We Need to Treat Education More Like a Garden

On top of teaching full time and raising two curious, active kids (with another joining us in August!), my husband and I also raise chickens and bees and have a pretty substantial garden. Each year, we add more fruit trees, more blueberry bushes, and expand our vegetable section, and every year, I question if we have the energy or sanity left to keep up with it all. But somehow, every year, it gets better and easier to manage — maybe despite or perhaps because of its size. We know that if we’re going to make it bigger and better for our family, we have to find new and better ways of managing growth, weeds, watering, and harvesting the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor.

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In so many ways, managing this garden is like managing a classroom.

You can’t force a plant to grow in conditions that aren’t suitable for that plant.

I have always loved the quote by Alexander den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”  It seems obvious in relation to teaching, and yet every time I read it, it carries new weight for me, both as a teacher and as a parent.

I recently read an article on NPR about a new book by psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik titled The Gardener and the Carpenter. I’ve not yet read the book, but it’s in my Amazon cart because of this description from Sasha Ingber’s NPR article:

“The “carpenter” thinks that his or her child can be molded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says.

The “gardener,” on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about “creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.

When I think about those concepts as a teacher, I realize how much I want to be a gardener in my classroom. I think that helping kids find their purpose is the most important thing we can do in schools. Purpose is about finding your place in the world and living your passion, and I can’t give that to a child. What I can do is provide opportunities for kids to find that for themselves in a classroom that supports ALL learners, whatever their current talents and interests.

One of my students, at the end of the year, shared with me that the best thing I did for her and her classmates this year was to give them the space and responsibility to “figure it out.” She said that at some point, there would be a time I wouldn’t be there to answer a question or tell her what to do, and she felt confident now that she had the skills to make good decisions and find the answers she’d need. All I did was provide the soil, water, and sun. She did the growing herself. What more could I want for my students?

You can’t rush (and you shouldn’t want to):

Last night was our first night of a summer that will be filled with picking blueberries, and the thought crossed my mind that it would be so much easier if all the blueberries ripened at the same time. There would be no hunting for the bluest ones through the leaves, I could grab whole bunches at a time, and while it would take more time at once, ultimately, I’d spend fewer hours picking in the heat.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

As educators, we often have this same thought, both as administrators and teachers. It would be easy if everyone “got it” at the same time and in the same context, but it’s not the way it works, and quite honestly, we shouldn’t want it to work that way.

I’m a firm believer that everyone hears a message at the time they need to hear it — or in some cases, when the world needs them to hear it. We don’t know how a stream of thinking will trigger new ideas in another person, and so it’s not only natural for people to learn in different ways, it’s also necessary if we want new, powerful ideas to keep pushing our world forward.

My blueberries get different amounts of water and sun simply because of their circumstance and when each one was pollinated by our bees, but each one will be delicious in its own time, and I’ll be glad to still have fresh blueberries at the beginning of August so that my kids and I can make delicious recipes all summer long. The beauty is not in the ease of the task; the beauty is in the process toward the ultimate outcome.

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If you hover, you block the sunlight.

William Ferriter wrote a really meaningful post recently about helicopter teaching, and how it “strips agency away from the kids in our care, and that’s NOT a good thing.” I am inclined to agree. No, I’m not suggesting we remove all structure and oversight, but I am suggesting that we let kids choose their paths to proficiency and excellence because if we don’t, they won’t know how to acquire new skills when their formal education ends. We might, in fact, be stifling their growth.

In short, channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

I don’t know a single adult who believes they stopped learning when they left school, but I do know a lot of adults who feel like they didn’t learn how to learn while they were in school, and to me, that’s not a problem with those adults; instead, it’s a problem with prescriptive education that assumes all kids can learn in the same way at the same time with the same methods.

If we’re standing over our kids telling them how to do every. single. thing, they can’t stretch to the sun and grow greater than we imagine for them. We need to guide them but also know when to walk away and let them shine. In that same respect, I don’t plant my garden in full shade or full sun. It needs a good amount of both to flourish.

You have to try new things to find better things.

The first year we lived in Illinois and planted our garden, it was a total disaster. We couldn’t keep up with the weeds, everything was totally overgrown, the Japanese beetles took over, and we eventually let the chickens pick through the whole thing.

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This is my oldest with her hens the year the garden went to the chickens.

The next year, we had a choice: We could give up and miss out on the incredible harvest we’d been accustomed to in Texas, we could do it the same way and hope for a better outcome (which is just crazy), or we could try something new knowing we couldn’t be any worse off than we had been the year before. So each year, we’ve taken away something that didn’t work and replaced it with something new that we’ve read online or watched on YouTube. Two weeks ago, my husband looked at our garden and then at me and said, “Did we finally figure this out?” Three years after our initial attempt, we feel confident we’ve found some tried and true tricks, but we also know we’re never done improving, and as climate and pests change over time, we’ll have to keep evolving in our practice, too.

Education is no different. If you always do it the way you’ve always done it, you’re not ensuring success, even if those practices have garnered success for your students in the past. Kids change. Times change. Cultures change. We have to adapt with all of it if we want kids to have long-term success, which is to say that they become lifelong lovers of learning and creating rather than passive consumers of information they don’t quite know how to use for themselves.

Education can’t be a K-12 endeavor where we attempt to manufacture a product to send it out into the world, hoping it won’t malfunction. In that scenario, we’re asking for problems down the line. Instead we’ve got to plant seeds and then help them grow, providing water when it doesn’t rain, and helping the stems stabilize until they can withstand the wind and grow stronger on their own. Eventually, a healthy plant makes its own seeds and grows a harvest more plentiful than one could ever hope to produce.

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