Over the past couple of years I’ve introduced Isaac, my step-son, to gardening. Despite not having a physical space which could be considered a recognisable garden we were undeterred and commandeered a small corner of the car park at the bottom of our flats. My step-son has ASD and can become frustrated easily so gardening was a way to offer some relaxation.
This year we attempted to grow tomato plants. It took a while but after a couple of months we had 9 relatively healthy plants. The next visual indicator the tomatoes would grow was small yellow flowers. Unfortunately, they didn’t arrive when expected. Every morning we would check to see for signs but the yellow flowers didn’t come.
Around this time Isaac was experiencing extreme behavioural issues which resulted in us removing him from school. For two weeks myself and my partner experienced a breakdown of normal routine. We became lost and confused about the best way to proceed. Friends, family and services tried to assist but there was a constant feeling of failure as we were unable to support Isaac out of this traumatic time.
The failure to grow tomatoes had become insignificant to the failure to support my step-son. However it was the tomatoes that provided the metaphor that allowed me to process my ability to parent.
I started to reflect on my original purpose. If I was a tomato farmer and didn’t grow tomatoes it would be fair to say I had failed. However I’m not a farmer, my purpose was never to provide fruit for my family throughout the season, or even give a jar of tomato chutney to someone for their birthday.
I grew tomatoes to spend time with Isaac, to show him how things grow, where food comes from and to get him away from the i-pad. If we measure my tomato growing skills on these criteria then I have succeeded.
But are our children and young people allowed to establish their own success criteria or do we tell them to operate in systems they don’t control: family, society, school etc. If the perimeters of failure are dictated by someone else can you ever succeed? John Dewey offers this definition from Plato: “a slave as the person who executes the purposes of another” he continues A purpose differs from an original impulse and desire through its translation into a plan and method of action based upon foresight of the consequences of acting under given observed conditions in a certain way.
If you enter into an agreement (where the choice to participate has been removed) in which you are given a purpose (pass exams) there will be a percentage of pupils who naturally disengage. There will be others who learn to play the game. Both are missing the opportunity to experiment with original impulses/desires then to explore their authentic, meaningful translation into a plan or method of action.
Do we feel failure most when we set the success criteria or find our own purpose? When we take ownership over our learning we allow ourselves to be liberated from our lives as slaves and find our own paths, despite them being un-marked. As the line from Ben Hur tell us: “We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well, and live”. Maybe the question for schools becomes who is the ship there to serve and what happens when the slaves stop rowing?