The Head, The Hands and The Heart: In Conversation with John (Jack) Miller

The Head, The Hands and The Heart: In Conversation with John (Jack) Miller

Reflections on Well-Being In Ontario K-12 Education: Part II

By: Stefani Burosch

It’s funny how sometimes we get introduced to people or ideas at just the right time or at just the right moment in our own personal journey where we find ourselves seeking understanding, and so are more open to connection and inspiration. Some might call such experiences divine providence, fate, the stars aligning, God working in mysterious ways, a coincidence, or perhaps just pure chance. I am more inclined toward the former these days, but that’s just me.

One of the moments when I consciously mulled over this idea of providence versus chance was during my undergraduate years. There is a quote that was posted on my second year Invertebrate Zoology lab door at the University of Guelph, just before a final exam. For those of you who took Invertebrate Zoology at the UofG during the early 2000’s, you know just how notorious those exams were for putting students’ cortisol levels through the roof. I remember seeing this quote and feeling a sense of calm. It read, “Chance favours the prepared mind.”

Upon a highly technical Google search, I discovered that the quote is credited to Louis Pasteur, a 19th century French biologist and chemist who was, as it turns out, a genius responsible for discoveries including the principles of vaccination and pasteurization, a non-practicing Catholic, and a flawed man. But I digress. However you view the workings of the universe – providence, chance or something in between – I experienced one of these moments recently and it knocked my socks off. It also became the inspiration for this blog.  

After finishing up a year of thinking, planning and collaborating for the renewal of a three year mental health strategy for the Catholic district school board that I work for in Peterborough, On, I had started to think intently about how to bring this plan to life. I was thinking about our school board’s ongoing commitment to our work with The MEHRIT Centre and the concept of self-regulation. In particular, I was thinking about how to continue our journey toward creating schools as Self-Reg havens, a term coined by Dr. Stuart Shanker to describe a vision of schools as spaces that promote human flourishing in physically and emotionally nurturing environments. I was also thinking about questions like, “how do we deeply integrate the realms of faith, equity and well-being within our Catholic context toward this vision” and, “what does our Catholic perspective teach us about these concepts?”

At an October meeting of our board’s Faith and Equity committee, I was introduced to Pope Francis’ call to action on the Sept 1st Day of Prayer for Creation. In his address, he spoke to believers and unbelievers alike with these words,

“The relationship between poverty and the fragility of the planet requires another way of managing the economy and measuring progress. Because we need a change that unites us all. Free from the slavery of consumerism. That we may take good care of creation – a gift freely given.”

Indeed, Pope Francis is recognized for his leadership in renewing a vision of “being Church in the world.” In his Encyclical Laudato Si, Francis calls for a new relationality with the earth and he explores the spiritual dimension underlying ecological concerns. His words resonated deeply with me and I started to think more, not only about my role as the Mental Health Lead in a Catholic education context, but about the very way that we become living witnesses, as Catholic educators, to principles of well-being, equity and social justice in the way that we educate our students to approach the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

A couple of weeks later, as I was excitedly talking the ear off of my Superintendent about the connections between our Mental Health Strategy and Pope Francis’ call to action, she smiled at me and said, “You might be really interested in the work of my graduate thesis advisor. His name is John Miller and he is a professor at OISE [Ontario Institute for Studies in Education] at the University of Toronto. He wrote a book called the Holistic Curriculum and I can lend it to you.”

The next day, I found a copy of John’s textbook on my desk, circa 1993. The book was originally published in 1988 and a second edition was printed in 2007. As I eagerly flipped through the pages, I was struck by this passage,

“In this position [transformational teaching], there is a holistic emphasis, and the student is not just viewed in the cognitive mode, but in terms of his or her aesthetic, moral, physical, and spiritual needs.”

–  The Holistic Curriculum, John P. Miller, pg. 6, 1988 ed.

