WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question


Alice Waters

Alice Waters

Restaurateur and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project

Edible Education as a Universal Curriculum

There is a reason why John Dewey, one of our preeminent philosophers, believed that experiential learning should be at the core of the school’s curriculum. At the beginning of the 20th century, Dewey established the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. Dedicated to teaching botany, biology, chemistry, nutrition and even culture, the Lab School applied what he saw as the effective pedagogy of teaching from “garden to table.” Dewey’s Lab School didn’t catch on – it was ahead of its time – but we are now seeing strong evidence that the kind of teaching he imagined has the potential to transform the curriculum of our public schools.

First, we must reaffirm the connection between what we learn and how we learn. Students learn by doing. Rote memorization for the purpose of passing a test is more a sorting and ranking device than an effective teaching method. Interactive learning has long been understood as a far more effective strategy for capturing students’ attention by engaging all of their senses. This is consistent with Maria Montessori’s ideas about nourishing the whole child and encouraging children to touch, taste, smell, listen and see. Food is the everyday experience that has the potential to link the senses to all learning. Consensus is building for the study of food, an “edible education,” to be an essential part of a child’s whole education.

An edible education integrates three important values:

1) Stewardship of the land: learning about food, where it comes from and how it is produced, are vital to understanding how to sustain life.
2) Nourishment: food either nourishes the body or harms it.
3) Communication: “the pleasures of the table” relate to both the sensual joys of good food and the communal joys of sharing and communicating.

A move towards a curriculum that relies on something as basic, accessible and universal as food offers a solution not only to the critical issues of health and the environment, but to the revitalization of all academic subjects. Food can infuse the curriculum when the garden, the kitchen, and the cafeteria become classrooms. Students could be counting beans instead of buttons in kindergarten. History students in middle school could learn the trade routes of the silk road through cooking. High school students could run the entire cafeteria themselves as a business that integrates all subjects. There are established successful examples of edible education programs that are worthy of study: the Edible Schoolyards in Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and North Carolina; Yale Sustainable Food Project in New Haven, Connecticut; Slow Food Schools across America; the Soil Association school program in England; and Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Program in Australia. There are many more examples in Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia schools internationally.

The democratic scope of public school makes it the perfect place to reach all children. When so many parents work and half of our families have single parents, children rarely get the chance to absorb the essential values of the family meal. It is therefore the responsibility of our education system to bring all children to the table, feed them food that nourishes and transmit the values of stewardship and communication we cannot live without in this 21st century.

Copyright – Alice Waters