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How Does Our Garden Grow?

Science Education as Community Gardening

It has been a decade since the Board on Science Education (BOSE) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released the Framework for K-12 Science Education, the document that served as the blueprint for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and similar state science standards adopted across the country. In the fall of 2021, BOSE held a three-day virtual summit to bring the community together to reflect on lessons learned from the past decade of implementing these new science education standards. In my closing remarks at the end of the first day of the summit, I highlighted the image of gardening as a metaphor that helps me think in different ways about our collective work of improving science education. These were just a few musings at the end of a very full day; since then, I have thought more about the ways gardening inspires me to think about science education. In sharing these ideas, I hope that they might inspire you, or help you approach your work in new ways.

There are a lot of different metaphors or images we use to talk about our collective work to improve science education. Sports analogies are common: “we need to move the ball down the field,” we “hit a homerun,” or some milestone is a “win.” Worse might be when we compare things in education to war or military images—the reading wars, the math wars, weapons in our arsenal. I myself have found the sports analogies an easy go-to, but when I pause and think about them, they have implications I’m not comfortable with. They imply that there are teams and someone opposing us. They imply that there is an end to the game—a touchdown or a win. They don’t really evoke for me the orientation toward care or nurturing that feels like such a fundamental part of education.

As is the case for all of the models we use in science, the model or metaphor of gardening does not perfectly capture the phenomenon of improving science education. I use it not for thinking about a one-to-one correspondence of parts of gardening to parts of science education, but for the images and principles it pushes me to think about and with. So, my idea here is not that the plants are the students, or that the soil is the curriculum, or anything that concrete. Rather, I’m thinking about the whole mindset I bring to gardening—the values, the commitments, the priorities, and then using that lens to reflect on my work in science education. What does this gardening lens push me to consider that I might not have considered before? What questions does it raise? What priorities or strategies does it suggest?

Another twist I’ve added to the basic gardening metaphor is to think about community gardening. I think this helps to make a stronger parallel to our collective work. One striking thing to me, reflected in the interactions at the summit and throughout this massive “group project” we have been engaged in over the past decade or more, is how much of a strong and vibrant community we have in science education. The strength of our work is in that community and in our willingness to learn from and help each other. We are not really each tending our own gardens. We are working together on this community gardening project of improving science education for all kids.

I offer my reflections on what science education as community gardening helps me think about; how it orients me to the work in a way that is centered on nurturing, connection, mutual benefit, and working in the present with an eye toward the future. Below, I lay out some principles for our work, inspired by the community garden framing. I offer these ideas with a nod to my mother, a former elementary teacher and gardener extraordinaire. She has gardened since childhood, which now adds up to about 70 years of experience. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs eating organic vegetables picked fresh from her garden May through October. I had no idea how lucky I was!

Develop shared goals while honoring the diverse perspectives and needs in the community

When we are engaged together in something as important as planting and tending a community garden, or developing a system for high-quality, equitable science education, we need to be open to a frank conversation about the goals for our work. In any community, there will be differences of opinion about what is most important, or how to balance competing priorities. The key is to cultivate a community culture and sense of trust that allows us to be fully open about our ideas and commitments.

In a community garden, there might be some people who are most interested in planting vegetables with a strong preference for the vegetables that they typically use in their cooking. Others might lean more toward flowers that they can cut and display indoors. Still others may want to plant a pollinator garden, use only native plants, or avoid pesticides. Talking through these goals, understanding people’s commitments, working through disagreements, and then developing plans that are responsive to a wide range of community needs is important.

In education in the U.S., we aren’t very good at talking openly and explicitly about our goals for education. I think that often we assume we all share the same goals for our kids and collectively for the role that schools play in society. But, we often are misunderstanding each other. I think in science education, the collective work around the Framework and the NGSS have helped us clarify our goals and talk more openly about them. We are working together to understand how to balance goals toward science literacy with goals for workforce development. We are seeking to balance goals that imagine children’s futures with goals that focus on the experiences they have in the present. We need to continue to have these open discussions.

Work in the present with an eye to the future—the distant future

An important lesson that gardening teaches is that work in the present needs to take the future into account. We plant bulbs in the fall, thinking ahead to the blooms in the spring. In placing the bulbs and choosing the colors, we have to imagine what they will look like in several months. For some plants, we have to look even further ahead. I learned this lesson when planning a garden that included some small trees. I mentioned the tree recommended by a local landscaper to my mom, who pointed out that in 10 years that particular kind of tree would get big and outgrow the space I had in mind. I had not been thinking that far in the future, focusing instead on the choice in the moment.

