Slow Food and Educational Reform: A Cautionary Metaphor

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As an educator I have been lucky enough to combine my love of teaching and food by teaching some simple recipes around southern and central Maine for the past 30 years.  There are great connections between effective instruction and teaching cooking, but I’ll save that for another time.  In this entry I’d like to share a metaphor about the relationship between good food and good education.

A tasty meal generally begins with high quality, nutritious ingredients.  After all, in addition to the pleasure and socializing associated with eating, there is nutrition. This realization made me curious about just where vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, and grains come from, and how they are grown, raised, and processed.  I discovered that there is a well established international movement with an interest in healthy and sustainably produced food known as “Slow Food”.

Did you know that the majority of what’s in our supermarkets are not really food at all? They are food-like substances that are sold as food.  Pre-packaged, pre-prepared products such as “processed cheese spread”, or “Gogurt” are examples of these food-like substances.  Check the ingredients on the labels to confirm the lists of unpronounceable chemicals and inert ingredients pretending to be food.  You’ll also find a list of added vitamins and minerals that have been added to “enrich” the product.  The list will include the percentage of recommended daily allowance provided by each added nutrient not naturally found in the food substitute.

So as long as we eat fresh produce all will be well when it came to good ingredients, right?  Wrong!  Virtually all of the produce sold in the  local supermarket has been “scientifically” selected, grown, and processed not for their nutritional value, but for their marketability, resistance to specific pests, and ability to travel over long distances.  The goal?  Bigger and better yields.  Scientists and agribusinesses have manipulated genes, developed new species of plants and animals, patented them and encouraged farmers to grow them using specially developed fertilizers and feeds.

Yields certainly have grown by all measures! Unfortunately, this  “scientific” food production has resulted in a kind of paradox, poor nutrition amidst high crop yields.  Interestingly it also resulted in greater standardization, the rise of fast food, and increased obesity, along with concurrent health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and higher rates of gastro-intestinal ailments. We can eat more, but we actually get less of the two things we need and want from food. Nutrition and taste.  It makes me wonder…Is today’s education actually resulting in less of what we really want in learning?

So, how does this relate to the challenges facing middle level education today?  I think it all comes back to the key purposes of middle level education,  meeting the developmental needs of the whole adolescent child.  Whole means whole…The academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of young adolescents.  Just as food science and policy has focused on higher and bigger yields as the measure of success for farmers, educational science and policy has focused on higher test scores to measure the effectiveness of schools, teachers, and principals. A troubling metaphor…What is it that we think over focusing on higher test scores will do as far as meeting the needs of the whole child?

In many school districts educational leaders…superintendents, principals and teachers feel they must eliminate courses that are not subject to local, state, national, and international testing from students’ schedules in order to increase the amount of time in courses that are being tested.  In other schools teachers are required to read scripted lessons word for word from a programmed text, pausing to wait for student responses memorized in previous lessons.  In some schools, common planning time, professional time for teachers to meet and consult about students and curriculum has been eliminated in order to provide more class time…to raise test scores.  As components of that ecosystem known as the effective middle school are eliminated in order to raise test scores, its ability to provide the complex and comprehensive interactions needed to meet the needs of the whole child is diminished, making it more and more difficult to move toward, let alone sustain a comprehensive vision that supports effective learning.

Thousands of research studies, experience in schools, and common sense tells us that the well-being of the whole child is limited by the weakest aspect of the child, just as a chain, web, or system will be limited by its weakest part.  The lesson from the whole food movement is clear to me, systems are highly complex and attempts to simplify and minimize their components in order to distill and force a desired outcome is to be done at the risk of those who are to be served by that system.  And if tinkered with, should be done very carefully, thoughtfully, with the same level of skill and planning of the most delicate and complex medical, legal, technical, or philosophical undertaking…and  with a very clear and comprehensive educational vision constantly in focus.

Just as the partnership of agricultural research, government regulations, and agri-business has resulted in the paradox of measurably greater crop yields but less nutrition, it is quite possible that the partnership of educational research, government programs, and testing companies is resulting in the paradox higher test scores but less learning.

The response of farmers and consumers who see the purpose of agriculture as meeting the nutritional needs of the whole person has been the Whole Foods and Slow Foods Movement.  I wonder…what might be the response of teachers and citizens who see the purpose of education as meeting the developmental needs of the whole students?  Whole Education?  Slow Education?

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s very important to engage ALL stake holders in asking the right, simple questions before even beginning to identify problems, let alone formulating possible and complex solutions.  My sense is that many “solutions” to both agricultural and educational problems did not, and do not, have major representation from farmers in the fields or teachers in the classrooms. So I wonder…In light of this metaphor connecting Whole/Slow Food’s vision of good food and Middle Level Education’s vision of educating the whole child, what are your thoughts?

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One Response to “Slow Food and Educational Reform: A Cautionary Metaphor”

  1. Jill Spencer Says:

    Chris,

    I was especially taken with this part of your post, ” I wonder…what might be the response of teachers and citizens who see the purpose of education as meeting the developmental needs of the whole students? ” I’ve felt for the past 8 or so years that we’ve lost sight of the whole child and the connections between learning and the social-emotional life needs of the young adolescents. However I’m beginning to see glimmers of recognition by a variety of educators of the “rightness” of middle level philosophy as described in documents such as This We Believe and Turning Points 2000. Today in the mail I received ASCD’s Education Update and the lead article is on middle grades education. The article ends with the quote, “If you do certain middle grades practices, you really can have higher achieving schools.” Well hallelujah! Isn’t that what the research has been saying for the past 15 years. The Update also has a link to another article (online) describing a new middle school being built in Illinois (http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/jul10/vol52/num07/Embracing-the-Whole-Child-in-the-Middle-Grades.aspx) “Embracing the Whole Child in the Middle Grades.” This state-of-the-art school’s vision is described in this quote, “To prevent reducing schooling to a narrow focus on curriculum and test scores, a whole child approach promotes the development of children who are healthy and safe in the school environment, engaged in learning and community life, supported by caring and qualified adults, and challenged academically so that they can succeed in college and the workplace.” The article goes on to quote the district superintendent, “We wanted the building to be designed around educating the body, mind, and spirit: the ‘mind’ being the academic wing; the ‘body’ being where physical education, fitness, nutrition, and health are taught; and the ‘spirit’ being the inner core of the building—which has a theater; rooms for art and music, band, and chorus; and the library,” A good article to begin the school year with even if the your building is not a brand new facility. The vision is about the attitudes and hearts of the individuals involved, not the building.

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