the face of uncertainty and change as well as find innovative solutions to challenging problems.

Additionally, we want all of our students to grow to be compassionate, caring, understanding, empathetic, and self-aware (developing a high emotional intelligence) adults; I am naming these “softer” skills to differentiate them from traditional soft skills. It is critical that we nurture these qualities in our students in order for them to be able to navigate ever-changing and challenging professional situations, especially when they take on responsibility for others as managers. Ideally, we want our future adults to be able to care for the future of humanity and our planet while they are innovating, problem solving, ask questions, and being creative. We want our politicians to have a deep understanding of policy work, be able to work effectively and compromise with other politicians, and be compassionate and empathetic to the needs of their constituents. We want our doctors to know and understand the human body, to think innovatively about the medical solutions they apply and demonstrate genuine empathy for their patients. Every profession, career, and job at their roots require content knowledge, the application of soft skills, and the exhibition of softer skills. We know innately that these are the qualities in which adults require fluency to be successful in their professional and personal lives alike. Schools or programs that provide a holistic education - one that incorporates content knowledge, soft skills, and softer skills - are best serving the continuous evolution of our civilization.

Why are schools a critical space for developing these skills?

Schools are possibly a child’s greatest opportunity for obtaining social, emotional, physical, and intellectual growth. Schools naturally and organically provide these opportunities in the classroom, on the court, and during field trips for the growth of both soft and softer skills. The challenge for educators lies in creating opportunities with executable learning outcomes, pauses, and reflections; doing so is both time consuming and often lacking in framework. Consequently we measure academic achievement through various forms of assessment, both qualitatively and quantitatively, but do not readily assess progress toward softer skills The academic community can rectify this in two ways: 1) by consistently creating activities that push students out of their natural comfort zones to develop these skills, and 2) ensuring opportunities during class that allow students to self-assess, self-report, and reflect on their growth in these areas in relation to their academic projects. Understandably, these recommendations are easier said than done; however, programs already exist such as FIRST and Tribes that provide these frameworks for nurturing a holistic education and developing hard, soft, and softer skills within our students.

How does FIRST provide a holistic education?

FIRST programs create not only competitions for students to build, design, and program robots but also opportunities for science, technology, and engineering-interested students to practice Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition. When my students participated in the FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge, we would start and end our sessions with community circles that incorporated discussions about what positive teamwork really looks like; what organization feels like; how we effectively manage our time; what problem solving strategies did we apply; and how do we respond to each other amidst sometimes heightened emotions. The use of community circles was adopted from Tribes. When challenges arose while students built their robots or worked on their innovative project, we routinely took time to discuss and reflect on what happened, what were our reactions, and the ways in which we can handle the situation differently in the future. FIRST provides such assessment rubrics on soft/softer skills and ideas for activities to help teachers ask the right questions and guide discussions.

Many teachers naturally encourage developmental growth among students and some schools even provide seminars on soft/softer skills. However, for educators and administrators looking to provide holistic education within an established and recognized framework, I recommend trying a FIRST program. FIRST gives students an opportunity to practice compassion, hard work, and collaboration and become emotionally intelligent engineers and scientists. Establishing these skills early will afford them the ability to adapt and respond to the many unknowable challenges that will arise for their generation throughout their careers. What more could we ask for?


Urvi Shah is the Director of Educational Technology and Innovation at an independent girls school in Maryland. Read Urvi’s bio.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.


Back to Blog