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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

To gain insight into schools, look at how they treat food.

One of the first questions I am asked in interviews is, "how did schools get this bad?" How can an industry that is well-funded, well-meaning, and so critical to our national goals end up so utterly dysfunctional, even toxic?

The shortest answer is incredibly simple. Look at how schools treat food.

I first brought up these ideas in my 2003 book, Simulations and the Future of Learning. I wrote the following as a technique to understand schools:
Here is a one-hour exercise. Go to the school at noon and have lunch.

There. You are done.

A one question quiz: Did the students eat well? In far too many situations, the answer is, not at all.

Why does that matter, you may ask? School food is some outsourced function, not a core competency. I disagree. Lunch says far too much about a school.
  • Students care about food. It is a major theme of conversations and bartering.
  • Parents care about food.
  • Food drives short-term performance. Better food means better learning that day.
  • Food drives long-term health. Better food means healthier people.
  • Obesity is a national epidemic.
  • Eating well is a critical habit for gaining control over your life.
  • Research guides our understanding of food and the effect of food, which changes over time.
  • Preparing good food is hard.
And nutrition is an apt microcosm for all content. At the deepest, process level, schools handle learning similarly to nutrition. (Page 303-304)
This later was captured in Unschooling Rules 15, "if you care about learning, start with food." As an update to this thinking, see today's The Washington Post's great piece by Jennifer LaRue Huget called School lunch debates heat up. Read it with the following lens. What if a parallel column were describing curricula and methodology rather than food?

First, let me say that we know a lot more about what goes into a healthy meal than we know about educational content. I believe the debates over, say, the role of processed sugar, white flour versus whole wheat, and the value of local foods versus fast food is a lot easier and more scientifically defensible than the arguments on what classes and skills are important to teach and how.
What Ingredients Look Like

Now, look at such issues as the cost/benefit of standardization (think tests, curricula, and text books), as well as what happens when schools "decide" parents are not capable of making choices for their children (both in terms of subsequent parent involvement (hint: goes down) and cost of schools (hint: goes up)). Even putting aside the issue of school's lack of excellence not impeding their tendencies towards expansionism and parental disintermediation, there is a more straight forward realization.

If schools and communities can't agree on strategies for meeting the relatively straight forward challenge of delivering nutritious food, what faith should we have in school systems to successfully deliver the more ambiguous area of content that is actually educational?

(And by the way, as much as everyone likes to attack the various teachers' unions, here is an issue of failure of institutions and communities that has little to do with the unions. It is a leadership problem.)

Jennifer LaRue Huget ends her piece echoing Unschooling Rules by writing:
We also have to consider whether serving nutritionally sound meals at school is itself part of the curriculum; teaching kids what foods are best for their bodies by offering such foods at lunchtime.

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