The Failure of the Living Classroom

Caitlin Flanagan just published a provocative piece in the Atlantic about why the “garden curriculum” created by Alice Waters and running rampant in California is a bad idea. I agreed with her (here on DoubleX)–not because I think there’s anything wrong with a garden in a school, or because I think the school gardens represent a particular affront to immigrants and migrant workers (her token inflammatory hook–man, she’s good at that–I’ve yet to master it)–but because, as she finally says way, way at the end of the piece, every additional social agenda we tack onto the learning day takes away from actual instructional time.

On the one hand, who could argue with teaching kids recycling, or gardening, or anti-bullying, or whatnot. But if you add, say, a three-hour-long anti-bullying curriculum, or an hour and a half a week in the garden, that time has to come from somewhere. The idea is usually that the new plan will be integrated with the usual learning–so, we’ll do math about how good recycling is for our community, or we’ll measure a garden or count seeds. Before I had a kid in school, I was all over that. How much more interesting is math is it’s really about something? It just sounds so good!

But once Sam started school, we found that what sounded so cool in theory was a real failure in practice, at least for him. He learned all kinds of cool stuff in the living classroom of the meadow during his first two years at school–but he didn’t learn how to read, or add, and I’m thinking those are going to be more transferable skills than the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. We were–and I still am–pretty pissed. The school had him for six-plus hours a day, and all we got was an in depth explanation of a cocoon?

My conclusion was that, for Sam at least, you might be able to practice math and reading by applying it within one of those “experiential” or “living classroom” curricula, but it was a lot harder to actually learn the stuff in that context. So I thought Flanagan had an excellent point. If that “garden curriculum” isn’t making its numbers, it doesn’t have any place in the schools. I love gardens, and whole foods, and I think they’re important. But the basics have to come first.

3 Responses to “The Failure of the Living Classroom”

  1. shirlee says:

    I’m with you a hundred percent.

  2. G. Silva says:

    Me too. I plan to teach my son about butterflies, birds, and gardens at home. I expect him to come home from school with math and reading skills. Doing it the other way around does not appeal to me.

  3. Elizabeth Storey says:

    Yep, show me the data. If the data shows that the kids are working at grade level, fine. If not, then they need to make some changes!