The “Whole Widget”: Integral, Holistic Education

By Kamran Tristan Matlock

Students are in need of an educational “whole widget” more than ever. Steve Jobs revolutionized the way classrooms learn with technology. Towards the end of his life, however, he clarified that technology should support, not lead learning. He believed the national education system was broken: it rattled with outdated parts, inefficient cogs and had a clumsy design. Such teaching models, he argued, were made up of cumbersome, inharmonious parts that hampered its ability to see into the future and prepare children adequately for what was next.

The current model favored by most US schools, and the one you probably grew up in, is the Transmission Model. Knowledge is defined as an objective, authoritative realm of facts existing separately from life’s experience and personal opinions. Teachers are supposed to “transmit” information to students, along with academics attitudes about learning and growth.

What Jobs unsurprisingly favored in lieu of the contemporary “PC” version of education was a “whole widget” system: a single sleek and intuitive arrangement that could prepare students for the future in an integral and holistic way. The Holistic Model perceives human existence and the world as infinitely complex and dynamic, so much so that any one worldview cannot grasp its entirety. A holistic educator draws upon many levels of understanding, technique and discipline to respond uniquely to each learning situation as it arises.

Although Jobs was visionary in many respects, it only takes common sense to realize a lack of professional talent in the US stems from the country’s broken public school system. Jobs exclusively invited high-performance, original-thinking professionals to his design table, but lamented that such individuals were rare. He knew from experience that the best and brightest of the STEM industries (science, technology, engineering, math) weren’t coming from American school institutions.

This is where the “whole widget” comes in. In his search for a complete gadget—hardware and software seamlessly interfacing with the internet and our personal and professional lives—he realized that technology, however embedded in our lives, is not sustainable beyond a supportive role. Nothing replaces human interaction, especially where learning is concerned.

Many schools, in fact, that value experiential, individualized, holistic education are already in place. Maybe you’ve heard of Montessori and Waldorf, but most charter, alternative and private schools doing the next big thing in education are off the radar. That goes doubly for higher education institutes.

Ever hear of the Ananda College of Living Wisdom, Maharishi Institute, Gaia or Naropa University? A few relatively small schools are making waves in the world of higher education. If innovators like Jobs aren’t around to change things from the top down, students will inevitably make change from the bottom up. Steve Jobs had a gift for tuning into the future needs of young people. In the end, if education can learn anything from him, it might simply be an ability to listen.

Enterprising Learning Initiatives

By Kamran Matlock

The California Federation of Teachers president once informally awarded Steve Jobs the “rotten apple” award, “for the individual who best personifies the need to think differently about public education and teacher unions.” The award, part of a retaliatory response to the Apple CEO’s public disapproval of teacher unions, was never formally accepted by Jobs.

As has been the case for Jobs in life and death, much of his sincerity has drowned in sensationalism about his personality and outspoken nature. Perhaps Jobs wasn’t tactful, but he did consistently champion meritocracy over bureaucracy. He spoke from personal experience with frustrated industries lacking creative, imaginative, empowered individuals. That teacher unions do block reform, monopolize school policy and drive away quality professionals is after the fact.

Jobs favored a competitive, merit-based system holding schools and teachers accountable for quality education. He thought a more entrepreneurial fashioned industry would check and balance learning institutions by letting parents choose where to send their kids (and their money). The bottom line is that Jobs advocated a widespread breaking up of rigid, uniform practices that fetter progressive education movement.

Perhaps Jobs did deserve the “rotten apple award” for personifying the need to think differently about public education. After all, he dropped out of college, made millions of dollars in a garage and created one of the world’s most successful companies. Bill Gates and Michael Dell are also college dropouts.

The “rotten apple” lives on. Maybe Apple hasn’t “thrown the hammer” at teachers unions yet, but they did send a major blow to textbook monopolies with the iBooks Author textbook app for the iPad. And at the January, 2012 Macworld/iWorld Expo, it was clear the company was taking Jobs’ education legacy seriously. Tech talks and presenters pumped up audience members with an array of educational innovations, including the latest from real-time interactive software, free learning networks and tons of customizable education apps.

Apple’s custom education software allows teachers and students to change (dare I say “reform”) how learning happens without being bogged down by bureaucracy, unions or school boards. Will the iPad affect major public education change? Jobs didn’t think technology alone could do it. So even if an iPad does find its way into the hands of every student, without Steve Jobs at the pulpit, it’s hard to imagine a software/hardware company revolutionizing education culture with technology alone.

President Obama said after Jobs’ passing, “[He] was among the greatest of American innovators… Brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.” Maybe he developed his innovation, boldness and talent while traveling through India or in Zen monastery… Or perhaps repeated corporate oustings built up his creative backbone over time. Wherever he picked it up, it certainly wasn’t in school.