Are Schools Meant to Be Gardens or Construction Sites?

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

This past holiday weekend I had time to catch up on what had become an intimidating backlog of podcasts.


Being the education nerd I am, "Kinder-Gardening" from Hidden Brain caught my eye. It's a rich thirty minutes that left me questioning my world views on education and child rearing.


In the episode, host Shankar Vedantam interviews author and professor Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley. In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, she seeks to answer a question at the heart of raising children, which we now call "parenting".

What Is Parenting? And How Important Is It?


The term "parenting" didn't enter our lexicon until the late 1960s and early 1970s. From there, its usage has grown exponentially.


The title of her book stems from an extended metaphor about the relationship between parents and children.

For "carpenters", children are raw materials we shape and build into a final form. "The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult," she says.

"Gardeners", meanwhile, are less concerned with having a direct hand in who or what a child becomes. Rather, they focus on building a nurturing soil bed for them to grow from and explore. Gardeners aim to create "a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem."

A world where parents are more obsessed than ever on a results-driven approach to parenting, she argues, is also bad science. Citing studies, experiments, and anecdotes from her own grandchildren, Gopnik makes the case that children learn best by observing a wide variety of people.

“From the point of view of evolution, trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating.” Though knowing this doesn't make it any easier for parents to avoid doing so.

The Limits of Binary Metaphor

I found the metaphor of the carpenter versus the gardener interesting, even if reductive. Rarely are we "this or that" and the oppositional nature of binaries leads to a lot of finger pointing.

The reality is there are few controlling parents singularly focused on turning their children into only engineers or CEOs. And how many parents are truly “gardeners”, accepting a laissez-faire approach no matter the number of unavoidable hardships their child must endure?

Most parents exist on a spectrum between the two. And whether they are gardening or building depends on the child and the moment. As it should be.

Schools, Race, and Class


Graham Roumieu // New York Times


Gopnik spends some time writing about the impacts of race and class on her findings. She cites early-years interventions: children who have access to early childhood education or provided home-visit support “grow up to be healthier and have higher incomes”.

She expresses concern that schools, like parents, are overly focused on "outcomes" such as test scores and college going. Of course, this is the same straw man argument I most often see from college-educated White intellectuals who've already garnered the benefits of those privileges. And who want the same for their own children.

If we picture schools as only gardens or construction sites, we've hamstrung the conversation from the start. Schools must be both. They need to be places where children play, explore, and discover the multitudes of the world around them.

Schools must also provide scaffolding and tools to shape young minds. Students need to see multiple blueprints for themselves, particularly in a world more reliant than ever on them being professional chameleons with a wide variety of skills.

Yes, too many poor students and students of color in America exist in anemic soil, without all the necessary nutrients to be their best selves. Yet they also suffer from anemic thinking and belief in what they can become. Both are dangerous to their young minds.

A Plurality of Schools

Different students need different mixes of gardening and carpentry. This is why we need more diversity in the types of schools and the approaches offered.

Some students thrive in rigorous, college-prep environments with piles of homework. Others learn best through hands-on projects and apprenticeships. Our current systems offer too little of both.

The point, which Gopnik doesn't quite get to, is that students are widely varied and diverse. Parenting matters but not as much as we might think. And schools have yet to match the spectrum of student needs, reaching for the middle instead of offering better options.

Our students, especially poor ones, need many gardeners and carpenters in their lives. And also unwavering belief in what they are capable of, no matter the garden bed they've grown from.