I quickly Googled John’s name and discovered that he is the author of many books on the topic of education and spirituality, and that he has been working in the field for more than forty years. Of particular note, John was involved in work with schools in Bhutan. In 2008, the Bhutan government sought to repurpose the economy to put human beings at the centre by pursuing the concept of Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. I decided right at that moment that I needed to talk to John because I had a lot of questions for him. I found his professional profile on the OISE University of Toronto website – oh the wonders of the Internet – and decided to send an email out into cyberspace.

To my surprise and great delight, John, known by friends, students and colleagues as “Jack,” responded that very same day. He generously agreed to a phone conversation. After I explained my professional role in the realm of school mental health in Ontario, I asked John if he would be amenable to having our conversation recorded and turned into a blog. Once again, John (Jack), generously obliged. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our phone conversation that took place on October 30th, 2017.

I should preface what follows with the fact that this conversation emerged wholly out of a moment of providence or chance encounter or something in-between, whichever suits your view of the world at this moment. It was not planned as part of a project, or for a specific purpose, and it is most certainly not connected to a political agenda. It is purely the result of the meeting of two minds, excited about shared interests and ideas related to a vision for a kinder, more peaceful and just world for all. As good fortune would have it, this conversation happened as the Ministry of Education is calling on a diversity of voices and opinions to contribute to a complete review of curriculum and assessment practices in Ontario. You can participate in this consultative process here.

Finally, I must note that the views and opinions that are discussed in this piece of writing do not represent the views of the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board, School Mental Health ASSIST, or any other organization that I am affiliated with personally or professionally. In sharing these ideas, I hope simply to contribute to the discussion and foster critical thinking about these important issues of our time.


Stefani: Hi Jack. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. My first question for you is, if you had to give me an elevator pitch about what the holistic curriculum is, what would it be?

Jack: Well, basically it’s about educating the whole person and for me, the whole person is the body, mind, and spirit or you could say the head, the hands and the heart. The second major aspect is about connectedness. It’s as much as possible trying to develop a curriculum that is not fragmented, but connected.

Stefani: Does the holistic curriculum outline a moral imperative for education and if so, what would that be?

Jack: I think moral imperative is bit strong. I would say certainly one of the major goals of holistic education is the development of compassion. Karen Armstrong is a person who has written a lot about this, about how compassion is what underlies the teachings of all of the great spiritual teachers, and people also like the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, who talk about the importance of developing compassion.

Dr. Armstrong actually developed what is called a Charter for Compassion that people around the world have signed from all different religions. And then out of her work, there are cities that have named themselves cities that focus on compassion and even schools that focus on compassion. The problem in our school system [in Ontario] is that it is very much focused on individual competition which reinforces a sense of separation rather than compassion. I think one of the major efforts in education should be to move to where compassion, forgiveness and empathy become central aspects of education.

Stefani: When you said that the idea of a moral imperative is a bit strong, could you expand on that a little bit?

Jack: Yeah, I just think that we should talk more about vision and goals. Sometimes people connect [the idea of a moral imperative] with a very limited view of what morality should be. So I would rather use the word value-based, like a value based imperative.

Stefani: That’s a really important point to consider. Language is so important – it creates our experience.

Jack: Right.

Stefani: My third question is, what social, political and economic factors do you see as impacting the uptake and implementation, or not, of a holistic curriculum? Perhaps you can speak to Bhutan as an example.

Jack: Yeah. You know, we live in consumerist society. We live in a society that is influenced by technology and media, and all of these factors make it difficult to have a holistic curriculum. So first of all, bringing an awareness of that and then trying to develop what I would call spaces, which could be schools or even whole school systems, that support holistic education.

The main problem with the current view, particularly in advanced or industrial societies, is that we have a very limited view of what the human being is. Basically there is so much talk about people getting jobs and the economy of the country as the main concern. So what you get is the whole system is set up around economic achievement and people finding the right job. That’s an important part of life for sure, but that is not what it means to be a human being, right? Your work is just part of what it means to be a human being.

Bhutan is one country that has set out the goal of Gross National Happiness, a sort of counter to that dominant idea. Other countries have picked that up and are trying to broaden their vision of what a society should be. So that’s an encouraging thing. A few years ago, I went to Bhutan and there was a follow up meeting at the United Nations where different countries came and supported this larger vision. But of course, the political developments in the United States and the sort of native populism which has arisen in different parts of the world, is now another concern in terms of developing Holistic Education.

