Learning through Doing

Over the weekend I was invited to a breakfast/brunch by a middle-school child as part of her school assignment.  The assignment was to prepare a complete balanced breakfast for family or guest using one or more of the recipes learned in class.  The student could choose from a list of choices within groups of food, which included a grains group, protein group, fruit/vegetable group and dairy group.

The assignment sheets the students were given and the instructions were impressive in terms of the level of thought and organization required from the student.  This included the number of people to be served, the items that needed to be purchased and items that might already be available.  At the end, the student was to grade herself as well as having a guest grade things such as whether the menu was properly balance, whether food and utensil were organized before beginning, how the food looked and tasted, and whether the kitchen was “spotless” after the final cleanup.

Both student and guest comments were required at the end of the meal.  My hostess had chosen to make banana and chocolate chip pancakes and confessed that breakfast was delayed because she had to throw out the first batch of pancakes.  In her comment she wrote that she had learned as she worked.  Apparently, she had mixed the chips into the batter and they burned before the pancakes were through cooking.  She had learned to put the chips and bananas in as the pancakes were cooking rather than in the batter.

This assignment was part of a course called Family and Consumer Science.  The course included cooking, sewing and shop.  In the old days, cooking and sewing was for the girls and was called Home Economics.  Shop was for boys.  Now the name change reflects the fact that the course is gender neutral – both boys and girls are expected to cook, sew and learn to use shop tools.  This modern update is all to the good and introduces boys to the idea that they can do the household tasks that were formerly assigned to girls, and that girls can use saws and hammers.

The name Consumer Science is a different kind of updating and seems to reflect the premium placed on science, as in science, technology and math which are so valued these days within education.  It is this emphasis that has created the idea that this is the most important aspect of education and the further pressure on young people not only for achievement in these areas but on the necessity of a college degree.

In the past, it was understood that not everyone’s ability or interest rested in higher education.  Once there was something called a non-academic track in which young people could learn specific skills that would lead to employment in areas of work that interested them.  The idea was that it reflected a difference in people’s interests and abilities, not a hierarchy of what was valued.

Ideas, ideals and values are always involved in education.  The philosopher John Dewey believed that schools should be social communities active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society.  Theories of education that evolved from his thinking embraced the idea of learning through doing.  Unfortunately, education has moved in a different direction, valuing certain abilities over others and placing a premium on the mastery of facts as measured by tests.

Recently, parents and teachers have rebelled against the kind of education that has resulted from such an emphasis.   If the middle-school assignment described above is a sign of a return to older values, the modern day twist in the name and content is all to the good.  There is value in everything old becoming new again.