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If Michelle Obama Taught Biology, it Would Look Like This

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In a display of extraordinary multitasking, a humble Title I elementary school in Southern California boldly takes on numerous White House social initiatives in a single biology course. A gaggle of 3rd and 4th Graders, supported by community volunteers, explore photosynthesis, animal science and nutrition all the in pursuit of maintaining their very own organic garden -- and they couldn't be more enthusiastic to learn. Before I even made it outside to the school's backyard garden, a bubbly young girl in pig-tails jumps in front of me, "We have science today!," she squealed, reminding Teresa Dahl, my escort and parent volunteer/master gardener, that she was eager for Biology class to come. Yes, so impressive is this approach that even Bill Clinton has said, "Every school should have a garden." (@2:46)

The Class Format

In 60 minutes, students rotate between traditional lecture, garden maintenance, educational games, and, finally, a lunch composed of the day's gardening lesson. The class begins in traditional fashion: students are herded into neatly organized columns, and lectured on keywords of the day. A handful of overly-enthusiastic students with waving arms attempt blurt out the answer to every question, while most pass the time doodling in their notebooks.

Interactive Games

As soon as the lecture is complete, students eject from their seats and race over to an interactive game. On this particular day, students learned about the evolutionary advantages of the Galapagos 'Darwin' Finch, native to the Island which sparked Darwin's epiphany over 150 years ago. To illustrate how the shape of a Finch's beak can effect its survival, the game divvied-up either one fork, spoon, knife or pair of chopsticks to each child and challenged them to scoop as many beans as possible from a pan into a cup in 30 seconds. Those students who scooped the fewest became "extinct" and were given the tools of their more successful peers -- all until only spoons remained. "Once they see the game, they really begin to get it," says one of the STAR-trained science teachers.

From an Educational Psychology perspective, the game combines the best of recent educational research which finds that contextual learning in semi-competitive environments helps motivate students to apply critical thinking skills to real-world problems. The value of these critical thinking skills cannot be underestimated. Even though American students rank far below the Chinese on some international tests, a recent study by Physics Professor Lei Bao finds that Americans score on par with their Chinese counterparts in a test of scientific critical thinking. This is astonishing given that Chinese students receive, on average, double the instruction hours during their 4-year high school tenure. Such critical thinking tests are far more predictive of first year college GPA than the ability to regurgitate information.

The Garden Portion

Children, still amped up form the Darwinian Finch game, race over for their final lesson: applying key concepts to the maintenance of an actual garden ecosystem. And, it is within this last tiny 20 minute window where the students' encounter with a lady bug unveiled the magic of the course's pedagogical approach. While in a traditional classroom the presence of a ladybug would likely spark a disruptive cacophony of shouts and wonderment, the encounter of such a bug during the garden lesson took on a more Socratic quality. Only a few inquisitive comments were exchanged between the teacher and a handful of students, as the role of bugs in a food chain had already been discussed earlier in the day. Thus, interest in the lady bug was fleeting, just a few minutes long enough for a visual confirmation of a working food chain to solidify the day's lesson.

Not every child was bug-curious: a group of hyper-active, fidgety boys were busy terrorizing another section of the garden, uprooting plants with reckless abandon. Because the class incorporates community experts, a certified gardener was free to calmly explain how pinching plants off at the end of the leaves, instead of pulling out the root, was necessary to keep reproducing food for many lunches to come. A moment later, in a seamless transition from destruction to construction, the gang of boys transferred their energy to wildly plucking leaves into a bowl to be served as lunch. Uprooting plants, which would normally have been treated as misbehavioral heresy, was simply the natural outcry of children eager to fidget with the world around them.

The loose curricular planning of the garden lesson, combined with small groups made possible by community volunteers, permitted both idiosyncratic learning for all variations of curiosity as well as the inclusion of lessons from random biological phenomena. By my tally, that solved issues related to small class sizes, interest in the sciences, misbehavior, and community volunteerism. All that was left was Michelle Obama's star project: obesity

The student's eagerness to gobble down a bowl of leafy greens was sight to be seen. A STAR teaching assistant said that some students would admit that they've "never had a salad that good in their life." Indeed, every single child in the class voluntarily wolfed down their vegetables. When I canvassed the students on their eating habbits at home, one joked, "I don't eat [salad]; I just give it to my dog." In part, their unusually healthy predilections could be because they are the creators of the own meal. "They're willing to try anything, so long as they've had a hand in growing it," remarked one of the teaching assistants. Indeed, I observed one little girl timidly experiment with a Himalayan mustard leaf, declaring, "smells good!"

This behavior stands in remarkable contrast to what I did as a kid and I now see as a teacher: students selectively picking out the junk food and tossing the greens. A new TV series with veracious health promoter Jamie Oliver filmed this all-to-common occurrence [start at 13:22]. It is now apparent that if students are encouraged by educators to be healthy, poor eating habits may not be endemic to American culture.

Conclusion

In truth, the type of problem-based learning embodied in Carthay Elementary's curriculum has been advocated from all corners of education, from the U.S. Department of Labor to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. But, audits of the U.S. educational system reveal that few schools will take the time to dig themselves out of a firmly entrenched traditional classroom structure (garden pun intended). The academic impacts of Carthay's experiment will be known during the next round of State testing. Until then, it is nice to know that in a political climate where the ratio of actions-to-words is larger than the Grand Canyon, there's a school daring enough to try and solve some problems.