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Why education should be more like farming and less like fast food
The other day I was watching a TED talk and I came across what I believe to be the mother of all metaphors: that education is very much like fast food, and that it should really be more along the lines of agriculture.
If you’ve watched Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
If you haven’t, I’ll let the suspense build as you read this blog, while I fill you in on why this issue helped me understand one of the biggest mysteries of my own personal life.
You see, when I was in high school, I was mediocre. And by that I mean my grades were mediocre. And I totally deserved those grades. I won’t say that I hated high school, but I definitely preferred spending my time watching the O.C. and One Tree Hill. And no, we didn’t really have social media ‘back then’ or I’m pretty sure that’s what I would’ve been doing instead. When I was in class, I really wasn’t listening most of the time. It wasn’t because I was on the computer or on my smartphone, I was just not listening.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know where my mind was, but it certainly wasn’t in class.
So here’s what has mystified me for years now: Once I reached university, I wasn’t mediocre anymore. All of a sudden, I was a top student. I started and finished with one of the highest grade point averages in my graduating class.
So how can that be?
Why I transformed as a student
For many years I thought to myself that it was probably just because I had ‘found my calling’ in university and I was able to study something that was of higher interest to me than what I studied in high school. But that’s not entirely true. I didn’t study what I wanted because - not surprisingly - I couldn’t get into the program I wanted, because I didn’t have high enough grades. Even though I ended up studying something similar and kind of liking it, I think there are so many other things that could have been ‘my calling’. So that can’t be the answer.
So then there’s the one about health and well-being. Today, I love sports and fitness. I work out, I ride my bike to and from work, and I love cooking and eating healthy food. I’m one of those annoying people who actually LOVE broccoli (but I’ll get back to that). When I was in high school though, I sang to a different tune. I took the bus to and from school, hated exercise and ate and drank a lot of junk. And as we all know - a healthy body equals a healthy mind. Exercise and stable blood sugar helps us concentrate and stay focused. At least that’s what the research says, right?
But could my health and well-being really make that big of a difference? I’m not so sure anymore.
What I think made the difference is this:
In high school, the average ‘working day’ would be from 8am to 3pm. Pretty much every class was constructed in the same way: A teacher talking and writing things on a blackboard. Students watching, listening and occasionally asking questions. And then, every now and then, the teacher would ask us students questions, and we would answer, but mostly just because we had to, because our grades were dependent on our active participation in class.
In university, there was no average ‘working day’. I had classes 3 times a week, but not for the whole day, none of my classes were mandatory, and I didn’t get points for participation. And that only went on for 3 months at a time. Then we had 2 months of exam preparation, then exams, and then the semester was over. That doesn’t mean I spent less time learning, it just meant that I was studying by myself most of the time.
So is that the answer?
Well it’s not the full answer, but let’s leave this one hanging, while I lift the curtain and reveal what this whole fast food and farming thing is about.
What fast food and education have in common
Instead of putting it into my own words, I’ll just give you the exact quote from Sir Robinson’s talk:
“We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. There are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other is like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they're customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”
So high school was like McDonald’s to me. It was a place that some people loved and felt like they actually got some real value out of. But then there was me (and many others), who didn’t like the food, and who went home feeling sluggish.
High school literally drained me. My head grew tired from listening, though I wasn’t really understanding much. Then I went home, feeling more tired than the students who did understand it. I gave up when I had to do my homework, and I didn’t ask for help, because honestly, the last thing I needed when trying to wrap my brain around a new concept was another human being staring me in the face, asking me “do you understand this?” So I couldn’t follow the class the next day, which resulted in bad grades, which - and this is really the cherry on top - left me feeling worthless, stupid and believing that I really wasn’t good at anything.
So what can we do to solve this problem? (Handing over the microphone to Sir Robinson again):
“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it's an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”
Oh how I wish I had been given those flourishing conditions by that farmer.
To pick up where I left you hanging, the reason why I believe I did so much better in university than I did in high school is because that’s where I could study on my own. And as it turns out, I’m just the I-learn-best-on-my-own type of person.
Does that mean we should have applied the same model I had in university to my high school. No, certainly not. Because there were lots of students who did really well in high school. But it was pretty much like a modern version of Survival of the Fittest where those who thrived on that model flourished and learned, and those who didn’t withered and fell behind.
So that was a whole lot of chatter about food and farming and bad grades. What you’re probably thinking at this point is “BUT DOES SHE HAVE A SOLUTION?”
And the answer is yes. Of course!
Why education should be like farming
So I’m going to give you my solution. Not the solution. Because I can’t speak for every student out there. But then again, that’s also kind of the point.
The solution is that there shouldn’t be one solution. Every student should be placed in the soil that works for them, exposed to just the right amount of sunlight and watered with just the right amount of water. Or they will drown.
We need to personalize and customize education. And arguing that it’s too expensive just isn’t going to cut it. Education is an investment, not a cost, and we can save millions if we do it right. It requires that people take off their no hats, put on their yes or at least their I’ll think about it hats, and start thinking differently about education.
Admittedly, I don’t know everything there is to know about the educational system. Someone who has been in the industry for 50+ years probably does. That someone probably also wears a wrist watch to check the time, even though their phone and computer carries that exact same information.
Do they need to stop wearing wrist watches? No, not if they really like them. No one is harmed by their wrist watches.
Do they need to stop applying other ancient ways of thinking to our educational system? Yes, even if they do like those ancient thoughts.
What you, as an educator, can do
So here’s my 2 cents: Open up your eyes to the world of opportunities that are arising in edtech. Technologies like Labster offer the students the possibility of taking their education into their own hands. Tools like this, in combination with traditional teaching tools, allow students to learn via different learning styles, at different paces and from different places, hence empowering the students to learn in the way that suits them best.
So adapt and adopt. Don’t wait for the research to prove the effectiveness and the increased learning outcomes. Don’t insist on rigid rules that have been around for 100 years just because they’ve been around for 100 years. Ask your students: what would you rather? Ask them what motivates them to learn.
Tell them, or better yet, show them, what they can use their education for. Give the new educational tools a shot, and see how your students react.
Like you were probably always told by your parents when you were little: You won't know if you like it, until you try it.
It’s important that this push comes from the faculty though. Let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t have tried broccoli if your mother hadn’t insisted on you trying it. If you still hate broccoli, fair enough. But I personally love broccoli, and I’m pretty darn happy I was introduced to it.
I’m also pretty darn happy that I found the way I learn best. And I’m even happier that that led me to work for Labster, because guess what? At Labster, I do a lot of my work alone too. And I love it. I also love working from home, or working from a coffee shop, or working from Bali. And yes, Labster allows me to do that. And hey, my team still thinks I’m doing a pretty good job - despite my freedom to do it my way.
So enough with the McDonald’s/one-size-fits-all/Survival of the Fittest approach. Let’s grow some plants instead.