Stefani: Right. What is your definition of Native Populism?

Jack: Well, sometimes it has a racial base, right? That people are not comfortable with diversity. In the United States, [with the recent election], it demonstrated that a lot of people are not comfortable with the diversity happening in society, and all of the changes that are happening in society. So they want to make America great again, you know, they want to go back to the fifties. This is also what happened in England when they rejected being part of the European Union.

Stefani: So I guess populism is this phenomenon that arises in a society where there is fear . . .

Jack: Yeah it’s fear based. A fear of change, a fear of diversity, both ethnic, sexual orientation, race, all of those things.

Stefani: And I guess it gives rise to a sense of protectionism, this sort of us versus them mentality.

Jack: Right.

Stefani: You mentioned a couple of other countries that have started to pick up this idea of Gross National Happiness.

Jack: France and England have both tried to take some of those ideas on but I don’t think that they’ve gone near as far as what Bhutan has done. But at least they’ve been brought up for discussion.

Stefani: For sure. So my next question is, to what degree has your work experienced uptake in the Ontario and Canadian context? What have been the successes and challenges, the barriers and facilitators to implementation?

Jack: The main success has been one school in Toronto, the Equinox School, which took the Holistic Curriculum as its framework for the program. It started in 2009, so it’s in its eighth year. I did a study of the school two years ago. The Equinox school has taken the Six Connections [intuitive connections, body-mind connections, subject connections, community connections, self-connections, earth connections] that are in the later edition of the Holistic Curriculum, and used that as a basis for developing their program.

So originally, Equinox was called The Whole Child School, but they changed the name to Equinox, and they’re very explicit that the spiritual is a part of what they do. It’s now the largest alternative school within the Toronto District School Board. They have two hundred kids from junior kindergarten to grade eight and they have a long waiting list of people who want to get in.

Stefani: So this is part of the Toronto District School Board, a public school board?

Jack: Yes. I was just in Norway two weeks ago and there are people there who have heard about Equinox and they are interested in developing a holistic vision for a school. They are interested in how Equinox started that. So Equinox was developed as a model. There has been some interest from another Ontario School Board as well. They are interested in trying to adapt or incorporate some of the principles of the Holistic Curriculum. So Equinox was developed, not only as a kind of a prototype for what a school might look like, but to try to inspire other people to do these kinds of things.

Stefani: Have you had much interaction with the Ontario Ministry of Education or groups within Canada, or have you sort of focused on tilling the soil where it’s soft?

The Head, The Hands, and The Heart: In Conversation With John (Jack) Miller >> self-reg.ca

Jack: Yeah. Years ago when there was a thing called the common curriculum, that was the late 80’s and very early 90’s, I was once invited to speak. There was a lot in the common curriculum about integrated curriculum. They didn’t use the word holistic so much but there was a lot about integrated curriculum. That is the closest I got to ever being involved at that level of policy development. But I think it really has to to be a ground-up thing. You know, this whole business of well-being is a very positive development that is certainly broadening people’s vision of what should happen in schools.

Stefani: It’s a very exciting time in Ontario right now. Just to give you some context, in the 80’s and 90’s, I was in school during those years. And it’s just now, the Ontario Ministry of Education – and I know there has been some movement around Canada as well – but the Ontario Ministry of Education has released a couple of landmark documents recently. One is the What We Heard, Well-Being in Our Schools, Strengths in Our Society document that was just released this fall. It was a follow-up to the province-wide consultation that the Ministry of Education did around the concept of well-being.

The second document is the Ontario Equity Action Plan which was just released this fall as well. I think it’s very hopeful, I mean, we’ll have to see how it plays out. But the document looks at four key areas including teaching and learning, governance, organizational culture, and data. And just to give an example, one specific deliverable that the plan outlines, is to have all school boards explicitly address the systemic barriers that have prevented certain groups of students from succeeding.

