Innovative Teaching is to Sustainable Farming as Test Prep is to _____?

Recently I spoke at a project-based learning conference in Wisconsin. I had been reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma,” so I had farming on my mind as I drove from the Milwaukee airport to Janesville WI past vast cornfields punctuated by enormous grain silos.

Pollan observes that high-yield corn is a product of genetically identical plants that can be densely planted without fear of any stalks monopolizing resources. As corn dominated the midwestern landscape, the region became an agricultural monoculture of expansive corporate cornfields – pushing out other crops and more diverse family farms. Cheap corn created the "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation," where never-ending truckloads of feed are used to fatten cattle in the least time possible. "Big" corn and cattle production are artificially supported by vast, but unsustainable, industrial inputs of fossil fuels, petro-chemicals, and an elaborate transportation system.

And somewhere on the drive to Janesville, I got thinking that Pollan's indictment of corporate agriculture might be extended to some aspects of education. The testing regime is turning our kids into a high-yield, uniform commodity. Rows and rows of competent, standardized students, that can be delivered according to employers' specifications for a "skilled workforce.” Children “force fed” in test prep programs in efforts to quickly “fatten” the scores to meet AYP. Like the cornfields and feedlots that are disconnected from local ecosystems, the movement toward national educational standards erodes at local control and innovation.

Fortunately when I got to the conference I saw another side of contemporary education – innovative teachers. It was like walking into a sustainable farmers' market.

The conference was held at the TAGOS Leadership Academy and hosted by Project-Based Learning Systems, the developer of Project Foundry, a web-based management tool for innovative learning environments. Teachers had come from across the country – Chula Vista CA to Waterville ME. Like sustainable farms, their schools were deeply rooted in their communities, each closely tied to its unique local social ecology. Their programs fostered interdisciplinary learning, like the symbiotic polyculture of a farm based on a rotational interplay of crops and animals.

PF-plans The PBL approach is based on the notion that rather than simply apply bodies of knowledge to problems, the exploration of problems can generate new bodies of knowledge. Teachers didn't attend the conference to simply “sit and get,” they were there to share. After my introductory talk and a planning session using my audience response system, the teachers self-organized into a series of peer-teaching sessions that took them through most the rest of the conference. 

The next day I headed home feeling upbeat. I had met many fine teachers and instructional leaders who reminded me of why I went into education. Most of all, I thought about the scores of teachers across the country, working in innovative schools (or perhaps subversively innovating in traditional schools), committed to raising a “crop” that can sustain itself through a life time of learning.

12 Replies to “Innovative Teaching is to Sustainable Farming as Test Prep is to _____?”

  1. kids may be uniform, but not necessarily high-yield. work forces are not uniformly happy with the quality of graduates entering their ranks. and it still all depends on how “innovative” is defined.

    i agree that we need more “sustainable” approaches. i look forward to further focusing and defining exactly what that means. exploratory, student-based. . . sounds like a great start.

  2. Nice to read a positive perspective for a change. I agree that there are many teachers that help nurture the creative, independent and thoughtful side of our students. It does feel somewhat as if we are in a cyclic high for the need for students to be creative, solve problems and have ingenuity in order for us as a society to move to the next level of technology for global solutions. Similar to the need in the 50-60s with the space race?

  3. I discussed this with a fellow principal. She is “all for” students exploring and creating to find “the answers,” but was concerned about the follow up. If they don’t finish the project with the knowledge/skills outlined in the standards/curriculum, what do teachers do next? How should we assess if they’ve learned the objectives in the curriculum (of course, a concern because of state testing).
    I explained that my view is that the role of the teacher is to facilitate this creative process and help guide students to the knowledge…they will make wrong turns along the way, we all do… but in the end, the teacher can help students make the connections between what they created/researched and what the desired outcomes are.
    It’s likely they will learn even more than we expected them to if they are engaged in innovative learning!!

  4. Lyn,

    I agree with your thoughts on this. You might remind your fellow principal that evaluation is one of Bloom higher-order thinking skills. But that mean the student is doing the evaluation. What better to evaluate than own (and their peers) progress toward the “objectives in the curriculum.” Of course, teacher will continue to play a role in facilitating the learning and assessment. (As well as assess for student / school progress toward state goals.)

