The XX Factor

Don’t Use a “Living Classroom” To Replace a Real One

Emily , the trouble with the “garden curriculum,” as Flanagan’s Atlantic piece describes it, isn’t that it’s a fad or that students are writing recipes. It’s that if you’re learning math by “measuring the garden,” you’re not learning math by doing drills or taking math tests and both of those are pedagogical methods with more research and history behind them than the gardening method. I didn’t like the way she framed her arguments (she’s ever the master of the contrarian polemic) but if I were her imaginary migrant parent-or any California parent-I might object to the garden curriculum, too. It sounds good, especially as you describe it: “Take one thing that makes numbers and letters come alive, and then build on it.” But my experience is that the basics of learning can get lost in the more exciting-sounding theme.

My mother taught elementary school for decades and likes to talk about the pendulum of educational theory as it swings from “learning by doing” to “focus on the basics” and back again. Students are in trouble at either end of the swing. You can practice math by measuring a garden, but you probably won’t learn it that way (and if you’re also in the middle of a trend toward group activities, you may not even have to, provided that some other student in your group can add up the numbers). It makes sense that more “at risk” populations would suffer more, as their families may be less likely to observe or address a gap in their education. (The more elementary schools rely on “experiential learning,” the more affluent kids you’ll find at Kaplan after school, and how backward is that?)

Personally, my oldest child sat through two years of similarly themed lesson plans and emerged knowing plenty about butterflies (life cycles) and woodpeckers (meadow learning). But he didn’t know how to read and he couldn’t add or subtract. Like Flanagan, I began to see every minute of his school day-and there were a lot of them-spent on a social agenda and not on actual learning as a terrible misuse of instructional time. It’s easy to support these happy-sounding programs and hard to argue against an agenda of healthful eating and physical activity. But you can’t add hours to the day, and time spent in those gardens-an hour and a half a week, according to Flanagan-is time not spent on other things. If, as the numbers seem to show, kids aren’t testing better in the gardening schools, then all of that money and energy that’s gone into the gardens would be better spent on proven methods. The “living classroom” only works if it’s not a substitution for the actual classroom.

Photograph of pepper in mantle by John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images.