Part of the What We Heard document brings together these ideas of teaching and learning, explicit skill building for well-being, and creating supportive environments.

From my perspective, the piece that is missing is exactly the piece that you’re talking about. I think the Ministry of Education in Ontario is getting a little bit closer to recognizing that this idea of self/spirit at the core of well-being, is where that concept sits. However I don’t think we’ve gone so far yet to really bring these ideas into mainstream conversations – these ideas that you spoke to earlier. You know, the idea that we’re embedded in a consumerist society, that we’ve got these huge economic disparities, poverty is still a major issue. We’ve got certain subgroups of our population that are living in conditions that you would find in the developing world.

So I think that we’re getting closer to this idea of a holistic curriculum, but my hope is that we can take the conversation to that next level. Sorry – I interjected my piece there! (laughter) To get back to your point, in terms of your work on the Holistic Curriculum, it just hasn’t really happened yet in Ontario or Canada…

Jack: Yeah. Basically I haven’t done much work with governments anywhere. I have been going to Asia since 1994, and I’m going again at the end of November. They have what’s called the Asia-Pacific Network in Holistic Education, which is a group of different Asian countries and representatives who are doing working with holistic education, get together once a year to share their work. I’ve been involved in that for quite some time.

The other thing that you might be interested in, and this is a very very significant study, is a study being done on Whole Child Development. It’s done by the American Institutes of Research. I was invited to be a part of the study last spring, which includes eight countries in Europe and then Canada and the U.S. They’ve done on-site studies and visits to different Holistic or Whole Child Education initiatives in those different countries and then they’ve written a report. The final draft is supposed to come out this year. The first draft is 350 pages. It’s the most comprehensive study we’ve had. We have been really lacking that kind of data in holistic education. It’ll be a landmark study that’s supposed to help policymakers move in this direction.

Stefani: That’s fantastic. This is so exciting! I really appreciate this by the way. I have a few more questions for you. So Pope Francis recently called believers and unbelievers alike, to conceive of a different way of living, to free ourselves from the slavery of consumerism, and to prioritize human health and the collective stewardship of our shared home. What role might education and the implementation of the Holistic Curriculum play in answering this call?

Jack: In the Holistic Curriculum, one of the Six Connections of course, is connected to the Earth. That’s actually the difference between the First Edition of the Holistic Curriculum and the Second Edition. In the Second Edition, I brought that [connection to the earth] in. The whole idea of connectedness is so fundamental and that concept really comes from ecology. The reality is that everything is interconnected at different levels and so we need to learn to live that way. We need to understand how things are interconnected. And we need to learn to live in a way that supports that rather than destroying it. So that’s got to be a major focus of education. Holistic education can be aligned with ecological education, environmental education, and human rights education, and there are other movements that it needs to be connected with too.

Stefani: Right. Have you heard about a project that just is coming out of Trent University, in collaboration with the Indigenous Environmental Studies program there? It’s called Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship?

Jack: I’m not aware of that. But I would say that the Indigenous people are really the first holistic educators because they understood how everything is connected. I have a connection with some Indigenous Educators, particularly in the U.S. who have written a lot and they’re very sympathetic to holistic education. They see how indigenous education and holistic education are closely related.

Stefani: Yeah! The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship Project here in Peterborough is funded by an Ontario Trillium grant and they have just finished the proposal stage. Basically, they created a developmental framework based on key informant interviews with people who have gone on to do work in their adult lives around ecological sustainability and social justice. They looked at the key activities that influenced their growth as a child into an adult who lives in this way. It’s really cool. So they are just in their pilot phase now and I am doing some work with them as well so it’s kind of a neat connect.

Jack: Right. Yeah.

Stefani: Okay, almost done. So what might some accelerators to deep, lasting systemic transformation in education look like in Ontario and the Canadian context, as we work towards this vision of a society that prioritizes human health and ecological sustainability?

