Agriculture and Curriculum-Context

Currently, I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. As I read chapter 8, “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” I am struck by the metaphor created in my mind by what Gladwell writes in section #3. On pages 232-233, he states:

  • “The most striking fact about a rice paddy – which can never quite be grasped until you actually stand in the middle of one – is its size. It’s tiny. The typical rice paddy is about as big as a hotel room. A typical Asian rice farm might be composed of two or three paddies. A village in China of fifteen hundred people might support itself entirely with 450 acres of land, which in the American Midwest would be the size of a typical family farm. At that scale, with families of five and six people living off a farm the size of two hotel rooms, agriculture changes dramatically.
  • “Historically, Western agriculture is “mechanically” oriented. In the West, if a farmer wanted to become more efficient or increase his yield, he introduced more and more sophisticated equipment, which allowed him to replace human labor with mechanical labor: a threshing machine, a hay baler, a combine harvester, a tractor. He cleared another field and increased his acreage, because now his machinery allowed him to work more land with the same amount of effort. But in Japan or China, farmers didn’t have the money to buy equipment – and, in any case, there certainly wasn’t any extra land that could easily be converted into new fields. So rice farmers improved their yields by becoming smarter, by being better managers of their own time, and by making better choices.”

In many U.S. schools, in the Western fashion, have we, over time, simply added more acreage to the curriculum – more and more rows and plots of content to cover? Are we reaching any sort of diminishing returns? What if, instead of adding content and linear coverage, we thought smarter about working a “tiny-er” plot of content by being more skill oriented? Could we release ourselves from some of the pressure to cover (a teacher-centric method), and replace our focus with greater intention on genuine learning (a student-centric method)?

In my own classroom, what could my “rice paddy” be? How could I create the conditions necessary for my students to learn that skill-oriented, smart-farming, rather than creating the conditions for my students to rush through content? If and when I can answer these questions, I may well be on my way to a more 21st C. manner of thinking.

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About boadams1

Learner. Husband. Dad. Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at The Mount Vernon School in Atlanta, GA. Have worked in transformation design, educational innovation, and school leadership for 20+ years.

1 thought on “Agriculture and Curriculum-Context

  1. I’m going to read that book with my book club in a few months! Cool. ;)Also, more and more I’m loving the blood project as a way to let kids learn about relevant, interesting, goal-oriented material and then use that problem-based, thematic-based teaching to connect curriculum across content areas. I also think that we could survey a class the year before and find ouot what their interests are (the kind of 20 biggest problems idea) and then tweak our learning to their needs and interests. In that way, teachers are experts in the basics of their field but are also constant learners and con form stronger relationships with their students! Wow, sorry, I should probably put this on the wiki, and not on your blog, but the rice metaphor really got me going. 😉

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