School Gardens: Classroom or Distraction?

by Jeff Hake

Warm and hopeful feelings are elicited when discussing school gardens.  Thoughts run to children putting seeds in the ground, crowding around as a flower is examined from stem to stamen, and smiling as they harvest the literal fruits of their labor.

Unfortunately, this happy reverie bears interruption.  Behind those children is a school building with its academic rigors and, beyond that, the faltering American educational system.  School gardens are a small but rising trend in the United States and have gained widespread approval.  Yet, this approval raises questions: Where does this approval come from?  Have school gardens proved their merit?  Are gardens at odds with schools, or are they compatible with educational objectives?

A clash of priorities

On March 12, 2010, Change.org, a major grassroots networking site, concluded its “Ideas for Change in America” competition, an open call for identifying and voting on new nationwide grassroots campaigns.  “Good Food For All Kids: A Garden At Every School”, was voted into the top ten ideas from over 2500 options.

While figures are difficult to come by, this campaign would magnify the scope of the school garden movement, which already reaches every state and constitutes thousands of garden plots.  Meanwhile, Michelle Obama’s White House garden, planted and cultivated with the aid of local students, and her recent anti-obesity work are drawing eyes to school gardening and health at the national level.

Yet while garden education is gaining momentum, basic education is at a crossroads.  It is reeling from what Diane Ravage, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, describes as “an eight year process of dumbing down kids, lowering standards, and threatening the very survival of American education”.  She says this process was initiated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) under the George W. Bush administration.

On March 14, 2010, President Obama called for an overhaul of NCLB that “strikes a careful balance, retaining some key features of the Bush-era law…while proposing far-reaching changes”.  Under the current system one out of three public schools have been labeled as failing, and the goal of bringing every student up to grade proficiency in English and math has not materialized.

In the midst of this clash of priorities, an article called “Cultivating Failure” appeared in the January/February issue of The Atlantic.  Author Caitlin Flanagan describes the school garden movement as a robbery of education from our nation’s youth.  While large tracts of the article are discountable for their hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric, it has nevertheless caused a stir, and not without reason.

A valuable question asked by Flanagan is whether students need every moment of classroom time to learn the three “Rs” and prepare for standardized testing that determines their worth as a student, their passage to the next grade level, and the performance-based funding that their schools will receive.

Flanagan’s argument is yes: school gardens are a drain on the threadbare education system and serve no practical educational purpose.  However, many school gardening experts disagree.  They make the case that, rather than being a distraction from the modern classroom, school gardens can enhance both educational objectives and the development of engaged and healthy citizens and communities.

“Speaking in their language”

Standardized testing has been a part of the American educational system for so long that it has become inextricable from the lives of students and teachers. With the passage of the NCLB in 2001, the emphasis on testing increased immensely.

“Teachers are pressured to keep test scores up,” says Jennifer Obadia, PhD candidate in the Agriculture, Food and Environment (AFE) program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.  “Regardless of [whether test scores are effective or not], teachers’ funding is dependent on [them].”  As a result, “All non-curricular courses get squeezed.”

Yet Obadia, who has extensive experience as a garden and nature educator, sees no reason why garden education has to be at odds with national educational objectives, asserting, “You can use a garden to teach towards the test.”  Professor Tim Griffin, PhD, director of the AFE program, believes gardens are an important bridge between the classroom and the natural world.  “It’s an illustration of education that has kids think in systems rather than in individual topics,” says Griffin.  In terms of science, he says, “You can talk about some fairly simple biological concepts and some complex ones.”

Research on the educational merit of school gardens is still scant, but the limited evidence supports the notion that they could have a particularly strong effect on science test scores.  A 2005 study published by the American Society for Horticultural Science found that third through fifth grade students participating in school gardening activities in addition to classroom-based science scored significantly higher on the science achievement test compared to students who were taught science using classroom-based methods only.

Informal observation also supports the value of using school gardens as an educational laboratory, but the debate over whether they can improve test scores is far from over.  Obadia insists that the impact of gardens on academic success still requires more research, as “most research to date has focused on the impact on diet and environmental awareness.”

