Digging Deep into the Soil of Education

40+199 Dirty by bark, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  bark 
I realize that the title of this Blog Post suggests that I feel that the fundamental structure of education is somehow tainted. That was not my original intent. I was actually grasping  for an agricultural metaphor, but oddly enough, while composing this post and mulling over my readings and research of the week, I realize that this unintentional connotation may not be that far off. We have a tendency in education to keep pouring fertilizer over the already fertile soil accomplishing nothing more than the burn out of the bright seeds, to rotatil the so-called “weeds” in an attempt to stifle them, and to prune and trim the promising growth so that it is uniform, orderly, and utterly predictable. – growth determined by finite school years and proscriptive curricula.  Is this what education is supposed to be about? Fueled by this week’s ECI 831 discussion on rhizomatic education led by Dave Cormier, and his recent Blog Post Workers, Soldiers, Nomads – what does the Gates Foundation want from our education system?, I mused over four  standard, static, and cliché answers to the very foundational question, why do we educate students?
To prepare them for the workplace?  How can we do that when we know that the jobs they will seek likely do not even exist yet (If you haven’t yet seen the Youtube video “Did You Know?”- check it out!).  Certainly, Dave Janosc argues in his podcast “Education for Innovation” that the critical skill in the 21st century business world is innovation . Are our schools in their current curricular focus and structure nurturing this?  Gever Tulley would argue that not only are schools not cultivating this, society in general has advocated the virtual bubble wrapping of kids, protecting them from danger to such an extent that their curiosity and creativity are squelched. Check out his TEDtalk presentation Do Schools Kill Creativity. Founder of the Tinkering School, Tulley, advocates letting kids do dangerous things such as playing with fire, owning pocketknives, playing with spears, deconstructing appliances and breaking copyrights. Although he is discussing this in a literal sense, he is also making a figurative point for educators. Do we encourage our students to make mistakes? Are we and they so focused on the test and the outcomes that we forget about the journey and the many possible paths on the way to that destination? Furthermore, does that test have to be the final destination?
To provide them with a liberal arts education so that they are prepared for university? Statistics according to Human Resources and Skills Canada  tell us that on average 24% of the national population ages 18-24 pursue a college education; and although that statistic has risen over the last several years, the successful completion of college degree programs is much lower. Sir Ken Robinson in his critique of education states that “we are obsessed with getting kids into college.” He argues that learning is about passion and all of us have important gifts which are rarely nurtured. Similar to Dave Cormier’s belief that educators need to be gardeners, Sir Ken Robinson advocates the transformation of education from an industrial model to an agricultural model stating that “human nourishing is organic”. We as teachers must provide the conditions under which our students can flourish.

To teach them citizenship and community responsibility? For what world and community are we providing them education on citizenship? Technology and the internet have made the world smaller. The community one lives in is not the only community one knows. As I muttered in last week’s blog post , we need to address digital citizenship in a global society, this cannot be done if we restrict internet access and limit or ban personal electronic devices in educational settings.

To teach them to be life long learners? As Cormier, Robinson, Tulley, and numerous others have posited, there needs to be a “rethink” around the whole concept of learning. Education, the institution, is not necessarily developing a community of learners. Cormier’s metaphor of the nomadic learner suggests that a learner will go to the places he/she needs to find the answers he/she seeks, refusing to be bound by a directed path. How do we reconcile the need to develop life long learning, nurture curiosity and cultivate and harvest the rhizomatic learners within our time bound and rigidly structured curricula and school design. How do we avoid streaming or to use a provincial categorization – pathways – which predetermine roads for learners, stripping them of nomadic adventures? To find this answer, we must dig deep into the soil of education, and prepare to to get our fingernails dirty.



9 thoughts on “Digging Deep into the Soil of Education

  1. alison says:

    As one who works in an organisational context, we do need to prepare students for the future workplace but I don’t know if the ‘knowledge economy’ is the future of education and lifelong learning. Certainly if we listen to the proposed future this is seemingly where things are headed but I can’t say that I’m that confident in the future. However, if manufacturing/most ‘hands on’ work continues to be headed overseas, I have great concern about the kids who will not fit into the ‘knowledge economy’. That will be a huge issue.

    That aside, I think citizenship is of great importance at this moment. Everyone should be educated enough to be able to use their critical thinking skills to make civic, provincial and national voting choices as they think fit. Decisions about education should not be related to business interests.

    As an artist, I am very frustrated by the lack of appreciation and attention given to the arts in today’s North American societies. I am really saddened by the reduction in support given to these efforts. The arts really round out discourse and reflect the needs of culture.

