“Mining my Emotions”

My perseverance to become a “new professional” is guided by my intimate connection with my field of study. The Shreckhise’s have been in the nursery and landscaping industry for over 100 years now. While I had the option of continuing the family tradition and working for the family business after graduating my B.S. in Horticulture, I chose to pursue academia. Why? The nursery industry is facing some of the same problems they encountered 50 years ago. If I really wanted to influence this industry for which I am so passionate, I couldn’t be selling trees and trimming shrubs all day. I realized this after getting a taste of research as an undergraduate. We were trying to use urea—an inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer—for production of containerized nursery crops. It didn’t take long to realize that my research could potentially improve the profitability of nursery crop sales, thus benefiting the family business.

Parker Palmer asserts that as “new professionals” we should know how to “mine [our] emotions for knowledge.” While it may seem silly, I sometimes think back to my days working at the nursery and try to recall some of the most inefficient, back-breaking tasks I was ever assigned, and use these memories as research inspiration. In applied nursery crop research, our job is to make nurseries more profitable and more efficient. This is one possible way (while very literal) I can “mine my emotions for knowledge.”

Beyond the Dimensions of my ‘Horticulture Box’

In horticulture, relating course material to broader cultural and social issues is sometimes neglected. In short, students want to know how to successfully grow plants so they can get a job. Yet, according to the ideals of critical pedagogy defined by Paulo Freire, I, as a teacher am responsible for raising awareness of issues that go beyond the dimensions of my “horticulture box.”

But what does horticulture have to do with social justice?

While linking ornamental crop production to issues such as social inequality may be a stretch, relating plant production to state- or country-wide environmental issues does seem achievable.  I admit, I don’t often do this when teaching horticulture courses. Nonetheless, the following would be my attempt at leading horticulture students to discover how knowledge of a large-scale environmental issue and the solution to this issue can help them circumvent future obstacles.

This is what I might say to a classroom of horticulture students studying ornamental plant production.

Environmental Issue:

“As some of you may know, most of Virginia is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in which agricultural runoff (namely nitrogen and phosphorus) is the leading non-point source of surface-water pollution. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay have led to wide-spread fish kills which have, in turn, negatively impacted the fishing industry. If we don’t find a solution soon, Virginia seafood prices will likely skyrocket.”

My attempt to engage horticulture students in this issue:

“How many of you plan on owning your own nursery some day? Given what we know about fertilizing ornamental plants, why may ornamental crop production be a substantial contributor to the aforementioned agricultural nutrient runoff?  What potential environmental regulations might ornamental plant nursery have to deal with in the near future? For those of you who hope to own your own nursery, what could you do to avoid having to deal with these tedious regulations?”

Now, I want you to put yourself in my students’ shoes. If you were given the above information and were planning to start your own nursery in Virginia (just pretend), would you seriously consider diving deeper for a solution to this problem? Let’s say that these impending regulations would be a serious headache and will almost certainly be implemented if something isn’t done soon.

Diversity and Making Connections with the Course Material

The benefits of diversity in the classroom have been most noticeable for me during my time teaching plant material classes. Any teacher would probably agree that utilizing students’ past experiences as examples is, arguably, one of the most effective teaching tools out there. Doing so encourages active, student-engaged learning while also demonstrating the wide array of applicability of the subject matter. In my plant identification lab, this could come in the form of exploiting one student’s familiarity with a plant indigenous to his/her state or country by allowing that student to familiarize another student with the plant based on, for example, a childhood memory associated with that plant (this actually happens in some classes). Allowing one student to “teach” another student in such a way enables a classroom to embrace diversity and use it to its fullest potential.

Such diversity can also allow me, as an instructor, to learn from my students. Similar to the aforementioned situations, there may be a time in which a student can offer me new insight into a plant based on of their personal experiences. Additionally, this may give me an opportunity to utilize the various cultures represented in my classroom as a way to add value to the material being taught. For example, a certain species of a plant may seem less applicable or useful to a student until they realize the plant originated in his/her home country. Moments like this creates a connection between the student and the material that may not happen otherwise, and it provides a richer, more personal learning experience.

Therefore, even though diversity and inclusion can, at times, be challenging, they are both incredibly important in the classroom, no matter the field. Without diversity in the classroom, students lose the opportunity learn from each other in a way that instructors alone may not be able to provide. Additionally, we, as instructors, could miss out on lessons we may never otherwise learn.

When has diversity within the classroom lead to unique learning experiences in your field?

The Omnipotent Grade?

