Late August and early September means back to school for all students. Many primary school teachers are pulling out the traditional “apple” unit to welcome their students. Many of these teachers will be ready with “pumpkin”, also a fruit, for the following month of October. During the school year, teachers of all grade levels might find out that a lesson turned out to be a “lemon”, or one that is “not worth a fig.” Educational stakeholders can “cherry-pick” data to see if the efforts of a teacher “bears fruit”, while the focus on data-driven instruction can drive some teachers “bananas”.
Fruit metaphors are plentiful when discussing education, and a recent post by a friend and literacy specialist, Catherine Flynn, explains a possible reason. Consider that fruits, although uniform at first glance are, upon closer inspection, very different. Fruits flourish in different environments, and fruits require different nutrients. Fruits require different means of harvesting, and fruits ripen at different times.
This ripening was the point of Catherine’s blog post in her response to the Slice of Life blog challenge, a weekly prompt organized by Two Writing Teachers. Catherine’s response to their prompt on her Reading to the Core Blog was titled Ripe Blackberries. Since she lives in a rural area, she had the opportunity to consider the ripening blackberries on a bush near her home:
Each morning as I walk my dog, I notice that some of the fruit is deep black, as ripe as it’s going to get, while others still have just a hint of red. Why such variation on one bush? Each blackberry has gotten the same amount of rain and sun. Each one has the same genetic make up. So why are some ripening faster than others?
There are many forces in nature that cause the variations that Catherine noted as she admired the blackberry bush. These forces dictate the time for harvesting those blackberries, but this fruit is never uniformly ready for harvest at the same moment. For example, the advice for picking berries on several websites suggests that to “ensure that none of the fruit gets too ripe, berries should be picked every two or three days.” Berries are not the only fruit that may require a second or third harvest, and pinpointing the exact moment of any fruit’s maturity is a combination of science and practiced guessing.
In contrast to how nature influences fruit to ripen and mature, our educational system requires students to be “ripe” collectively at the same time, regardless of the variations in age, race, or gender of the students. The educational system measures how well a student meets a pre-determined standard through tests given on a prescribed date, picked perhaps years in advance. There is no accounting for arbitrary changes that may have happened in a school system, perhaps changes in staff, facility, or materials. There is no accounting for the arbitrary changes in a student’s personal life. Rather, there is a standardization for elements in our educational system that defies the individual nature of each student.
In her post Catherine notes:
Within every classroom, there will be a variety of strengths, abilities, and weakness. Students will arrive at school with a vastly different amounts of background knowledge and interests. Despite these differences, in the hands of a caring, knowledgable teacher in a supportive, nurturing environment, almost all children will learn and grow. Not at the same pace, and not to the same degree, but they will learn, just as most of the berries on those bushes will eventually ripen.
Teachers see the differences in the nature of each student: the emotions, the ability, and the interests. Teachers see each student as more than a data point in achieving instruction, and teachers know that each student is more than what a test score represents. As Catherine suggests, in the hands of a caring and knowledgeable teacher, each student will learn and grow.
Yet, countering the forces in the nature of each student are the forces of educational reform that are increasing testing at every grade level. Tests focus on a limited range of skill sets with little consideration for other student aptitudes. To determine each student’s preparedness, students are bunched together by a “date of production” or birthdate, not when a student is “ripe” or cognitively mature.
Therefore, trying to compare student cognition through collective testing on any given day is the final metaphor of this post. It is like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, they are both fruit, but they are very different. So are our students.