    • kjehman says:

      I agree with your comments regarding knowledge economy and appreciate the link you make to critical thinking and the application of this skill to civic decisions which extend not just locally in terms of the upcoming provincial election but globally in terms of our responsibility towards one another. I’m not sure just how we tackle “citizenship” in schools as previously the curriculum’s approach has had a strong politicaly agenda. This kind of trimming and pruning has produced “like” thinkers, not divergent ones. Thanks for sharing your comments!

  2. Nice post.

    I like the way that you’ve taken on the standard lines around education, and pushed the garden metaphor. Creative thinking is one of those things that tough to put a number on… it resists that kind of control, or, rather, dies. I may borrow your fertilizer analogy. It’s a great one.

    My only addition to your post would be to emphasize that those questions are contentious. There is no ‘single’ answer to questions like what a good citizen would look like.

    • kjehman says:

      Thanks for the reply! Glad you liked the extension of the metaphor. You are right, the difficulty is certainly finding a stock answer around the question of citizenship. So miuch of what was previosly taught surounding citizenship had a strong political agenda – narrow definitions do not encourage divergent thinking.

  3. kreuj says:

    maybe the learners need to be encouraged to do their own digging, to permit their learning roots to go down deep, taking up soil nutrients from below as opposed to us burning the plants as you say, by pouring on more. A good gardener knows its all about soil preparation. soil could be the learning space and it could be the learner in this extended metaphor.

  4. kjehman says:

    I agree that learners need to do their own digging; this is the heart of student centred learning. However, they still need to be nurtured and supported. Your comparison of the teacher to the gardener is a great one – the soil is in fact the learning space. I would advocate we as educators think about that space in new ways – not just classrooms and textbooks but through media, technology, and life experiences.Thanks fo the reply!

  5. I really love your post. I think that you put so succinctly all of the things I have been learning and thinking about so far in my Grad program. In all of my classes, we have been asked to ponder the same question, “What is the point of education?” We all want to believe that it is to help our students grow as lifelong learners, but with the way the educational system is I don’t believe that it is. I have seen the video you linked entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity” and I thought it was very powerful. Standardized tests produce standardized thinkers and therefore standardized students. The question becomes, “are these standardized students going to be successful later on in life?” I would argue no. I think that with this standardized system we are not equipping our students with what they need to be lifelong learners and effective members of society. With this system we are not teaching them how to problem solve (which hits on your points about how we are not educating our students that it’s okay to make mistakes, and is most often the best way to learn). I guess the question this leaves me with is, what do we do about it? I have read about so many different ways that the government is trying to “reform” education, and it still seems to me that they are focusing on the problem rather than solutions. What I have come to learn is that it is up to us. We as educators need to develop these lifelong learners in our classrooms. Rather than making excuses like we don’t have time, or we don’t have support, or we don’t have resources, or …(it could go on forever!) we need to get in there and make that difference, take the time to cultivate our own learning so that we can be better teachers (or gardeners) and grow our students into lifelong learners. I know that is a tiny piece of the puzzle, but while nothing else is really being done, just knowing that we can do SOMETHING at all is empowering in itself, isn’t it?

    • kjehman says:

      Thanks you for the reply! I am glad that the salient points resonated it with you. I am good at forumlating the questions but not so great at finding the anwers!! As you said, I think the answer lies in a grass roots effort (back the gardening metaphors) in the field to use those spaces in the curriculum to implement critical and creative thinking – we may still be teaching to some tests as it does not look like standardized testing is going anywhere too soon, but there is room in our curricula to prepare the soil and encourage our students to dig deep.

  6. One of the things I’ve loved about interviews with and writing by Myles Horton is that he is a storyteller who powers teaching ideas via analogy. Horton founded Highlander Folkschool, which played a central role in creating & supporting social justice educational efforts in the US, and whom I prefer – along with his colleague Septima Clark – philosophically and practically over Paulo Freire. Walking the road, yeasty-ness, being two-eyed, singing for our lives (rather than our breakfast) streak throughout his discussions of education’s whys and hows and whos.

    His writing points to all of the things you note above as being central to any effort to create “islands of decency” through learning and leading when learners and leaders work together.

    Your writing here reminds me of a student several years ago responding to Horton’s autobiography for a first year writing course on exploring student learning in higher education. To paraphrase that student on Horton – When we make the roads together and keep one eye on where we are and where we ought/want to be, we learn what we must from our contexts and create in the ways we must for all our futures.

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