The Importance of Seeing Progress

The Importance of Seeing Progress

Caitlin Flanagan’s recent article in The Atlantic has received much criticism in the past few weeks.
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The Importance of Seeing Progress
Friday, February 19, 2010 - 11:36am


Caitlin Flanagan’s recent article in The Atlantic, in which she more or less attacks the concept that the development of school gardens are worthy of the time commitment they demand, has received much criticism in the past few weeks. Flanagan’s main concern is that while school gardens are vastly expanding in popularity, the students of these schools, particularly those of African and Latino decent, are not amply prepared for the required math and English tests that would eventually propel their lives forward. I encourage you all to pick up a copy of the January/February issue of The Atlantic or check out the entirety of her assessment here. Below is an excerpt that addresses Flanagan’s biggest concerns with school gardens.

Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens: What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs—so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed—improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state test that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students? I have spent many hours poring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet the state standards for English and math. Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high-school diploma but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either.

Rather than discuss on the validity of Flanagan’s argument, as many other writers have done and later discredited—including one fantastic response from ecoliteracy—I will instead focus on a particular point of Flanagan’s critique. Flanagan identifies two reasons for school gardens gaining popularity,

First, that kids will learn by doing, and second, that millions of poor kids have so little access to fruits and vegetables that if they don’t spend their school day growing some on campus, they will never get any at all.

Both reasons invite debate but what I find most compelling is the former reasons: that “kids learn by doing.”

Kids learn by doing. That seems simple enough. Yes, gathering experience is essential to gaining confidence and becoming more independent. Think about it: is a student more likely to succeed trying a math problem for the first time or the seventh time? What about a student delivering a speech; is she more likely to deliver a strong speech to her classmates when she has practiced it several time beforehand? I think almost all of us would agree; kids do learn by doing.

However these examples fail to encompass what I consider to be the strongest effect of school gardens—consistent work provides tangible results. I volunteer at a Harlem school, where I have become well acquainted with the fifth and sixth graders and their struggles and triumphs with teachers, classes, and one another. The school garden, however, provides the students with something unparalleled anywhere in the school. Now although this small five by one and a half foot window garden may not compare to some of the California gardens Flanagan refers to, it is effective nonetheless.

The garden offers these middle schoolers is the opportunity to observe the effects of consistent work. A garden requires continual care, such as watering and weeding. You may water your plant Monday morning but if you fail to continue to water it every few days, the plant will most likely die. There must be care, but it cannot be sporadic. The care must be consistent.

In order to excel in math class, the continuity of care is similar. If a student completes his homework every night, he is in better position to see results in class. When the next test arrives, and he has continued to complete homework assignments, he is more likely to score well on the test. And the result of continual work is a paper with a high number on it.

Maybe this number does not provide the child’s mind with what it needs most: the result of progress. We adults understand a good grade represents the growth of knowledge, but what is a better symbol of growth than that of a plant that used to be a seed. Students quickly learn that if they do not water their seed, the seed will not grow. In order to eat the tomato or pick the wildflower they must care for the seed. They must water it. And when that seed grows into a tomato or a wildflower, that student who has provided the care needed can see the results of his continual work.

Nobody who goes to the gym once leaves with the body of Michael Jordan. Nobody who picks up a trumpet once can play like Miles Davis. Only through regular practice will one see results, and a garden offers children tangible results of consistent work and practice. Establishing this life philosophy is, in my opinion, the most effective component that school gardens offer. I am not sure whether this is what Caitlin Flanagan meant when stating “kids will learn by doing,” but I thought the importance of consistent work and practice that gardens bore merited its own piece. is dedicated to our users. We focus our attention on changing the world through recycling, waste-to-energy and conservation. We reward our users for their sustainable behaviors on our website, through our Greenopolis Tracking Stations and with curbside recycling programs.