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Blog Jan 22, 2021

A New Vision for a New Administration: Whole-Child Development, Learning and Thriving

“But what if, all along, these well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap have been  opening the door to racist ideas? What if different environments lead to different kinds of  achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing  black child in a poor black school is different from – and not inferior to – the intellect of a high testing white child in a rich white school? What if we measured intelligence by how  knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by  an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective  educational system is not by standardizing our curricula and tests but by standardizing the  opportunities available to all students?” 

–IBRAM X. KENDI, How to Be an Anti-Racist


By Pamela Cantor M.D., Turnaround for Children

Imagine a world where every child’s life is a succession of opportunities – opportunities where children come to know who they are and discover who they could become. Imagine learning settings of all kinds where those kinds of opportunities are not only possible, they are intentionally built and optimized, regardless of where a child lives or begins school. Imagine too that educators could identify each child’s abilities, interests, and aspirations and align them with the contexts that promote them. Finally, imagine a world that removes the constraints of racism, poverty, disparities, and injustices and provides each child with the specific relationships and supports to thrive.

COVID-19, the related service economy recession, and ongoing racialized violence have laid bare the inequities of experience and opportunity for many young people in our country. However, developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. Children’s brains and bodies are malleable. The contexts and relationships they are exposed to are the primary driver of who they become, down to the expression of their genes. The risks and the opportunities in development sit inside this one profoundly important point. And it is this single point that carries the enormous opportunity we have today because we can use the principles of Whole-Child Design (illustrated below) to build equitable environments that intentionally seek to eliminate barriers and biases that stem from institutionalized racism, ignite learning, encourage agency, and build the 21st century skills and mastery-level competencies they will need to live lives of fulfillment and opportunity.

Our societal structures were designed to privilege some and not others. Our education systems were designed for sorting and selecting based on beliefs, assumptions, and incorrect knowledge that we now know to be false. But these false assumptions are not only drivers of the design of our public systems. Our public systems, including our education systems, were intentionally and systematically designed based on racist and white supremacist structures that promote, privilege, and advantage specific groups while oppressing and marginalizing other races and genders. The institutional forces that have enabled this racist system to exist can be found in every corner of our social, economic, and educational infrastructure.

There is burgeoning scientific knowledge about the biologic systems that govern human life, including the systems of the human brain (Cantor et al., 2019; Cantor & Osher, in preparation; Darling-Hammond et al., 2020; Osher, Cantor, et al., 2020). Today, researchers can study the brain’s structure, wiring, metabolism, and connections to other systems of the body and to the external world (Immordino-Yang, et al., 2019). Researchers know much more than they did when the 20th century U.S. educational systems were designed. It is the responsibility of all people interested in the thriving of children to use this knowledge to design a system characterized by robust equity, “a system in which all individuals are able to take advantage of high-quality opportunities for transformative learning and development” (Osher, et al., 2020b, p. 3). 


“Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole-Child Design” (above) is attributed to the Forum for Youth Investment, the Learning Policy Institute, and Turnaround for Children

The science calls for learning and support systems mapped to the way the brain develops and children learn – a design that combines positive developmental relationships, environments filled with safety and belonging, rich learning experiences, the development of the knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits that all successful learners have, and integrated support systems so that students discover all that they are capable of. Not some of these things – all of them, integrated with one another. The development of a whole child emerges, equipped with complex skills and mastery level competencies, when we combine these elements into experiences that connect to one another.

The core message from the science of learning is clear: the range of students’ academic skills and knowledge – and, ultimately, students’ potential as human beings – can be significantly influenced through exposure to highly favorable conditions: learning environments and experiences that are intentionally designed to optimize student development (Bloom, 1984; Fischer & Bidell, 2006). To create this transformation, core insights from the science of learning and development must become the foundation for new, 21st century education and learning systems designed for the learning recovery and acceleration that we need today (Cantor et al., 2019; Cantor & Osher, in press; Darling-Hammond et al., 2020; Osher, Cantor, et al., 2020). 

The most important role the Biden administration could play is to lay out a powerful, courageous vision that combines learning recovery with accelerated opportunity, focused on equity, using all that we know about human development, the development of the brain, and learning science.

The good news is that we have the knowledge today to do this.  

On top of that, technology is a powerful lever to get innovations to low-income children and young people in ways that we have not been able to do in the past.

Here is a short list of recommendations for the new administration, framed around authentic equity, humanity and opportunity: 

I. Enabling Conditions 

  1. Correct broadband inequity 
  2. Provide immediate relief with a focus on women and children 
  3. Focus on student well-being and learning recovery 
  4. Prioritize community and family partnership

II. Investing in R&D and Innovation Zones 

  1. Invest in R & D to operationalize multi-dimensional Whole-Child Design and innovation in the form of new models, curricula that integrate essential skills and content knowledge, structures that put relationships and belonging at the center of learning, and structures that prioritize student health and well-being that include the fullest possible engagement with families.
  2. Invest in innovation zones in diverse geographies for these new models so we solve the implementation challenges and create enabling policies to support high fidelity operations and implementation. 

III. Measurement  

  1. Should answer the question posed by the Specificity Principle: “what works for whom in what context” (Bornstein, 2017).
  2. Support the development of holistic measurement systems that can visualize the comprehensive development of a learner across settings and across time; measures should include both academic competencies, well-being, and those hard-to-measure 21st century skills for learning and life. 
  3. Support the development of good measures of context and settings so we can see both “the fish and the lake” – the technologies to do this exist today.

We can do what researchers and practitioners in other fields have done – ask and answer the question: what will work for this child in this context? It is that question that gets us to a fundamentally different design for our learning systems, one that is designed to remove barriers to opportunity and equity and to see and unleash talent and potential so that each and every young person thrives.


Reference List: 

Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 Sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as  effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4-16. 

Bornstein, M. H. (2017). The specificity principle in acculturation science. Perspectives in  Psychological Science, 12(1), 3-45. 

Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L. & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and  individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307-337. DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649  

Cantor, P., Lerner, R. M., Pittman, K., Chase, P. A., & Gomperts, N. (in press). Whole-Child Development, Learning, and Thriving: A dynamic systems approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications  for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97-140. 

Fischer, K. W., & Bidell, T. R. (2006). Dynamic development of action and thought. In R. M.  Lerner (Ed.). Theoretical models of human development. Volume 1 of Handbook of Child  Psychology (6th ed.) (pp. 313-399). Editors-in-chief: W. Damon & R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L. & Rose, T. (2020). Drivers of human development:  How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1). doi:10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650 

Osher, D., Pittman, K., Young, J., Smith, H., Moroney, D., & Irby, M. (2020). Thriving, robust equity, and transformative learning & development: A more powerful conceptualization of the contributors to youth success. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research and Forum for Youth Investment.


Pamela Cantor, M.D., is a national thought leader on human potential, learning and developmental science, and educational equity; a child and adolescent psychiatrist; and the Founder of Turnaround for Children, which translates scientific insights into tools and services that help educators establish conditions that enable all students to thrive.