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.