As a teacher, the constant struggle of “how can we make them want to learn?” haunts us before every lecture. We want our students to be excited to come to class, crave the material, and walk away happy with this epic newfound knowledge in hand. To put it simply, we want them to want it.

Intrinsic motivation, as described in Dan Pink’s TedTalk, is what we strive for as educators. A go-getter attitude with an air of excitement is what we hope to see in every student that walks through our doors. Unfortunately, when this doesn’t happen, we tend to do one of two things: blame it on them or on ourselves. We may come away believing that they aren’t a good student, we were never meant to teach, and our material was, even after hours of preparation, lack-luster. The problem with this line of thinking is that, more often than not, this lack of intrinsic motivation is not due to either of the aforementioned individuals. Instead, it is due to the omnipresent extrinsic motivation of the omnipotent grade.

As Alfie Kohn suggests in “The Case Against Grades,” this obsession over the grade (more often tied to a fear of failure and/or overwhelming need to “succeed”) can be a true hindrance on our students. Not only does it force them to worry about a number, it actually prevents them from getting excited to learn. There are many students who really want to learn, but due to many factors (e.g., lack of sleep, complicated material, instructor teaching style), they actually lose all focus on learning simply because they have their eyes on the external prize.

The argument over the failure or success of assessment has been a long standing one. However, I think a huge factor that needs to be taken into consideration when making this argument is our students’ motivation. What is truly motivating them? Is their desire to learn, or is it the number on a test? To say that assessment is a system-flaw would be an understatement.  In the larger sense, assessment could be potentially damaging to students’ intrinsic motivation in an irrevocable way. Thus, the question is: how do we, as teachers, increase intrinsic motivation? How do we make our students want to learn while the system is telling them they have to learn?

Why Can’t My Students See the Forest for the Trees?

A dichotomous key is a useful tool that practically anyone can use for identifying plants. “Is the bark smooth? If so, go to step 5. Are the leaves serrated? If so, go to step 8. Your tree must be is a beech tree.” Of course, in a plant identification class, using this step by step plant identification key would be considered cheating. A good horticulturalist should have these steps memorized then, right? Actually, no.

The woody landscape plants identification lab is a class I’ve taught for six semesters now. As the course name infers, students learn identification features (e.g., leaf shape, bark color, fruit size, etc.) of plants typically used in landscape design. As part of their evaluation, students are required to correctly identify these plants by their common and botanical names, on the spot, as we walk through campus. Without a doubt, students’ greatest struggle at the start of this class is that they try to get by with memorizing a few ID features for each plant and forget to look at the big picture—to literally step back and consider context. This is what I call the mindless, “dichotomous key approach,” and it doesn’t work; nature doesn’t have a mold. For example, after having incorrectly identified a plant, a student will comment, “but that tree isn’t supposed to be crooked like that.” My reply is something along the lines of “…and that tree didn’t expect to get hit by lightning.”

Ellen J. Langer (2000) defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” She asserts that how we teach may be more valuable than the material we are actually teaching. After having read Langer’s article, I had a teaching epiphany. My students don’t need a longer list of differentiating anatomical features to improve their ability to identify plants. They really just need to remember to think. From here on, my teaching strategy for this course will be geared more toward how to think about plant identification, rather than what to remember.

Have any of you had a similar experience in your field?

Literature Cited:

Langer, E.J. 2000. Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science 9(6):220-223.

Connected Learning: The Great Equalizer?

The beauty of connected learning lies in the idea that, because of technology, learning has become even more inclusive. According to the Connected Learning Alliance in “Connected Learning: The Power of Making Learning Relevant,” through the internet, social media, and, of course, schools, gathering information has become easier than ever. Sometimes, learning an entire skill can just be a click away. Since learning and information is becoming even more accessible to the masses, it leaves me to wonder: is connected learning the great equalizer?

Apart from the students who, for one reason or another, have limited access to education or the internet, most students of today are essentially equipped to learn anything their heart desires. Want to learn how to make a basket? You can Google that. Want to learn how to use HTML to build a website, but never took a computer science or graphic design class? There are YouTube tutorials for that. Therefore, in a way, connected learning allows students to become their own expert through the expertise of others. Thanks to the internet, everyone (again, with the exception of some) has the ability to go after exactly what they want and when they want it.

With that being said, do you think there is potential for the internet, social media, and web-based tools to ever become so accessible and powerful that it, in a way, depreciates a formal education? Do you think it could ever get to a point that everyone has enough information at their fingertips that the “standard” education could be replaced?