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Experiential Learning Consultation at Ontario Education Ministry

by Sunday Harrison

April 11, 2016

I was fortunate to be able to attend a consultation at the education ministry’s offices a few weeks ago. It was organized by EASO, Education Alliance for a Sustainable Ontario. You can see the ministry’s call for public input on their draft document here. The consultation period lasts until the end of May, so be sure to provide your feedback on the value of experiential learning. Experiential learning is exactly what food- and environmental-literacy programs need as a policy framework to support our work. There are also surveys for community organizations and educators.

There are four questions that basically created a wonderful opportunity for us to tell the ministry what we do, and to congratulate them for putting forward a progressive policy framework document. The links to the summary and full documents are at the link above. My submission is below.

  1. What are some current opportunities for experiential learning that you can connect to the proposed policy framework?

We have provided 4,000+ participant opportunities per year in elementary school gardens and local parks/greenhouses, for the last 16 years. This connects to the K-8 curriculum, and incorporates differentiated learning strategies. The topics of study are food and the environment.

Laddered mentoring in our suite of programs sees secondary co-op students and post-secondary practicum placement students teaching elementary students how to garden and compost; our after-school youth program can lead to paid work in our social enterprises (farmers market, residential gardening); adults and community members learn to garden alongside their children through an intentional volunteer and community engagement curriculum. (All adult participants must receive a clear police reference check.)

The Ontario policy framework Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow (2009) already promotes experiential learning about the environment, including food:

Students will understand our fundamental connections to each other and to the world around us through our relationship to food, water, energy, air, and land, and our interaction with all living things. The education system will provide opportunities within the classroom and the community for students to engage in actions that deepen this understanding. (emphasis mine)

The connection my organization offers to the proposed policy framework is outlined below:

·         Field Studies

·         Taking place in schoolyard or local park. Guided activities relating to pollinators, trees, plants, garden soil life etc.·         Field Trips

·         To local environmental education centres, green buildings, wilderness areas

·         To local greenhouses, to plant long-season crops and learn about northern-hemisphere food production techniques,·         Project-inquiry-problem-based learning

·         Investigate our current food system. Who eats well, and who does not? How can we fight hunger? What is food security, and food justice?

·         Research and strategize solutions to local environmental issues, eg pollinators

·         Learning out of doors

·         From the schoolyard to local parks, nearby nature has proven benefit, and is cheaper and more accessible than getting out of town, for urban children & youth. Partnering with us helps increase the adult-child ratio, and we help provide continuity between indoor (classroom) learning and the outdoor component.·         Service learning

·         Growing food for food banks and meal programs. Learning to grow and to cook for these programs. Low income schools feeding their own student population and families through summer.

·         Environmental issues that arise eg local development, water quality or access, etc. can be addressed within the co-op placement.·         Work experience

·         Jobs through wage subsidies, practicum placements, co-op placements.

·         Laddered mentoring to achieve positions in our social enterprises that applying the learning from the garden programs while supporting the non-profit organization

·         Food handling certificates obtained as part of practicum

  1. What are some innovative opportunities for experiential learning that might be possible under the proposed policy framework?

The new stand-alone co-operative education course will provide a new opportunity for students who wish to pursue an integrated combination of Horticulture, Environment and Culinary Arts, and/or who may not have access to these SHSM programs in their area. This will require teacher training in the garden-based pedagogy.

With more support from the Ministry of Education and/or Ontario College of Teachers, more teacher training to support local school garden development would be possible. Teachers could receive an in-service at their place of employment. These spaces can develop in ways that are unique to each community and respond to the needs of that community. They need not be one-size-fits-all, and in fact that would negate the purpose.

Our model of school-community gardens suggests a garden co-ordinator for every four elementary schools. This is in keeping with the latest research on sustainability, and models from other jurisdictions where school gardens are more fully incorporated into the education system. This individual is able to manage garden-based learning and also culinary arts activities with students; creating simple recipes that do not require a full kitchen.

  1. How can you support students, during their experiential learning opportunity, in developing the skills needed for success in the future, such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration?

These are great skills to develop, indeed. The cycle of practice described in the draft Framework –  participate, reflect, apply – is nowhere is more immediately obvious to the learner than in the garden or greenhouse and kitchen, over a season, developing plantings and managing crops for human consumption, and finally, harvesting and preparing these foods for the table. These skills are completely transferable to other workplaces and industries – every problem has a solution, communication and collaboration are paramount, and more than many industries, the skills connect to daily life.

  1. What are some of the challenges or barriers to providing these experiential learning opportunities for all learners? What are the solutions?

The school system does not adequately support garden-based learning and school gardens and kitchen programs. They are considered ancillary, “nice-to-have” versus “need-to-have”. While many schools do not even have a kitchen or garden from which to develop a program, if there were grant streams set aside for this (both capital and programmatic) it is nearly certain that it would be an enhancement that might even help stop the bleeding of students to private schools where these enhancements are common.

“Food literacy” has only recently become a phrase that governments and citizens use to describe a health goal, given high rates of obesity and childhood diabetes. Environmental literacy has already been addressed through a policy framework (ATST 2009), but without more tracking and accountability, we do not know how effective the framework is; whether the supported policies have been developed, and most importantly, if they have, how they have impacted student learning.

The poor fit between the school year and the growing year can be addressed by short-season crops (maturing between April and June), fall planting for the following spring season, and other creative solutions. In our model, the presence of families through the summer, via community engagement programs throughout the summer months, is made possible through federal subsidies to as a non-profit organization to hire youth to run the programs. This speaks to the efficacy of an institutional approach to school gardens and demonstrates the transformation of a barrier into a community asset. (In many schools, agreements between families to keep the garden going over summer work well, also.)

  1. How can the ministry support your efforts in providing experiential learning opportunities for all students, as outlined in the policy framework?

The phrase “all students” is critical in your question, because a) upper income schools are very good at raising the cash to hire gardeners and chefs to work with their students, and b) food and gardening are a natural fit with differentiated instruction. To have an equitable distribution of food and gardening projects, which are arguably among the most flexible tools one could wish for in terms of age, ethnicity, urban/rural, disability/ability… only a universal program can achieve the equity we need. Garden co-ordinators are a proven strategy to having a successful school garden, and experience has shown that these must be paid positions, even if part-time and/or seasonal.

The Healthy Eating in Secondary Schools grant offered by the ministry in 2014 helped schools develop infrastructure, but did not allow money for staffing. Partner organizations need to be able to pay our staff, or the positions need to be funded through the Boards via the funding formula. When school gardens fail for lack of investment, we hear “school gardens don’t work”. If school libraries received no funding, would we hear “school libraries don’t work”? School gardens are ripe for change – providing everything from life skills and food to nature engagement and academic inquiry.

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