Tai Dinnan, gardens coordinator for Groundwork Somerville, which operates numerous youth gardening programs, is sure gardens are valuable to the fundamental classroom subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and welcomed the idea of being held accountable for the results of her garden education like any other educator.

“I have no problem with making what I do standards-based,” she says. “If we have to write what we’re teaching…within their [educators and parents] framework, it’s a good way of convincing people that schoolyard gardens are important. We have to speak in their language.”

“Gardens are for hands-on learners”

“Teaching for the test” is a path down which many teachers have been forced, and many students have been unable to follow.  The range of tools available to educators has become more and more limited, squeezing out learners whose brains are not wired for “book learning.”

Obadia describes the modern classroom as “teacher-oriented” where discourse is discouraged.  Whether we like it or not, she points out,  “Everyone learns in a different style.”  Some students are better adapted to hands-on learning, which is difficult for lone teachers in large classrooms to accommodate.  For those students, Obadia sees gardens as a way to connect.  “Gardens are for hands-on learners.”

In this way, school gardens are accessible, safe, and educational hybridizations of field trip, shop class, and science laboratory.  As Professor Griffin stated previously, school gardens are a form of education that allows kids to think creatively about the systemic connections between topics rather than focusing narrowly on the topics themselves.

Other outcomes

In addition to a school garden’s ability to engage alternative learners with the curriculum, there are potential outcomes from school gardens that go far beyond traditional education objectives.  The most important of these are nutritional education and fitness.

When she began her work with youth, Dinnan found that students, particularly in urban areas, “didn’t have a reason…for eating healthy other than that’s what they’re supposed to do.”  For her, gardens are a means of expanding students’ nutritional choices.  “When you see kids growing vegetables in their gardens, they’re willing to try eating new things and they’re excited about it…hopefully that will help them make good decisions.”

Whether school gardens actually improve nutritional outcomes is still debated.  The topic is more researched than educational outcomes, and numerous studies have shown that school gardens can have a positive impact on youth health, especially in terms of nutrition education and dietary choices.  Still, Griffin feels that the most important research question to be asked is, “Does [garden-based education] result in better nutrition for students compared to other school districts or to the district before the gardens were made a part of the curriculum?”

Obadia agreed with Griffin, but also noted that positive nutrition outcomes are a reasonable goal of school gardens.  “[They] seem to fit in perfectly with the mandatory school wellness programs and should be complemented by better food in the cafeterias and improved physical education programming.”

“Life is not a standardized test”

The interdisciplinary nature of school gardening puts it at odds with the topical basis of classroom teaching.  However, with the current education paradigm being questioned, and if positive research results and public momentum continue to increase, the United States may see even more growth of gardens at public schools.

The Economic Policy Institute, a political think tank that seeks “to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interest of low- and middle-income workers”, released a report in June 2009 entitled “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.” While most recommendations only call for moderate changes to NCLB, it also “pays attention not only to basic academic skills and cognitive growth narrowly defined, but to development of the whole person, including physical health, character, social development, and non-academic skills.”

While the report never mentions any programming explicitly, it calls for an increased investment in health services and more attention to the time students spend out of school. If research continues to show positive health outcomes from school gardens, and if youth gardening programs continue to engage students after school and during the long summer months, as does Groundwork Somerville, then school gardens may become an integral part of this new, broader, bolder approach.

School garden advocates do not profess that their programs are a panacea, but merely another tool in the education toolbox. If we continue to narrow the scope of American education, then school gardens will very likely fall by the wayside, but so too will an unacceptably large portion of American students who cannot conform to increasingly stringent standards.

As Professor Griffin notes, “Life is not a standardized test.” He, Obadia, and Dinnan share a sentiment that garden education can not only be integrated “into the context of the system”, but also has the potential to improve the health and broaden the opportunities of American youth. To accomplish this, more research is required to understand the strengths and weakness of school gardens, and to adapt and improve them accordingly.

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