Last year, my students and I watched a film called Fresh as in introduction to a long-term project we were doing on gardening. This film is basically a look at some of the issues related to our industrialized agriculture system and solutions some individual farmers have developed as alternatives to the status quo. Here is part of the film’s synopsis:
“FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.”
In examining the current state of agriculture in America and potential solutions, an economist in the film has determined that the way to “feed the world” is not to take agricultural ideals and grow them to scale, but, rather to embrace medium-sized, local, organic practices. Interestingly, the movie profiles a small number of farmers and all of them have a unique approach to their work with the common theme of mimicking nature in their efforts. All of them have been very successful in the work they have undertaken.
Since watching this film, I have been pondering how this concept of adopting smaller scale answers to issues that seem to have developed from adoption of practices on large scales and have found that this most certainly applies to the field of education.
Like the large-scale industrial farms, the development of large-scale public educational systems developed from good intentions, the desire to prepare young people for the world in which they will have to work. As is fairly well understood at this point, that world of schooling that was developed was one of industry and conformity. Here is a nice description of it from the website of The New American Academy:
“Horace Mann, credited as the father of the American public school system, studied a wide variety of educational models before implementing the Prussian system designed by Fredrick the Great. King Frederick created a system that was engineered to teach obedience and solidify his control. Focusing on following directions, basic skills, and conformity, he sought to indoctrinate the nation from an early age. Isolating students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms fashioned a strict hierarchy—intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.
Mann chose the Prussian model, with its depersonalized learning and strict hierarchy of power, because it was the cheapest and easiest way to teach literacy on a large scale.”
So here we are, entrenched in system that gives many indications that it is not working and that does seem to have kept up with times that have changed inconceivably from the point of view of anyone living in the year 1852 (around when this system was adopted). I have read many books and blog posts and articles and tweets about how and why this system no longer fits our world and, in fact, is preventing us from preparing our youth for the world they will be running. (My favorite of these has been “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink. I can’t recommend that book enough to people interested in developing a new approach to teaching and learning.)
The parallel to the farming issue seems clear to me. The large-scale, one-size-fits-all, industrial, teacher/content centered approach to education is one that brings about such negative consequences that it should be traded out for medium-sized, individualized, learner-centered approaches that serve the needs of those interested in that approach. Much like the cast of characters in Fresh each handled agriculture in a personalized way that made sense to them (growing grass rather than animals, raising plants and animals through aquaculture in the city of Milwaukee, turning away from large-scale, antibiotic dependent hog farming), educational institutions need to examine the world of today, including research on learning, and use understanding and creativity to develop methods of guiding learners towards results that both fit the school’s philosophy and best serve the learners.
It seems obvious that there is no one method that is going to be universally successful for all learners in all situations. Developing a variety of methods with a variety of foci (and, yes, I would prefer to incorrectly say ‘focuses’) seems a better system in the long run. I am constantly wondering why that isn’t happening.
Even in my day to day experience, among myself and colleagues that I respect and value, there is a default position that adopts the industrial mindset of delivering content to rows of young people. I believe that a big part of the reason for this is simply habit. Our own educational experiences typically occurred in such a system. So did our parent’s and their parent’s. This is simply how it is and how it has always been done. Nobody before us worked hard to change it, so it must be working. Right? The answer to why nobody was attempting to change my schooling experience back in the 1980’s may be that the world then was actually more like 1852 than it is like 2014 in terms of information availability. Yes, I had easier access to books than my 19th century counterpart, but that pales in comparison to my ability to grab information right now. (As an experiment, I stopped typing this to see if I could find a piece of information I did not already know. I chose “what is a catalytic converter?” I spoke that question into my phone and, within a few seconds, I learned that a catalytic converter is “a device incorporated into the exhaust system of a motor vehicle, containing a catalyst for converting pollutant gases into less harmful ones.” As I sit here now, it seems like I should have known that. I didn’t. Now I do and it took less than 20 seconds.)
So here we are, with a wealth of ready knowledge, clinging to the idea that knowledge is scarce and that the prime directive of education is to make sure that students get the facts into their heads before trying to do anything. We’re also clinging to the idea that what the students must know when they graduate is fairly standard.
But what if we didn’t think that way? What if the default position as a school or a teacher was to ask “what would you like to know?” or “what would like to do as you get older?” and take it from there. It would require nimble teachers with a set of skills much different than sharing facts or ideas and then testing to see if those facts or ideas have been remembered well. What if we regularly took students out on experiences that raised questions within them, which we could then seek to answer together? What if the default was to assume that not everyone will need to solve for x or know what a mitochondrion does or be able to understand the symbolism of the phrase “good fences make good neighbors”, but to assist those who want to know those things with all of our own passion for teaching?
The point is that there are many ways to get to the results we want. It seems to me that schools would be better served to begin to let go of our current assumptions, develop new attitudes and creative methods and work towards starting up our own Organic Learner Farms.