by Martin Harris
Those who have read up on the 19th century Prussian roots of modern American K-12 education know that one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s fantasies was the “kindergarten” or child-garden to which impressionable pre-grade-schoolers could be removed from adverse parental influences at an earlier age (see New York State late ‘80’s Teacher-of-the-Year John Taylor Gatto’s writings on this subject) to be cultivated like little flowers (or vegetables?) in public classrooms. US educator Horace Mann adopted the Prussian system for his one-grade-per-classroom prescription, which explains why so many late 19th and early 20th century public schools have four classrooms per floor, two floors, the K originally in the basement and the clear-span assembly space originally on the third floor for structural-design, if not exactly occupant-safety reasons. Typically in the Mann design prescription: the paved “recess” area. Not in: real gardens. Now both multi-grade classrooms and gardens are back in educator vogue, and for somewhat connected reasons.
Originally, the MG classroom was just an economical solution for low-enrollment, typically one-room rural schools, and was almost completely wiped out in Vermont by aggressive superintendents in the ‘60’s –think Lloyd A. (Pete) Kelley’s game plan for Sudbury, described in earlier columns in this space– but it was restored in much larger, consolidated elementaries in the ‘80’s for educational reasons, primarily the recognition that students progress through their basics at varying rates, and can learn from watching (or, in some cases, actually helping) their more- or less advanced classmates. For students like your Humble Scribe (no MG classrooms during my 13-year odyssey) some teachers came up with various ad hoc substitutes, particularly the privilege of doing art work on the back-of-classroom bulletin boards (primary school) or reading quietly in one of the vacant seats in the back row of the 36-seat classroom, (secondary school) which was awarded to those of us who, in the teacher’s judgment, had mastered the material before some of our seatmates with whom she had to devote additional effort. In primary school, there was a garden; working in it during school hours was an out-of-the-classroom privilege for a similarly proven and limited few.
Now, per recent enthusiastic news reports, the garden has returned to a few schools, primary and secondary, in Addison County. Humble Scribe guess, based heavily on the Benefit-of-the-Doubt principle: it is more of a privilege for students who have already mastered the curriculum content and don’t benefit from more passive classroom time while some of their classmates, who haven’t, are still grappling with it; and less of an “alternate-education” device for instilling, say, science or biology knowledge –think the Periodic Tables of the Elements or both sides of the evolution vs. intelligent design debate—by transplanting tomato seedling or pulling weeds. Yes, the press reports suggest the latter and don’t even mention the former, but then the press reports also devote considerable column-inches to the similarly improbable idea of food self-sufficiency (at least for table crops, no beef, fish, or potable beverages) at the individual school level. Under the BotD principle, it’s reasonable to see educational history coming full circle (just like the seemingly-miraculous return of the once-expertly-despised MG classroom) in the use of school gardens, once again, as part of an achievement-reward system with more immediate and student-understandable benefit than the distant-future re-assurances from teachers in Humble Scribe’s school years: memorize this now, some day you’ll gratefully realize its value.
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It’s an interesting historical footnote that the BotD principle has long enjoyed wider application in the public education sector than in, say, the domestic energy sector or the retail sales sector, or even –a bit of a surprise here– the political-career sector. Indeed, the career-memoir autobiography industry has been extraordinarily blessed (maybe the wrong verb?) by the writings of former elected officials, who made various promises for election purposes and were quite swiftly sidewalked by impatient voters when, once in office, they failed to produce. For education, consider the now-40-year-long experiment in class-size reduction, expertly promised to result in student achievement improvement: a significant up-turn in test-score chart curves hasn’t happened yet, but neither educators nor taxpayers are demanding that the experiment surrender its BotD status. In contrast, consider how the newly-resurgent natural gas industry suffers, in blue states like Vermont, official hostility for pollution problems hydraulic “fracking” might cause, even though the practice hasn’t yet caused any such EPA-cited issues anywhere. You might call it a negative BotD phenomenon. Or retail sales: consider the grand old lady of grocery stores, the A&P Corporation, which was recently abandoned by shareholders for under-performance over maybe 15 years, less than half the time the reduced-class-size experiment has similarly under-produced but hasn’t yet been similarly declared bankrupt: you might call that view of the since-the-60’s K-12 practice a positive BotD phenomenon.
Equally BotD-leaning are the photo captions in the news articles, illustrating “digging in the garden” during a Biology of Foods class and “…applying classroom leaning to the real world using the school garden.” In the classroom, then, students have already learned enough chemistry to understand that plants require carbon dioxide to conduct photosynthesis sugar production, and thereafter excrete the oxygen we animals require; and while digging in the garden they get to watch that C02 intake and O2 output first-hand. Such Proficiency in Organic Chemistry would surely show up on the NECAP Science achievement tests, and so it does: At the Mt. Abraham UHS, 22% of 11th graders made “Proficient” and 78% didn’t, in 2010-11. That was on classroom-taught content, not garden time. Under the BotD principle, it would have been members of that achievement-proven 22% who were photographed in the garden, not the other 78% who still hadn’t quite grasped the environmental/ecological role of CO2 in the atmosphere, and weren’t likely to catch up on the principle while transplanting seedlings or pulling weeds, particularly since there are few if any lineal feet of chalkboard (suitable for displaying chemical reaction formulae) in outdoor gardens. But there is an educationally-approved way of getting that 78% out into the garden: the Montessori Method. Specifically –a little BotD principle at work here—it’s the Montessori Discovery Method, where students learn principles by working with materials and not by direct instruction. Thus, the Montessori-advantaged students learn Newton’s Second Law of Motion, Gravity, by experimenting with balcony-lofted apples, and learn the mathematical attributes of Potential and Kinetic Energy by experimenting with filled and empty wheelbarrows. And without textbooks or chalkboards. The news articles are silent on this BotD possibility.
As for the Prussian kindergarten concept, a key part of which was the introduction of letters and numbers to the children of 19th century working mothers as a substitute for what had previously been home-taught, it’s amplified today by the pre-k concept, the idea that, if home-prep doesn’t happen in some families anymore, irrespective of earner absence or non-earner presence, Kaiser Wilhelm is still right: a public pre-K program (which works; Head Start doesn’t) is better than K-entry unpreparedness.