As I’ve immersed myself in studying the education field, what stands out to me most is the collective effort underway to redefine and reimagine education. As part of this mission, it feels like a good time to try to represent the signature concepts in new ways. These images, or metaphors, must celebrate the lifelong learner, the creative problem solver, the compassionate global citizen. 

As a writer, I am drawn to the way metaphors can penetrate deep into the human psyche to change behavior. In the article Movements of Mind: The Matrix, Metaphors, and Re-Imagining Education, Alison Cook-Sather, a professor of education at Bryn Mawr College, writes that a metaphor “embodies and reflects certain underlying values, and which has the potential … to eclipse other ways of thinking and behaving.” 

Erstwhile education metaphors from shortly after America’s founding and from the industrial revolution took us to the doctor (education as cure) and to the factory (education as production), according to Cook-Sather. Lately, education has been seen in the context of marketing and consumerism. For instance, parents shop schools and programs looking to enhance their child’s future. 

Today, I wonder if the dominant image in education has become a “screen.” Yet any metaphor that puts technology front and center would be like a modern, sleeker factory, and education should not be viewed as a delivery service in the manner of production. Additionally, all of these metaphors steer us away from the communal – crucial in teaching and learning. 

But I do see a model from the past having value today: the one-room schoolhouse, a center of learning that once dotted America’s landscape. Some school houses remain in our rural swaths, and The Wall Street Journal has noted their benefits: “Students often build close relationships with teachers, pupils in mixed-age groups help each other learn, and parents and neighbors tend to get so deeply involved that the school becomes the center of community life.”

A Garden Culture

With this in mind, I imagine education as a diverse garden culture where we are the stewards.  This metaphor fits Webster’s definition of garden as a “rich well-cultivated region,” and its definition of culture as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” For posterity, the love of learning must marry the intellectual to the moral.

A garden is a “rich well-cultivated region,” and culture is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”

The Growing Cycle

With this garden culture metaphor, technology becomes a tool, much like a trowel. It allows us to dig just beneath the surface to turn over new richness, such as our ability to consume and create content never dreamed of and connect with people the world over. Indeed, blended-learning should make clear technology’s place as one tool in curricula that can amplify understanding when used properly. 

In this culture, teachers and students tend the garden to reap its fruits. Being in close contact with the environment and one another spurs an urgency to solve pressing problems like climate change and human ills. By digging to the root of these problems, we develop a work ethic – and grit. We draw on these life skills to distill material in STEM, social sciences, languages, and the arts. These subjects form the foundation of our problem solving – and the growing cycle goes on. 

Turning the Soil

As the seasons pass, we assess. We take stock of what we’re learning, how we turn the soil. We consider whether to reconfigure curriculum, perhaps impose a whole new structure to meet our high standards for progress. We measure this progress through a myriad of methods that emphasize shared ownership of individual growth: 360 evaluations, class observations, teacher trainings, student projects, essays, exams, and parent-teacher-student relationships.

We can make room to innovate by pruning, transplanting, and redesigning our garden culture – by allowing new ideas to take root and flourish in it. Playtime is important here, too, as it spawns fresh ideas, leads us to follow a passion, and carves out the path to purpose. The book Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner discusses these concepts in detail.  

In this garden culture, we see ourselves in the beauty of diversity and cherish each one’s individuality. We become dutiful citizens sharing responsibility for the well-being of one another and of our community, as in the one-room schoolhouse. The garden teaches that every person is a resource. In the 21st century, we are all stewards in a garden culture.