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Chris,

    I agree with you on your notion of a cycle. In education we tend to “over-steer.” NCLB started with the right premise – move away from accepting the “Bell curve” and focus on student performance. Unfortunately, it failed at implementation and measurement.

    We were left with the ship headed in the wrong direction – sailing away from innovation and creativity. We’re long overdue for a correction. Hopefully not an over-correction!

  6. to complete analogy: I would guess, ‘factory farming’ the kids are the chickens and the test scores, the eggs they are forced to lay.

    If the area of focus is education, the deeper focus must be culture-change. Any educational tool or process must inevitably go deep to the issue of culture if it truly works.

    The tools I have developed are based in Play. Play is routinely confined to early childhood. I believe that we are merely scratching the surface. Play is oxygen to a learning culture choking on an atmosphere that can barely sustain the life of young minds. Play is a scientific principle to guide and energize the learning culture. With play, classrooms become habitats. Without play, they remain cells akin to corporate cubicles.

    The state of world education may be likened to ships in the Age of Discovery without Longitude: drifting, blind, and forever at risk of wasting the treasure they carry in precious future potential.

    In the 1600s, Francis Bacon was spending his life advancing the idea that structured knowledge–a method called scientific inquiry–could change the world and enrich human kind. He was ridiculed and held in contempt. He said he had invented the invention of inventions, a machine for propelling knowledge. Scientists castigate Bacon even today because there is nothing physical to show in his proposition.

    I am following in Bacon’s footsteps. I am laughed at because Play is seen as laughable. But it is obvious that the same kind of intellectual construct and principle is needed in education–, an overarching theory rooted in brain science as well as in nature is called for to help re-orient education to a new foundation. Calling for such a machine or process is one thing (a good imagination might just catch a glimpse of such a vision). But engineering the process, laying down the track, building the vehicle, and framing the theory, and having it recognized by the likes of the OECD–all that is yet another thing.

    We can all call for more creativity and innovation, but unless there is a way to infuse and open the learning culture, we will be stalled and thwarted. Something is needed that can outsmart the system and the culture itself. We live in a world that is as resistant to change as much as it hungers for it. We have to reach people early to inculcate the values and quality of mind needed for change. My invention does that.

    In addition to creating a new pathway for education, my invention has implications for public health, violence prevention, productive and innovative thinking. It is an open-source program: once you grasp its essentials, there is no place you can’t go with it.

    I hope you don’t mind my injecting a new tangent to the commentary here. If anybody is interested or has questions related to culture change and reform, I will be happy to respond.

    Thank you.


    Jeffrey L. Peyton, Inventor
    puppetools and play language

  7. I enjoyed the article and agree with your premise. I work in an urban public school district that serves predominantly African-American and Hispanic students and am dismayed by the substandard instruction that too many of our students are “force-fed” each day.

    I am concerned about that too much local control is a significant contributing factor to the conditions in the district. The community that I live in and serve does not generate enough money to fund its own educational system and relies on the state for nearly 80% of its funding. But the state does not dictate to the local board of education.

    So, while I am not a classroom teacher, I help those subversive innovators in our district of traditional schools to “raise a crop that can sustain itself through a lifetime of learning.” I’m proud of that, but there are too many forces that want to keep the substandard conditions in districts like ours, and allow other districts in the state to continue to flourish, because so many of our students eventually become grist for mills of the prison industry and other government industries.

    I guess I think it is important to address those racial and class-based differences directly.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. Kelly,

    Catching up after some time on the road. I appreciate you helping us see how this premise bears special relevance in the urban public school setting. I was a follower of HBO’s “The Wire.” One season was based in a Baltimore middle school and did a great job of showing the negative impact of test prep. “Juking the stats” – sacrificing all creativity to get the scores up!

  9. Jeffrey,

    Catching up after some time on the road…

    Thanks for the extended comment – no need to apologize for a new tangent – I checked out puppetools and play language. Very interesting tools. Best of luck spreading the gospel of play!

  10. Great Article, Peter. It appears that you’ve hit a chord which resonates in a wider part of the community that many people would identify.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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