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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What is DEMOI?

The name DEMOI is plural for the Greek word “Demos” meaning “the common people of a democracy.”

I decided upon this name because I fervently believe that education is a democratic enterprise capable not only of encouraging literacy, self-awareness and mutual understanding but that education is also an exercise in empowerment. I use the word “empowerment” with a specific meaning in mind.

The American philosopher John Dewey wrote that democracy requires a “democratic conception of vocation”: a person’s “work” should be their calling. In a democratic society each student has a right to be educated and to be given the opportunity to choose the work they would like to do. This is not a whimsical matter but goes to the heart of independence and self-responsible authority. Democracy requires vigilant and intelligent citizens who are capable of debating and discussing the pressing issues of the day and holding powerful private and public officials accountable through their own steadfast commitment to literacy, empiricism and intellectual honesty.

I share Dewey’s belief in the importance of a calling which is why I decided to become an independent teacher. I believe in public education but I also am promoting the need for one-on-one and small group Socratic learning. In one-on-one and small seminar sessions I am able to help students shape their own curriculum and pursue a rigorous course (or courses) of study that encourages personal independence and the idea that education is a lifelong objective. I model my pedagogical approach on the Oxford University Tutors who meet regularly with students to discuss what they are reading, to ask them penetrating questions as well as requiring them to write and debate the themes and problems which arise in their studies.

My goal is simple: I want each student to know that education is made for them. I want them to learn how to trust their own judgment, become critical thinkers and learn the dual art of rhetoric and literary expression. I am convinced that by acquiring these skills they will be able to discover and acquire their vocation and use it to better their own lives and the lives of others. Informed citizenship, personal autonomy and meaningful work all begin with independent learning.

Jeremy Nathan Marks