The horticultural model of education

By some strange synergy, the rise of EdTech – that product of a supposedly post-industrial industry – has gone hand in hand with the rise of what might be called a horticultural model of education. This is the model explicity advocated by Sir Ken Robinson, who argued that a post-industrial society needed a pre-industrial metaphor for education, one in which rustic farmer-teachers (loathing linearity and adoring the organic) tend small vegetable-patch schools where children grow plantwise and flourish and blossom. A more extreme version of the same model is implicit in Sugata Mitra‘s vision of a minimally invasive education, where the soil is the internet and the farmer is a granny from Gateshead. If embedded in the former and encouraged by the latter, infantile genius blossoms. And this is the model most frequently found behind those quotation marks people put around the verb “teach”. Just as the farmer does not grow vegetables, but only creates the conditions in which the vegetables themselves grow, so the teacher does not really teach but merely assists the children as they direct their own learning.

Horticulture and education

Even as we succumb to the temptation to ridicule the model, we admit that there is a grain of truth in it: The concern for the child as a potentially autonomous being. We share that concern. There won’t be space here to discuss the issue of automony, but our criticism of the horticultural model will not involve turning our back on the child as a potentially autonomous being and saying that something else should be the sole focus of concern in education (standards, Truth, the GDP, beating the Chinese or ensuring the Victory of the Proletariat or whatever).

So what is this very questionable horticultural view of the child? It is the view that the child springs from the womb with an original fullness. Like a bud with its infantile petals wrapped up and hidden within, the young child is imagined to have the essence of its future life – its talents and its genius – wrapped up somehow and hidden within it, just waiting for the right conditions to blossom. What enables the horticulturalist to be so sure that there is only one centre of education – the child – is the assumption that the child’s existence is essentially centred on itself – a life as self-centred as that of, for instance, the apparently formless seed potato which contains within itself the principles of the mature plant, with its roots, stems, leaves and flowers. The egoistic potato does not need to look outside itself – at the tomato, perhaps – to find inspiration for how it might develop.

Kaspar Hauser dhild as noble savage

This view of the original fullness of the child is nothing new. It goes all the way back at least to Plato. His obstetric metaphor of the teacher as midwife also assumes that the teacher is helping to bring out something originally hidden within the student.

The implication for education of the horticultural view is that there are only two possibilities: Either we give children the freedom to unfold in their own way or we repress them, crushing the nature within as each is forced into the square holes of an adult order that is utterly alien to them. Either education is an anarchic Garden of Eden or it is a dictatorial Death Valley.

To argue against the horticultural model (and the obstetric one) we will use a technique favoured by those who dream of a schoolless and teacherless education: going back to the very beginning of education and arguing that that sets a tone that education in its entirety ought to sustain. The claim made repeatedly in EdTech circles is: Children learn to speak and walk without any formal education, so wouldn’t it be great if we had the technology that allowed children to learn everything else they need to know on their own. But how do children learn to speak and walk? Is it, as the horticulturalists maintain, a matter of children instinctively pursuing a self-directed activity like the bud unfolding to reveal its inner beauty?

Our hypothesis is this: The child would be in danger of remaining a mute quadruped were it not for the experience of being spoken to lovingly by the mother and the experience of seeing the mother move with an erect gait. The mother does not just facilitate the child’s development, rather she inspires it, and she is able to exercise that kind of influence because of the love between the mother and child.

The crux here is love, and on that basis we would argue for an erotic model of education in place of the horticultural one (although here we come up against the limits of the English language, in which the connotations of “erotic” are wrong and yet there is no better adjective).

It is the phenomenon of love that unseats the simplistic idea that education has a single centre in the unfolding life of the child. The life of someone who is in love is a life centred on something external to the individual. This is as true of the infant as it is of the adult. As the child first becomes aware of a rudimentary world, the world it becomes aware of is centred, in the first instance, on the mother. It is the mother that first sets the measure of all things.

Were there a potato that bore any resemblance to this, it would be one capable of falling in love with a tomato, upending itself in its adoration so that the infant potatos dangle in the air like tomatos, perhaps rotating them in the glow of the setting sun in the hope that they might redden and lose that unsightly potato palour.

For people like Sir Ken Robinson the crucial moment in education is the discovery of talent. Children learn to walk, on this view, because they discover in themselves a talent for walking. But the fact that walking is an anatomical possibility does not explain why children do it. Surely all children discover a talent for crawling, so why not continue moving around on all fours? The explanation has to be the influence of adults whom the children love.

Human life at its best begins in love – a life centred on the other – and education at its best ought to sustain that fully human phenomenon. If there is a soil in education, it is love, not Google. And since there is no love in the plant world, we have every reason to avoid the vegetable metaphors.

What this love indicates is not an original fullness (as if love were something welling up and overflowing in the child) but its opposite. At the risk of becoming obscurely Heideggerian, love is more like an emptiness – a clearing in which unnatural values can appear – values that define the new centre of the life that is in love.

In overlooking the phenomenon of love, the horticulturalists forget this crucial process of revealing a world of values – a process that, in keeping with the erotic model of education, we might call seduction. However committed we are to the value of autonomy, there is no getting away from the heteronomous process of the child’s being seduced by something external to it.