Jack: Yeah. What I think we need are models of this, particularly schools. So there is Montessori education and Waldorf education and Reggio Emilia, and they are basically private. All of those [schools] have a vision of the whole child and unfortunately, Ministries of Education have ignored them for different reasons. And I think mainly because they all have a spiritual – Reggio Emilia less than the other two – but basically both Steiner and Maria Montessori saw that there was a spiritual part of being a human being. So they developed programs that supported the development of the whole child.

Of course there have been varying ways that those schools were implemented around the world. They’re worth looking at. But we need more [models of holistic education] and that’s why this study that I mentioned, [Whole Child Education], is so important because they are really interested in bringing this into public education.

And this is what’s neat about the Equinox school in Toronto. They’ve tried to take some of the ideas from Montessori and Waldorf and integrate them into their own vision. Of course there is a danger that you lose some of the power of the original vision of these models but still, I think there is so much worth in being able to experiment, particularly in public education, with how we can bring these ideas into schools. We basically need more examples of schools that are very explicitly committed to the whole child. That’s really what we need.

Stefani: So is this what your book, The Holistic Curriculum, gets at – these six connections that you spoke about. Would you consider those as the core components of models like this?

Jack: (laughing) I mean they don’t have to follow my model necessarily! I wrote a book called Whole Child Education and it came out in 2010. It’s a smaller book but again, it tries to put a lot of these things together. The last chapter was written just when Equinox was starting so there is a little bit about Equinox in there. And I do believe that the Six Connections are there, but I would not say that if you are moving in this direction, you would have to use the Six Connections. You know, it’s not necessarily that I think you have to do that!  

Stefani: But it is a framework…

Jack: There are other people people who have been involved with holistic education that have written books. He is not a relative, but Ron Miller is one. He is no longer working in the field but he wrote several books. I think his main book is What Are Schools For? And the other is Rachael Kessler. She wrote a book called The Soul of Education. I think those would be the two that you would want to look at. But also the work of Tobin Hart (2014), some of his most recent work, a book called The Integrated Mind I think would be worth a look at. In the syllabus for my course, Holistic Education, there are 60 or 70 books listed.

Stefani: So a lifetime of reading! That’s great! So in your experience, traveling around the world, have you encountered a true representation of what you would see as a fully implemented Holistic Curriculum?

Jack: Well, it’s hard to…I think again, I would use Waldorf and Montessori. I have had a long connection with Waldorf Education. So those would be examples. What I should say also is that I’m co-editing a handbook on Holistic Education and it will have examples from different countries around the world. There will be an example from Bhutan. There will be some examples from Asia, like from Korea and Thailand.

Stefani: I guess the point is that this is very much a journey for all of us because we still exist in these contexts, like economic contexts and…

Jack: Right, right. One of the things that I have noticed in the last 10 or 15 years is that more and more people are using the word holistic in terms of how to approach a problem or a situation. You hear more and more people saying, “let’s approach this more holistically,” like bringing things together, right? That is a very positive thing. Sometimes I don’t think they really fully understand what the word means, but still, it’s a movement in the right direction.

I grew up in a time when everything was mechanized and behavioural, behavioural learning and all these things. It was just a very kind of mechanistic approach and again, a lot of that still exists today. I mean all of this impetus on testing and standardized testing has got to be changed. We need accountability but we do not need a system which creates so much fear, which is basically what the standardized testing movement does. For whatever it is supposed to achieve, the negatives far outweigh any of the positive elements. Finland is an example of a country that has an exceptional education system that doesn’t focus on these kinds of tests.

Stefani: Wow. Okay, so one last question. So after 40 years of working and studying this intersection between spirituality and education, looking at the whole child and the Holistic Curriculum, what is your hope for the future of your work?

Jack: (laughter) Well you know, now that I’m getting towards the end of my career, I would just say . . .  I am more optimistic in the last, I would say five years. I mean there’s been really some major developments. The study that I mentioned, the fact that a major publisher, Routledge, is publishing the International Handbook of Holistic Education.

There was a conference in Oregon in September on Holistic Education, where people came from all over North America and even people came from Asia. There were 125 people coming and sharing their work. There was one in Winnipeg a year and a half ago and there’s more of these kinds of activities. I mentioned one that is going to be held in Thailand. So I think that there are more of these initiatives than I think there have ever been.

