Post 6: Learning Slowed and Spread

Thursday, September, 20, 12 § 3 Comments

A few years ago I took some time away from teaching and stepped into the world of business, helping my father run his landscaping company. It didn’t take long for my teaching instincts to re-surface, leading me to develop what I labeled “employee literacy classes,” where I met weekly with a group of my father’s Spanish speaking employees.

Through these classes, in which we discussed principles of permaculture and water harvesting, I came to recognize that in the workplace, tasks often get done without a conceptual understanding of why. Workers are not expected to question the structure in which roles or jobs are assigned. The purpose of a workday turns mainly towards getting paid and going home.

In Seth’s post, “Education and the New Economy,” he refers to the ‘Triple Bottom Line (TBL)’ as a new way of measuring the success or failure of businesses. In this model, what is assessed is not only a company’s financial profit, but the impact it has on the planet and on people—particularly its employees. Today, more and more businesses are structuring the way they are run to capitalize on the creativity and talents of their employees, asking them not to “do what they are told,” but instead to “do what they think should be done.” From my perspective, and I believe from the participants’, the literacy classes in my father’s company were meaningful, as they began to redefine the relationship between the work, the employee and the employer.

The next step, I believe, is to reach beyond the workplace and redefine the relationship between work and school. Over thirty years ago, in her article, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,”Jean Anyon compared the patterning of a school day to that of a factory, training students to fill predetermined employment options. Anyon found that schools for the affluent and professional class give children space to explore more independently and express their creativity, while schools for the poor and working-class teach children how to fill in the blanks and line up—and “do what they are told.”

If, as educators and leaders in education, we choose to stick to this model for so many children, to perpetually test and drill, then we will produce another generation of a workforce limited in potential and power. Conversely, if we open the passion and creativity for all students in our classes and schools, regardless of social class, we create a new generation of empowered, resourceful employees, one key to a more vibrant, TBL economy.

The question, then, is not whether we should make this shift in our schools, but how we should do it.

Our job as educators is to enrich our students’ lives with knowledge, just as my father’s company seeks to enrich the soil with nutrients. In landscaping, we use water-harvesting techniques to slow and spread the flow of water, so that these nutrients do not rush over the land, but slowly sink in.

This same practice needs to be applied to education. New concepts and skills “sink in” best to a learner’s body when they come slowly, and are spread through a variety of settings and experiences. For many students, fast-paced classrooms do not provide an opportunity for the learning to really enrich who they are as human beings. But when given the chance to explore outside the classroom walls, and indeed, outside their neighborhoods, learning that was once irrelevant truly sinks in for children, helping them make connections. This awareness can create a web of understanding with tentacles stretching the globe, across cultural and socioeconomic borders.

I wonder if the work-world could give children—all children—this chance to explore outside the classroom. Perhaps we are losing resources by not creating businesses that enrich the people who will someday be their consumers and employees. Perhaps we need a business sector that helps our youth to apply book learning to real-world solutions. This new model of education would seek to tap into every child within our watershed, giving them the chance to stretch their minds, and apply their creativity through meaningful work.

When I think about this type of schooling from the perspective of my father’s company, I wonder if this model, in which children experience learning through work, may be the new paradigm for “turning a profit,” creating a more meaningful and sustainable way of exchanging services and goods within a community. For a true TBL economy, as I envision it, gives youth a chance be involved, and a place to return to that is vibrant with innovation. As a dear friend said to me in 2001, while cruising in Rosie, her old red truck, “I want to give back to Santa Fe; it gave me so much growing up.”

A community that takes responsibility for her children gives each and every child the opportunity to dream big. It gives them mountains and rivers to explore, fields to play on, and a vibrant local economy in which to flourish. If our community as a whole chooses to let a majority of our students go through school without authentic means of applying their knowledge, just “doing what they are told,” then I believe, like a desert rain storm on concrete, our human resources will continue to wash away, eroding the soils downstream.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey promotes pedagogical structures that give everyone a job or responsibility, communicating that they belong and are needed. Nothing could be further from the reality of today’s schools and globalized mega-economy, in which employees and students are too often treated as “less than,” as if they do not matter.

But they do matter – the children – like the water. Every child that attends school within this watershed is as important as each single drop of rain that falls. Our responsibility as educators and as business owners and consumers is to build a local economy that involves every student and every employee, offering them the tools and opportunity to  learn something unique to themselves, and then apply it.

 Zoë Nelsen | September 20, 2012

Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Journal of Education Vol. 162, no. 1, Fall 1980

 Dewey, John. Education and Work. Indianapolis: Kappa Delta Pi, 1938 and 1998


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§ 3 Responses to Post 6: Learning Slowed and Spread

  • Anne Salzmann says:

    My first thought was that I did this every day as a kid in Sedona..riding horses, cleaning up after them, building secret homes in the bushes, finding snakes and snails, riding to the creek in the back of a pickup and helping do a sweat lodge…doesn’t happen much any more.

  • Those memories provide some great imagery of what a new model of schooling could look like, Anne, and what I think Zöe is trying to push us towards. I’m very troubled by this new national push to add minutes on to the school day… We’re going in the wrong direction by trying to keep kids in classrooms longer–what we need to be focusing is how we can create schools that are springboards–not cages–of learning.

    It’s true that children may be better off in a classroom than at home–and not just poor children from supposedly “broken” neighborhoods, but even very wealthy kids, like those I taught here in Colombia, who went home to a long afternoon of video games, junk food, and solitude. If we can shake off the idea that schools and teachers are the only people who can educate kids, then we open ourselves up to a host of exciting possibilities about where and when learning can happen. With guidance by knowledgeable teachers, business owners, farmers, artists, lawyers–anyone can become a teacher, if even just for a few hours a month.


  • dena smith says:

    As I was reading your blog, a student leaned over my shoulder and asked what I was reading about. This particular student has not been successfull with regular education practices, yet he has so many strengths to could be utilized in the learning process. It was really fun to explain your article to him, and watch his face light up as I connected your ideas with examples of things we could do in our own class!!

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