Educational stakeholders' perceptions of holistic education in three Swedish schools: Towards a model of holistic education in early childhood

Maria-Christina WEEMAES-LIDMAN

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


Myriad school reforms around the world emphasize the importance of ‘holistic education’ in early childhood. International policy reports show a clear consensus that quality in early childhood education and care (ECEC) should encompass a broad, holistic view on learning, caring, upbringing, and social support for children (European Commission, 2011; Eurydice, 2009; UNESCO, 2010). In these reports, the words ‘care’ and ‘education’ are interpreted as ‘inseparable concepts’ in holistic education. Britto (2014), Chief of Early Childhood Development at UNICEF, argued that “now is the time to invest in early childhood development,” and she recommends stakeholders to develop ‘investment portfolios’ through collaborations between the public sector, private organizations, and civil society. Desmond (2014) suggests taking a holistic approach toward the ‘cost of inaction’, as he believes in achieving greater response when illustrating the consequences of not investing in young children. Educational scholars Chiu (2009), Kates and Harvey (2010), Forbes (2003), Allan and Evans (2006), Gallegos Nava (2000), Krishnamurti (1996), Miller (1983), and Brown (1988) offer comprehensive categorization of holistic education literature, and accentuate the holistic emphasis that addresses the multifaceted needs and potentials of teachers and students as they discover themselves and each other in the integral context of the classroom. Miller (2007) states that a general understanding of holistic education includes the intellectual, emotional, physical, social, aesthetic, and spiritual development of a human being. He also accentuates that, in contrast to the first five, the spiritual dimension is frequently underexploited, disregarded, or remains unnoticed. However, educational stakeholders’ diverse range of perceptions on what holistic education entails could lead to either fidelity or slippage in the designing of policy and curriculum documents, and ultimately have an impact on the implementation of holistic education in classrooms. This qualitative study unveils the perceptions of holistic education derived from interviewing policymakers, school principals and teachers in a Montessori, Waldorf and Nature school in Sweden. Findings reveal that, despite educational stakeholders’ different perceptions of holistic education, interconnections exist that supplement each other, leading to fidelity rather than slippage in policy and curriculum documents. These cohesions disclose how individual contributions and combined forces from politicians, academics, and educators, who primarily diverge significantly in perceptions, practices, priorities, and philosophies of holistic education, ultimately converge towards holistic education practices in classrooms. This research offers detailed insight into the perceptions of H. Ed. by educational stakeholders, a comprehensive model of holistic education for classroom implementation, a comprehensive overview of how spirituality takes place in classroom settings, describes an effective method of how Sweden managed a successful curriculum reform through a combination of research and practice, and shows how schools with progressive curricula can uphold and align their individual curricula with the national curriculum to ensure accountability towards government and parents. Policymakers revealed that the political system in Sweden is based on common platforms that allow individual communities to converge on the child, through the choice of allocating resources in line with the needs of that community, thereby creating interventions to address all aspects of children’s development. This, in combination with a democratic distribution of an equal amount of money for each child, shows the benefits of non-compartmentalizing funding as a cost-effective holistic approach. The results of this research show how the political, academic, and educational world can cooperate in unison, through effective communication and collaboration between politicians, researchers, and educators who complement each other in their different roles, and how these stakeholders’ combined perceptions enhance the understanding and practice of holistic education leading towards educating the whole child. In addition, this study reveals how a pocket version of the national curriculum, in combination with an inspirational pocket version of scientifically based classroom research, became twin engines to trigger ‘ripples of change’ in holistic education, by converting teachers from passively following curriculum guidelines into active advocates of ‘whole child teaching’, through reflecting on existing practices and comparing these with scientific research. The dual outcome of this study on the perceptions of holistic education can be useful to various educational stakeholders and caregivers, ranging from members of the education department, policy makers, to school supervisors, school principals, teachers, parents, caregivers, or meticulous stakeholders who engage in critical observation how holistic education unfolds in the environment they work in. This thesis is made for readers, and the practical holistic early years framework is made for users. Ultimately, this study in combination with the conceptual map of holistic education has the potential to contribute towards a successful implementation of ‘holistic education without borders’ in any school system in the world. The benefits of holistic education have been made clear and visible through the framework, and concluding diagrams symbolize the outcome of this research as potential stepping-stone towards ‘holistic education without borders. 3 As holistic education focuses on the “fullest possible development of the person, encouraging individuals to become the very best or finest that they can be and enabling them to experience all they can from life and to reach their goals” (Forbes, 2003, p. 17), it should become a universal right for all children to be taught in a way that addresses all aspects of their development. With this final statement, I want to conclude that this timely ‘holistic education thesis journey’ responds to an “increased need in translating knowledge into actions that policymakers around the world can use to develop early childhood programs and investments” (IOM, 2014, p. 3). Although free education is a meaningful goal, but not achievable in the short-term for many countries, the provision of ‘holistic education’ for the world’s young learners and our future leaders might be an achievable goal in the near future — at least it is worth exploring. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Education
Awarding Institution
  • The Hong Kong Institute of Education
  • ADAMSON, Robert Damian, Supervisor
  • WONG, Ping Ho, Supervisor
Award date06 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Early childhood education -- Sweden
  • Holistic Education -- Sweden
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Thesis (Ed.D.)--The Hong Kong Institute of Education, 2014


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