Similarly, in our collective work in science education, there are many different ways that keeping an eye to the future will help us do better work in the present. An obvious way is thinking about how students’ experiences in a current lesson, or unit, or year are stepping stones to what they will do in subsequent lessons, or units, or years. We need to stop and think whether and how a given learning experience might help set them up for the next step. We also need to think about the future as we make investments in professional learning for teachers, curricula, assessments and resources. There may be funds to purchase a new curriculum, but are there funds for ongoing professional development and any materials that might need to be replaced annually? Investments in new technology for instruction may be desirable, but are funds being set aside for upgrades? Or, with the windfall of funding for COVID recovery, are investments being directed in ways that are equitable and sustainable?

Tend first to the plants that are suffering

The idea of planting in the fall for blooms in the spring, or anticipating that a tree may reach its full height in 10 years might sound like it precludes urgency in the present. But gardening also teaches us the importance of careful and focused observation. As we tend a garden, we look at the health of the whole, and also carefully monitor the growth of individual plants. We first tend to those garden plots or individual plants that are not doing well. We prioritize understanding why leaves are shriveling or yellowing, or why a plant isn’t blooming. And then we make a plan to do something about it—more sun, more water, fertilizer, check for pests. We don’t blame the plant for not blooming.

Similarly, when students are not thriving, or whole groups of students are not thriving, it is incumbent on us to understand why. And then to work to provide them with the context and experiences they need to bloom. And to do so with a sense of urgency.

Remember that diversity makes gardens thrive

Gardens are living systems, and like most ecosystems, they will do better when they include a variety of plants that support a variety of insects and other animals, and may even do better when planted together. Vegetables may benefit from the pollinators that flowers attract. Marigolds planted around the vegetables may help keep insect pests away. The health and well-being of the whole garden and of the individual plants is enhanced by diversity.

The power of diversity for science education is also evident. The Framework highlights the ways that the broad diversity of students’ ideas are a tremendous asset in the classroom. Children and youth have a wide range of experiences in their families and communities, and their different cultural, linguistic, and social contexts can lead to very different ideas about the world. Making space for and elevating students’ ideas are powerful moves for enhancing sensemaking in the classroom.

We also benefit from many different instantiations of Framework and NGSS-inspired curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional learning. Adjusting to different communities and their unique contexts will necessarily mean that a wide variety of strategies emerge. The opportunity to learn from each other, share ideas, and leverage each other’s innovations is essential for continuing to move toward fully realizing the vision of the Framework.

Finally, we also cannot forget that diversity—of people, of communities, of perspectives, of cultures, of languages—is the human condition. It is who we are and is one of our strengths, starting from our very genetics. A population without diversity dies out. We will only survive if we embrace each other and continue to work together and leverage our collective talents.

Honor different kinds of expertise and experience

Botanist, ecologist, master gardener, person in the neighborhood who has planted a gorgeous garden for 40 years—there are many different kinds of experts who might have insights about gardening. Each expert brings a different knowledge base, perspective, and way of understanding a garden. When I was first planning my current garden, I called my mom, of course. She has around 70 years of experience gardening, and completed formal training to become a master gardener. She is my trusted, go-to source for advice on all things gardening and pretty much never fails me. But when I asked whether a particular plant might do well in my yard in Maryland, she admitted that she really didn’t know because Baltimore has different conditions than Chicago. She could tell me types of plants to consider and what information to look for to determine whether a given plant might work well in the Piedmont Plateau region of Maryland. She could not, however, definitively tell me if a certain plant would thrive in the very specific conditions of my yard.

There are many, many different kinds of expertise to be brought to bear on improving science education—teachers, professional development providers, curriculum designers, teacher educators, school and district administrators, education researchers, learning scientists, cognitive scientists, developmental psychologists, educational psychologists, and psychometricians. The list goes on. Each expert sees part of the picture and has valuable insights. But each also has limitations in what they see and the questions they ask. Understanding the “map” of expertise and how to draw on different kinds of evidence and experience as we shape policy and practice is a critical part of our collective work.

