Learning Gardens, Living Soil, and Sustainability Education
Modern Imperatives for Life and Learning
Sustainability education is now an emergent field of possibilities; gathering hope toward a “climate of change” in education. Green school and university initiatives include sustainability offices and centers to address policy and practical matters related to: building construction, transportation, energy usage, nutrition and health, recycling, schoolyard habitat, waste reduction, water harvesting, among others. The United Nations has framed sustainability and sustainable development as global goals for education (UNESCO, 2010). Sustainability indices are being developed and institutions are “ranked” based on their adherence to sustainability criteria addressing economic, environmental, and social issues.
However, amidst a generally positive atmosphere encompassing a wide range of vibrant multidisciplinary sustainability interests, we find that the fundamental assumptions guiding curriculum and pedagogy are left unaddressed. There remains a lingering tendency to continue to enshrine uniquely modern ways of thinking. Partly this is achieved through repetition of dominant metaphors, as well as through carrying forward un- or under-examined cultural, epistemological, and ontological assumptions that encourage piecemeal, rational, and detached “objective” views of the world (Bowers, 1997; Esteva & Prakash, 1998; Kumar, 2002; Sterling, 2001). It is inevitable that even the concept of “sustainability” would succumb to the rules of opportunistic engagement (Sauvé, Berryman & Brunelle, 2007).
As an umbrella term, “sustainability” is now touted despite many philosophical contradictions as seen in the following examples:
• advertising and marketing “sustainable” eco-harvested forest logs from Belize for use in constructing houses in clear-cut Appalachian mountains;
securing LEED “sustainability” certification for monumental skyscrapers in New York;
• building large-scale “sustainable” wind farms off the pristine coast of Cape Cod;
• “sustainably” growing organic bananas produced as monocrops on large farms in Hawaii owned by absentee corporations and shipped to monopolies of food-chains thousands of miles away on 48 mainland states;
• securing mega-factories for the production of “sustainable” solar panels in Shanghai causing enormous environmental waste;
• sending tons of biomass daily from chemically manicured yards in gated communities to mega-composting “not-in-my-back-yard” dumps.
The list goes on. Basking in the glory of such “sustainability” endeavors, there is little recognition of their undergirding consumptive capitalist and dominant paradigms. The Eden of sustainability is often informed by the same modern mindset that has created our educational systems often tied closely to the global economy. Thus, the emerging discourse on sustainability education is in many ways caught in a modern web of theoretical, ontological, and epistemological assumptions that are incongruent with sustainability.
Modern Education Reforms
Each year, millions of children in the United States spend about ten months in a school. No matter what the age of the child, much of this time is expended at desks learning the “basics,” that is, the three Rs of reading, ‘riting, and ’rithmetic, in the classrooms within the confines of the four concrete walls of the school building. The pressure of global competition continues to escalate further and, as a result, many schools are even doing away with recess and play time. Time spent outside is considered non-essential.
For over half a century, the fear of America losing its dominance as a super power in the world has led to an overcrowded and packed curriculum in hopes of addressing global competition. There have been waves of education reform couched within the language of risk and crisis. In the 1980s, President Reagan declared that America was “a nation at risk”; at that time the manifesto was about the drop in test scores and academic underachievement across national and international scales, with Japan as our main economic competitor. We have not recovered from the metaphor of American schools being at risk. As an evocative term, it conjures fear, danger, concern, and often pity and sympathy for those segments of the student population that the system has been unable to serve.
In order to deal with the crisis of American students not being competitive among industrialized nations, there have been a number of recommendations proposed, among which are raising expectations, increasing time for instruction,
and using market-driven ideas to inform performance. A Nation at Risk
was precursor to No Child Left Behind
(NCLB). For a decade now, NCLB has rightly pointed out the race and class differences in academic achievement in our schools; NCLB forced schools to laser focus on closing the achievement gap in Reading and Math. However, the mandates of testing have come with the threats of punishment. So what do public schools do? Test children over and over again until they get the one correct answer on a multiple choice test? Filling in bubbles of predetermined answers rather than bubbling with the joy of learning is the consequence for children. Top-down reform and standardized tests for measuring achievement have become the stick that drives educational policy and practice of reform.
Since 2009, the reform used at schools is Race to the Top. Driving this agenda is the worry that America is losing its clout in global competition, this time to China and India, and that we are dropping in stature in our academic performance with Finland topping the list of performance and other countries racing faster than we are. Stanford scholar Larry Cuban (1990) explains it best when he writes:
The return of school reforms (again, again, and again) suggests that the reforms have failed to remove the problems they were intended to solve. Analysts ask: Are we attacking the right problem? Have the policies we adopted fit the problem? … Were the solutions that were designed to correct the problems, mismatched? Right problems, wrong solutions? Or vice versa? Are we dealing with the problem or the politics of the problem?