Stefani: That’s incredible! Well, I think that that concludes my official questions that I had for you. But as you were talking, I had one more that popped up. When you started talking about the behavioural sciences and how psychology has evolved over the decades, you know, within the last 10 to 15 years or so, there’s been this explosion in neuroscience and neurophysiology that has sort of supported the traditional wisdom that our cultural and religious traditions have taught us about for thousands of years. I’m just wondering if you had connected to that work at all or if it resonates with you?

Jack: I think it has a place for people. Some people, they really need that work. Linking it to the brain, I think it’s important, but there is also the danger of reductionism, you know, that’s my concern. So I would rather talk about the soul than the brain. Of course, a lot of people don’t want to hear that [about the soul], they want to hear about the brain.

The work of Thomas Moore is a very important. He wrote an introduction to my book, Education and the Soul. His classic book is called Care of the Soul. He’s written like ten books since then but that was his landmark book because he talks about the soul, not in a religious sense, but in a way that we experience soul in our daily life. And that is the deepest part of our being, which in a consumerist, materialistic world is often ignored or suppressed. So his work is basically about how we can integrate the notion of soul back into our lives. I think it’s very important work.

Stefani: So I just find this funny because my original training, my undergraduate degree, is a zoology degree. So I studied a lot of topics like population ecology, physiology, anatomy, all of that stuff. So I love the brain science…

Jack: (laughter). Yeah, and I’m not negating it at all…And again, particularly I’ve done a lot of work in mindfulness and there is a lot of research, a lot of which connects to the brain and all of that, that is very helpful to people who want a more evidence-based approach, so I certainly wouldn’t want to ignore it.  

Stefani: Well, I think it’s this whole sort of progression in human thinking, and it’s almost this circling back to our original teachers, who you spoke about earlier, and our original thinking about human spirituality and the whole person. It’s almost as if some of us need the science, just because of the way that our brains work, we need the science to kind of legitimize, you know?

Jack: Yeah. Right. And again, that is why I think the Whole Child Education study is so important because that is what is going to provide us with the evidence that we have lacked in holistic education. We need good research.

Stefani: Right. And I certainly do appreciate the point that you’ve made. You know, my personal back story is that my parents are Catholic, they were and are non-practicing, but I was sent to a Catholic high school and I’ve worked in Catholic Education since I started my professional career. So this idea of spirituality, for me, has been kind of an evolving piece throughout my life. So it is just interesting to be having this conversation now, at this point in time, as I am learning more about the brain science and learning about how it supports all of this traditional wisdom that that we’ve had for so long. So it really is that spirit journey and it’s coming back to talking about it in ways that are situated, in embodied ways.

Jack: Right. Yeah.

Stefani: Yeah. Very Cool!

(both laughing)

Stefani: Thank you so much Jack.

Jack: Okay – thank you.

Stefani: I’ll be in touch!

Jack: Okay, bye.


Dr. John Miller is a Professor with the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. His research interests focus on holistic education, spirituality in education, contemplation in educational settings, and curriculum orientations. John (Jack) Miller has been working in the field of holistic education for over 40 years. He is author/editor of 20 books on holistic learning and contemplative practices in education. Jack has worked extensively with holistic educators in Japan, Korea and Hong Kong for the past 20 years and has been a visiting professor at universities in Japan and Hong Kong. In 2009 Jack was one of 24 educators invited to Bhutan to help that country develop their educational system so that it supports the country’s goal of Gross National Happiness.

Jack was joining me via telephone from his office at the University of Toronto. At the time this piece was being written, he was traveling abroad, continuing his work in promoting a vision of holistic education around the world.


Stefani is a Registered Social Worker living in Peterborough, ON. In addition to her work with TMC, Stefani currently works as the Mental Health Lead of an Ontario Catholic District School Board. She writes about the intersection between Self-Reg and topics including mental health, leadership, cultural and spiritual perspectives.

By | 2017-12-14T14:43:52+00:00 December 11th, 2017|

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