Ontario walnuts and learner-driven education

I am going to make a plug for Ontario walnuts as part of making a plug for learner-driven education.

I have a student who has thousands of walnut trees on his family’s property. This fall he decided to start collecting walnuts by the barrel full and now has thousands of them harvested. He has dried and shelled them and is eating and using them as ingredients in his cooking. He told me that next week he will have a walnut pancake -made from walnut paste- for me to try and I am looking forward to eating it!

Ontario walnuts have a rich buttery flavour that is quite unlike the California walnuts I have purchased at the store. Perhaps part of this has to do with the fact that the walnuts my student has been giving me are not roasted; but his father wonders whether there is a particular quality to the soil which is the cause of the difference. I suspect he is correct.

Now, the way this relates to DEMOI is as follows. Suppose you were looking to find a project that would teach students about chemistry, biology, economics, agriculture and history all at once? The story of walnut production in Ontario and why it is not a viable industry despite the abundance of walnut trees; the decline of nut producing farms in the province; the mechanical/labour process involved in walnut raising and harvesting; the microclimates of a lake enclosed peninsula; the local differences in soil composition and the ecological case for local walnut farming (we live in a water rich region) are all part of a much larger inter-disciplinary story whose focal point is, in this case, a 100 acre lot northwest of London, Ontario.

One of the greatest contributors to the study of economic history and communications theory was Harold Adams Innis who was raised on a farm in nearby Otterville, Ontario. When Innis was a boy he studied the nuts and fruit bearing trees on his parents’ property (this was c. 1900) and began to draw connections between the seasons, the soil, the agricultural products raised on his farm and in his farming community; the local transportation networks; the seasonal patterns of labour; and the relationship between farms, farm policy (tariffs) and the development of farming equipment and machinery. Innis began making these connections because he was a curious and observant young man.

I meet curious and observant young people all of the time; why not let them take their education out of the classroom and into the woods and fields and then bring that education back into the classroom? Why not let them follow their whims and interests -in this case nut production- and see where their inquiries lead them? Funny thing: this is what John Dewey was talking about at the turn of last century when he set up the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Dewey believed that learning to cook, for instance, was an outstanding entry point into the processes of science. He also believed that allowing children to learn the techniques of cooking and standing back as they went through the culinary motions, was an outstanding means of harnessing their native enthusiasm and curiosity and guiding it toward a task.

Right now, working with my student, I see a far-reaching set of intellectual and practical possibilities in the entrepreneurial and agricultural curiosities of an eleven year old boy who is exploring and working his family acreage.

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John Stuart Mill & educating children

John-Stuart-Mill

I have been re-reading portions of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography as I am especially interested in his early childhood education and upbringing. Mill was taught highly advanced subjects starting from the age of three. He mastered Greek and Latin before he was grade school aged and was mastering German and French before he was ten. He was introduced to literature in history, advanced mathematics, the physical sciences and philosophy incrementally, but always with the expectation that he could master these subjects. His father, the utilitarian philosopher James Mill, was a leading thinker of the early nineteenth century who believed that his son was capable of assimilating highly sophisticated knowledge from an early age. It turns out that he was correct.

Now readers of Mill’s Autobiography will know that the young Mill experienced a profound personal crisis when he was around twenty years old in which he rebelled against aspects and elements of his philosophical training, background and intellectual milieu. I have been thinking about Mill’s crisis and its relationship to his education, especially the utilitarian experiences of his youth -but that is a subject for a different post. You can read Mill’s discussion of his crisis here: http://www.bartleby.com/25/1/5.html

What I take from Mill’s account of his early education is as follows: if a young person is reared by her parents (or extended relations) to take her own mind seriously; if they continually attempt to engage her in discussion; if a partnership develops in which the child is not expected to be led by the adult, but the adult is willing to partner in the child’s education -and thus embrace the child’s curiosities- then it is not out of the realm of possibility that the child could be tackling sophisticated ideas, concepts and written works before teenhood.

Now it is hardly my interest to promote the notion that sticking a child in a library and pressuring them to keep reading is a formula for turning out little geniuses. I don’t put much stock in the notion of genius even if I do believe in brilliant insight and inspiration. What I am interested in looking at is not only the capabilities of children and adults, but also what their environment can do for them, especially in fields of inquiry that often are reserved for university age students.

I doubt many people are unfamiliar with stories of young adults -children even- who are prodigies in mathematics and music. Why couldn’t a child become highly literate in the humanities, in the liberal arts and sciences as Mill became? Is it because the assumption is that these dialogical subjects are beyond the linguistic and conceptual capacities of children and young adults below a certain age?

Math and music are dialogical. I fail to see why we should treat the liberal arts and sciences differently. It is known that language acquisition is strong in children; in fact it is especially strong. If children’s minds are primed for language acquisition, why are they not similarly primed for a dialogical education in subjects which, if offered to them at an early age, they may learn to love and believe they can excel in once they reach a post-secondary age? (On language acquisition, see for instance: https://www.forbes.com/2005/10/19/chomsky-noam-language-learning-comm05-cx_de_1024chomsky/)

I am interested in these questions, though I am not suggesting I have answers to said questions. But my work as a Socratic educator is informed by my concern with these matters.