(pp. 5—6, emphasis added)
More important, we believe, is to ask ourselves, what metaphors are being used as a basis to shape and reform policies and drive educational practices? Often, marketplace analogies and business models argue for greater efficiency. Yet, with the 2009 Wall Street and global market collapse, there is not much trust in these institutions. Moreover, market and business models are themselves predicated upon lifeless mechanistic metaphors.
Guiding Metaphors of Modern Education
Discussing the power of metaphorical thinking, Maxine Greene and Morwenna Griffiths (2003) in their essay, “Feminism, Philosophy, and Education: Imagining Public Spaces,” explain:
We need to rethink, to think differently: to use our imaginations again … metaphorical language [is] a way of rethinking and questioning orthodox thinking. A metaphor is what it does. A metaphor, because of the way it brings together things that are unlike, reorients consciousness.
At present our educational system is guided by lifeless mechanistic metaphors, manifested in a conceptualization of schools as complex machines. As Greene and Griffiths (2003) contend, a metaphor is what it does; thus, guided by mechanistic metaphors, schools progressively mimic machines in form and function. We present the following seven areas of concerns to highlight the troublesome trends that emerge from a mechanistic orientation.
1 De-contextualization of learning. Education is too often framed with little regard to the physical places in which schools actually exist. Though schools exist in physical communities, filled with social and biotic actors and relationships, education follows a de-contextualized script (curriculum) without reference to the local context: this cripples the ability of the educated to “see the forest for the trees.” The intricate web of relations to which the tree is bound is obscured by the “silo-ing” (Orr, 1992) tendency of the academy. Within this view, knowledge retains little relationship to the social and ecological context from which it arises and in which it must be ultimately applied. Responsible application of knowledge—that is, considering potential ecological consequences of actions—is overlooked in such a de-contextualized transmission of “neutral” knowledge (Capra, 1996; Orr, 1992).
2 Loss of curiosity and wonder. Why do children enter school as a question mark and leave as a period? It is unnecessary that children’s latent urge to ask questions be stifled by standardized tests and the “get it right” syndrome of modern education. Within the structure of NCLB high-stakes testing, time for curious exploration and unbound wonder is curtailed to ensure children and youth are able to master multiple choice tests in which there can be only one correct answer among a set number of options. The dichotomies characteristic of the modernistic Cartesian paradigm are carried forward in sets of binaries germane to education such as right–wrong, teacher–student, and teaching–learning. These separations promote oppositional arrangements that privilege the teacher as all-knowing and position the student as a passive receiver of transmitted knowledge. Such simplistic scenarios are rarely repeated in real life and do not positively contribute to joyous learning.
3 Acceptance of mechanical and industrial scale
. Modern education is set in lock-step to a rigid clock: hours of learning are regulated by the lifeless ringing of bells, and years of mental, physical, and emotional development are charted in stages of linear development. The life rhythms of natural cycles are ignored or overshadowed by the beat of an industrial march ever forward. But forward toward what? Additionally, for too long the dominant trend in modern Western culture has been to think “big” (Berry, 1970b). This proclivity toward grandiosity continues to influence education and the emerging sustainability paradigm resulting in the discounting of multitude of diverse human and biotic communities specific to particularities of place.
Large-scale, top-down actions are taken for granted. Thinking big often turns out to be not thinking wisely.
4 Homogenization of curriculum and learning. Homogenization weakens ecosystems and social systems, whereas diversity strengthens them through building complex networks of interdependence. At present, the homogenization of curriculum emphasizes the industrial quality of schools in which the critical importance of context is erased. The production and transmission of knowledge is divided spatially, socially, and temporally from society and removed from the local human and biotic communities in which schools physically exist (Smith & Gruenewald, 2008). Racing to the top on the road to progress, children’s latent creativity, curiosity, and wonder are paved through the explicit standardization and uniformity of curriculum and learning methodologies with a view toward ever more efficient use of human, informational, and intellectual “resources.”