Sir Ken Robinson’s description of the development of talent presupposes, but ignores, this seduction – the seductions exercised by the star system that encourages young people to emulate the famous people whose stories Ken Robinson’s book The Element concentrates on. And in the same way Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall experiment hides from view the process through which the imaginations of the children in the slum are captured by the idea of being educated – an idea that was never their own, and was not gleaned while learning to use Windows Paint on the computer in the wall.

The horticulturalists will object, characterising the philosophers of love as social engineers. “Bringing something to bear on the life of the child from outside. No, this is terrible. We must remove those externalities as much as possible and allow the child to flourish in its own way.”

To counter that objection we would refer to the history of north European table manners. Apparently, it took hundreds of years for north Europeans to learn to eat with their mouths closed and not to belch at the table. Why did it take so long? According to the horticulturalists, the process would have been over within a generation if only the influence of the adults could have been removed (perhaps by having the children always eat on their own). But the assumption of a spontaneous civility in the child makes it impossible to understand how the adults ever became so barbaric. Instead, we need to accept that the civilising influence comes from rare individuals (adults in the main) who, by an almost miraculous process, manage to rise above the prevailing barbarity and set a new standard of civility – one that captures the imaginations of both adults and children.

If the painfully slow course of civilisation refutes the idea of childish delicacy gradually ousting adult brutishness, we have another reason to view education (and do the hopes of civilisation not rest on education understood in its broadest sense?) as involving children being seduced into aspiring to new heights. And on this reading, it is a terrible derogation of duty to think that we ought to leave the children in charge of the further progress of civilisation.

As teachers who have seen through the horticultural myth, we need to accept that it is our responsibility to judge what values ought to capture the imaginations of the children. It is our duty to seek the rarest and best examples and to present them as examples that all ought to follow. And the hard task for teachers is not to liberate, but to inspire – to seduce. Contrary to the impression created by Sugata Mitra’s mythical language, this is not invasion; it is education.

Perhaps the most mythical – the most false – element of the horticultural discourse is the assumption that the child’s dreams are her own. The children who are to be liberated in the new pedagogic gardens are assumed to be pursuing their own dreams. But in the society we live in, children are living out dreams that have been elaborately constructed for them by adults who have no interest in education. There is a multi-billion-dollar dream industry at work studying how to reach into the deepest recesses of the child’s psyche, and negating any hope (if ever there were one) that the spontaneity of the child might actually count for something.

The implications here are vast, but we do not want to tire the reader, so we will end with a brief comment about the vexed cliché of the teacher as a sage on the stage – an image which, even though sage is also a herb, the horticulturalists are united in denouncing. For the horticulturalists, the teacher must renounce any claim to sagacity. Sugata Mitra is the great proponent of this, advising teachers to deflect any questions coming from students, saying something like: “I don’t know. Look it up on Google. Find the answer yourselves.” And he has suggested that the best teachers are those who refrain from imparting expertise and limit themselves instead to asking questions and then enthusing when the students find answers online that they are happy with. In this way the teacherly influence must be made as minimal – as weak – as possible.

One issue here concerns the importance of wisdom – that great love of the sage. To avoid testing too much the patience of the reader we will make do with the bold statement that an education that begins with the love of the mother ought to lead towards a love of wisdom.

But what characterises the horticultural approach is not an antipathy to wisdom (Sir Ken Robinson, for instance, is not against sharing the stage with a guru like Eckhart Tolle) but an assumption about how wisdom is to develop. The horticulturalists assume that children are born with a vegetable force that blows through their green fuse and tends towards wisdom.

We have argued that what matters most in education are not the vegetable forces, but the openness to seductions. The erotic model forces us to pay more attention to the way the lives of the children are seduced into tight orbits around centres of interest found outside themselves. And we see the great difficulty in education: In a society where children grow up in pixelated pleasure domes that place no value on wisdom, how are children to develop a love of wisdom? There is nothing in children that would spontaneously resist the seductions of folly.

School of pleasure

In the absence of any vegetative tendency towards wisdom we desperately need a stage where the love of wisdom can be proclaimed openly, unfettered by the horticultural calls to hide it. This kind of stage is not a place from which to dictate to children and repress them into a deathly conformity. No, it is a carefully constructed place in which children might be seduced into loving something that is deemed worthless in the wider society.

In a society where the dominant seductions are anti-pedagogic, we need stages which proclaim and inspire the love of wisdom. It is our responsibility to build those stages and demonstrate upon them our own love for wisdom. It would be wrong to think that those stages could only take the form of schools, but in a society like ours schools might be some of the last places in which something might be done in the name of wisdom. And these would be stronger schools – strong enough to challenge the folly both in the society at large and within the children themselves insofar as they have come to accept that folly as a second nature. To argue for weaker schools, as the horticulturalists do, letting education dovetail into the worlds of commerce and entertainment, is, in effect, to side with the seductions of folly.

The hope, if there is one, is that educationalists will see through the horticultural model and find the strength to resist the tendencies that the horticulturalists affirm – resisting not in the name of an old-fashioned pedagogical dictatorship, but in the name of a pedagogy orientated by the love of that useless thing called wisdom.


Picture credit

Winter Work, George Clausen, Tate Gallery

written by Torn Halves on March 26, 2014 in education and Ken Robinson and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with one Comment