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Integral Education: A powerful approach to education


– Anne Adams

Integral education is an approach to education that provides a powerful foundation for living life and preparing people to live in a complex and ever changing world. In this model, the first 18 years of a person’s life are focused on developing and integrating the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental intelligences. From a very early age, young people learn to relate to the world with an integral worldview. Thus, the introduction to the adult phase of their life is grounded in educational experiences which have interwoven these powerful expressions of human consciousness. The focus is foremost on the ontological aspects of intelligence, i.e., the being of the human being, which in turn provides a life altering context in which learning occurs.

The living of one’s life is viewed through the lens of wholeness and relationship: connection to oneself, others and all of nature as an embodied phenomenon. This is an education for wholeness in a human being. Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am? (Palmer, 1998, p. 13).

Physical intelligence

Physical intelligence is seen as fundamental to an integral education experience. There is an acknowledgement of the essential relationship between biology (earth), chemistry (foods, substances), and physics (energy) at the core of this approach to education. There is ‘groundedness,’ consciousness, and connection with the natural elements. There is a tacit form of knowledge in bodily knowledge (Adams, 2006). The clues that allow us to know anything come from our relatedness to reality “a relatedness as deep as the atoms our bodies share with everything that is, ever has been, or ever will be” (Palmer, 1998, p. 98).

This embodiment of the physical has ontological implications. It communicates a particular reality and way of being that introduces students to what is real for them; what is real for them is in their body, in their experiences, and senses. It also has epistemological connotations. What and how these students know as a grounded embodied individual influences the way they relate to knowledge; it is relevant to them on a very basic level. It is learning that is connected on many layers- energetic, cellular, muscular, sensory, and kinesthetic (Adams, 2006).

Emotional intelligence

The emotional intelligence plays a relational role in integral education. Connections are seen throughout. People are in community; they are in communication, with themselves and each other; they are caring and cared for; they are learning the skills to remain in community and communication, e.g., conflict resolution, dialogue, and mediation. Focus is placed on the experiences of safety, belonging, relationship, love, being known, self-expressed, responsible, service and mentorship of others to support the development of emotional intelligence in everyone, e.g., students, teachers, parents, etc.

This relational pattern in the emotional domain has ontological implications. It communicates a particular reality and way of being that introduces students to what is ‘real’ for them; they are related. It also has epistemological connotations. What and how these students know as relational individuals influences the way they interact with what they are learning. What they are learning is connected to them. What is being learned is not separate or disjointed; it is related to them (Adams, 2006).

Mental intelligence

The natural role of the mental domain is respected in the integral curriculum. Mental intelligence is known to expand in an environment in which students are encouraged to love learning, be curious, and follow their passion. When the learner is respected, trusted, and honored as an individual and educated to think and learn for him/herself, given choices and responsibility for what is studied, the natural quality of learning is activated.

Students exposed to curriculum that is experiential and relevant can embody the content and the context. The growth of mental acumen is equated with trusting the human being in his/her natural quest of learning. There is a recognition that the purpose of education is to provide an environment in which the inherent attributes of the individual can naturally grow and take root. If the context is known and the learning is relevant, the learner can also be at choice and responsible for her/his education.

The inferences from these interpretations are valuable when considered from an ontological perspective. The reality is: humans have a natural love of learning and curiosity that only requires room to express and grow; children can be responsible and trusted with their own education. Who we are as human beings at the most fundamental level are natural learners. Epistemologically, these interpretations offer an essential shift away from current educational practices. They suggest the natural aspects of learning – learning belongs to the individual (Adams, 2006).

Modern brain research shows clearly that children are natural learners. They are born wanting to learn and would continue being voracious learners if they were in an environment that is truly learner centered. They need the kind of learning environment that is not a system, but which enables them to find the help and information THEY need and ask for. They need adults around them who respect them as individuals, know how to listen to them and can help guide them to the resources they need. (Mintz, 2011, p. 1, emphasis in the original)

Spiritual intelligence

Spiritual intelligence plays a contextual role in integral education. It gives a sense of congruency to life. Students are educated in ways that their sense of ‘spirit’ can show up in their lives, i.e., seeing themselves in relation to a larger world, feeling connected to themselves, others, and nature. The holistic approach provides practices to support individuals getting more related to themselves and others through internal experiences such as contemplation, self- reflection, journaling, silent time, meditation, yoga, exercises, etc. The integral curriculum includes understanding and honoring the world’s religions, learning the distinction between spirituality and religion and having clarifying conversations that bring people together and promote interfaith inclusion rather than exclusion and derisiveness. In addition, key to developing an integral point of view is discovering the connection of science and spirituality – to experience the awe in both expressions of ‘spirit'(Adams, 2006).

The ontological inferences from addressing the spiritual intelligence in an integral education are immense. Reality takes on an inclusive nature, a both/and quality as opposed to the either/or dualism that has been engrained in our current educational reality, that we so often take for granted as the way it is. How students relate to one another is more from appreciative inquiry and understanding throughout their education. Epistemologically, knowledge is recognized for its multifaceted quality. All sides are presented. Students are educated to take multiple points of view and experience what it is like to be in the shoes of the other. The whole and the parts are seen in relationship with one another. Analysis and synthesis and the subjective and objective brought together yield a different quality of knowledge and understanding and an opening for wisdom to appear. “Wisdom is a quality of ‘seeing’ and relating to life that reflects an ability to synthesize its disparate aspects. Wisdom mirrors wholeness- as it reveals all sides” (Adams, 2006, p. 353).

Anne Adams, GIFTLearning faculty mentor; click to learn more.

By Anne Adams (GIFTLearning Faculty Member)


Adams, A. (2006). Education: from conception to graduation – A systemic integral approach, Retrieved May 1, 2010 from:

Mintz, J. (2011, April 14). “Is high stakes testing immoral?” Education Revolution E-News. Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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