As we consider expertise and evidence, we also have to be aware of the power dynamics surrounding whose expertise and what kind of evidence is privileged, and whether it is the case that the individual with the most visibility or the loudest, most dynamic voice is who we should be listening to. In our work at the Board on Science Education we seek to do more to elevate the wisdom of practice and find ways to integrate knowledge gleaned from formal research studies with the knowledge and experience of people who have spent years in classrooms, schools, and districts engaged directly with students, families, and communities. We still need to find ways to elevate and learn from the voices of students and families themselves.

As we sift through evidence and navigate the multiple voices of experts, we need to also consider explicitly whether a particular study, or approach, is based in the same goals or values we ourselves hold for children, youth, families, and communities. My next-door neighbor may have a gorgeous garden, but if it is premised on the use of pesticides that I don’t use because they kill pollinators and will run off into streams, rivers, and lakes, I will not be as interested in her gardening advice.

In my opinion, it is the blend of different expertise and perspectives that will be most powerful. And one of the most important things we can each do is to develop openness to new ideas, sprinkled with a healthy dose of skepticism. Just as we would encourage students in a science classroom to listen to each other’s ideas, but to ask good questions and push for evidence, we need to do the same in our quest to improve science education.

Be ready to adjust to the changing environment

If the past two years have taught us anything, it is that change is the natural order of things. Change is the constant. This means that we need to be willing to shift our plans as conditions change and in response to new evidence that what we are doing might not be working, or that we could do better.

Gardening requires constant attention to changes in the environment and a willingness to change strategy in response. Rainfall or temperature shifts from season to season and year to year. We know that with climate change, growing seasons, climate zones, and even what insects we can count on as pollinators are likely to shift over the next decades. There are times when there may be dramatic shifts in the conditions for a garden. A huge tree that shaded a large part of my yard died a few years ago, changing what was once a shady and slightly damp location into a plot that received sunlight the majority of the day. I watched in horror as my carefully tended and lush shade plants yellowed and wilted each summer. Finally, I accepted the change and shifted strategy, planting a sun-loving pollinator garden that is now thriving.

In a community garden, we might also see shifts in who is in the community and the needs they have. Responding to these kinds of shifts links back to the first idea that we need to have created a space for open discussion of the collective goals for a garden. There might be people moving in who are different from the garden’s founders and they may ask for different things from the garden. They might ask, for example, can we find a place for the beans, squash, or peppers that we use in our cooking? Embracing them as valued community members, we can say, yes of course, we can plant fewer tomatoes and add these plants you love. And will you show us how to prepare and cook them?

In our work on improving science education we also need to be ready to respond to change. The very notion of improving implies that we seek to change something for the better. We need to be open to adjusting what we do in response to careful monitoring of the well-being of students, teachers, schools, communities and even the country. There might be new insights about teaching and learning—these kinds of new insights guided the development of the Framework and NGSS. There might be more immediate changes in our local community, shifting demographics, or changes in economic conditions, with the loss of a key industry or the opening of a new one. Currently, many education leaders are facing the challenges of the pandemic while also navigating the treacherous waters of charged political debates about schools. As leaders in efforts to improve science education we need to be attuned to these kinds of changes in the educational, social, and political landscape, and consider whether we need to shift our strategies to continue our forward progress.

Recognize that the work is never finished—cultivate the next generation of gardeners

To me, gardening works especially well as a metaphor for improving science education, because in gardening the work is never done. It is a project of ongoing nurturing and observation, intervening where necessary, checking in with fellow gardeners, zooming in on single plants, while also stepping back to view the garden as a whole. If we tend the land well, we can cultivate the same plot for years while also investing in and strengthening our community.

I hope the same for our efforts as a national science education community. We need to zoom in and tend to individual students, teachers, schools, districts, and states, but also can zoom out to share ideas, support each other and check in on our collective challenges and successes. We need to monitor the success of our efforts, be attuned to where more attention might be needed, and be open to adjusting our strategies as new evidence emerges. If we do this collective work well, and build a community that is welcoming and supportive, we can find and nurture the next generation of leaders in science education. We need leaders of all kinds—teachers, administrators, parents, community members—champions for science education at all levels. We can find them among the adults—teachers, science supervisors, district leaders, state legislators—and more importantly among the children and youth who are the very heart of our collective work. ■

Heidi Schweingruber ( is the Director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, DC.

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