5 Privileging of abstract ideas. Modern educational systems divorce knowledge from lived experience and affective dimensions of life. All learning is expected to take place between the ears as the body sits still for seven to eight hours per day. The claim made by many students at all levels that school is “irrelevant” to life rings true considering that information and knowledge are continually abstracted from application. Modern educational systems divide knowledge into smaller and smaller specializations, such that experts are produced knowing little beyond their realm of specialization and having little experience in application. A privileging of abstract knowledge separates head from hands, mind from matter, and ideas from experience (Sipos, Battisti & Grimm, 2008; Sterling, 2001). Within modernistic educational systems, there is a clear delineation of status ascribed to knowledge. High-status knowledge is abstract, theoretical, scientific, and de-contextualized from the physical world. Low-status knowledge is associated with manual, craft, or trade knowledge, and has typically been limited to high school vocational training and community colleges (Bowers, 2000). An inequitable pattern of funding provided for techno-scientific research while humanities budgets are reduced demonstrates a division of values in monetary terms. One of the dangers of privileging high-status abstract knowledge at the expense of practical place-based knowledge relates to devaluing forms of cultural capital encoded in oral traditions and marginalizing face-to-face, recursive, iterative, experiential, temporal, spontaneous, and long-term teaching and learning relationships embedded in local cultures and ecologies (Cajete, 2001; Smith & Williams, 1999).
6 Perpetuation of individualism and autonomy
. Subject matter in schools is abstracted from relation within a broader picture of whole-systems knowledge. A number of European Enlightenment ideas such as Descartes’ declaration of independence, “cogito, ergo sum,”
or “I think, therefore I am,” Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which cast the individual as the
basic ecological unit and the natural world as a battleground for scarce resources, and Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” guiding capitalist economics through rational self-interest (Esteva & Prakash, 1998) deepen an ontological division of mind from matter and culture from nature, and emphasize an individualist outlook on existence (Kumar, 2002). In terms of educational practice, an honoring of the autonomous individual at the expense of community interconnectedness encourages a competitive approach to achievement (e.g. Race to the Top)
even when couched in terms of collective movement (e.g. No Child Left Behind
7 Stimulation of only certain senses. Modern educational systems divorce knowledge from lived experience and affective dimensions of life. An overstimulation of the eyes and ears without exercise of the other senses diminishes the bodily value of learning. It is not uncommon for children and youth to spend upwards of eight hours per day engaged with a computer or television screen, while time spent exercising other senses is minimized. Our senses of smell, taste, and touch are closely associated with deep learning and memory: we are more than just minds, eyes, and ears.
Taken together, these seven aspects of the modernist orientation—de-contextualization of learning, loss of curiosity and wonder, acceptance of mechanical and industrial scale, homogenization of curriculum and learning, privileging of abstract ideas, perpetuation of individualism and autonomy, and stimulation of only certain senses—are incongruent with living systems and sustainability. Founded upon mechanistic metaphors, educational reforms imagine schools as no more than complex machines and overlook the value of life itself. What is sorely missing in the discourse of educational reform is an understanding of the power of guiding metaphors and acknowledgment of the link between landscape and mindscape. In bringing sustainability to education we must address the physical environment and transform dominant mental models that underwrite connection with the land. Contextualized understandings and holistic relationships among tangible living entities are hallmarks of sustainability (Capra, 1996), thus a metaphoric framework that is more ecologically grounded is needed. School grounds and schoolyards are prime milieu that serve as the basis for ecological alternatives that contrast dominant mechanistic metaphors. Not only can learning gardens enhance mastery over literacy, numeracy, as well as life skills, but for us, soil and learning gardens also serve as animate options for reorienting the metaphoric imagination guiding modern education.
Modern Challenges, Modern Imperatives
The convergence of the following strands of public concern related to personal, social, and environmental sustainability surfaces school learning gardens as one dynamic example of a whole-system solution:
Obesity, ill-health, and food insecurity:
There is an elevated interest in teaching students how to grow and be connected to local sources of food. This is particularly so given the following trends: childhood obesity rates at an all-time high; pandemics such as the swine flu and waves of salmonella outbreaks causing public frenzy; and type 2 diabetes on the rise especially affecting non-white youth populations (Fagot, Burrows, & Williamson, 1999; Hedley, Ogden, Johnson, Carroll, Curtin, & Flegal, 2004). For example, in 2007, more than 16% of children and adolescents aged 6–19 years were overweight, a 45% increase from 1994. Obesity is a major contributor to diabetes, heart disease, and other preventable diseases. Part of this has to do with reduction in healthy food choices. Less than 20% of children are eating recommended quantities of fruits and vegetables: 20% eat no vegetables, and 35% eat no fruit. It is predicted by the United States surgeon general that children today may be the first generation to have a shorter life span than their parents (Winne, 2008). Since small farms have been steadily disappearing and there is an increased globalization of food systems, children and a generation of adults do not know where ...