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John Dewey and Some Theory Behind Food Education in the Classroom

In 1897, progressive educational theorist John Dewey affirmed: “The only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.” It’s that last part that is so critical—that we must shape our educational practices around the environment our children find themselves in. In regards to health and food, I think that should be rephrased to, “in which we have put them in,” but I suppose that’s neither here nor there. The point is, times have changed, but the notion that children learn best when their lessons engage their everyday life has been around for quite some time.

Unfortunately, rampant diet-related illnesses; lack of being able to not only prepare basic meals, but even identify basic ingredients; behavioral issues directly linked to diet and health; and social stigma stemming from weight and food preferences all heavily inform the social situations our children face today, and will continue to face for years to come. So how do we shape education around such difficult, overwhelming issues?Garden_Laboratory.jpg

Students learn about biology in John Dewey's garden laboratory at the University of Chicago Elementary School

Well, John Dewey had a few ideas, and that was long before “obesity” or “diabetes” were everyday terms. Dewey was not only one of the most influential educational theorists of the 19th-20th centuries, but he was also one of the earliest school garden practitioners. On Dewey’s use of school gardens, historian and Director of the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, Larry Hickman writes, “It was a tool that he used to engage the native interests and powers of his students and then to encourage them to develop the type of experiential frame of mind that is essential to the growth of intelligence.” Dewey recognized the unique beauty of gardens, in their ability to engage students in a way other education methods proved inferior, while also inherently stimulating the growth of experimentation and core skills.

Over the years, detractors have stated food education and school gardens distract from core learning—math, sciences, writing, etc. This is understandable, complete institutional change is very difficult to justify and put into practice when things are failing so badly—like our education and food systems. But when you see truly effective school garden and food education programs in practice, like what communities in Western Nevada have accomplished, you see exactly what it means to, “Engage the native interest and powers of students,” and the results are truly remarkable. It’s time for a change, in the classroom and in the field. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they shouldn’t be.


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