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Jan Wong: how the rise of horticultural training at Toronto schools is bad for students

While we’re busy teaching our kids to tend school gardens, they’re failing provincial tests in reading, writing and math. The folly of the new enviro-propaganda

The Horticultural Revolution

(Illustration: Tavis Coburn)

This fall, hundreds of Toronto students are harvesting beets and zucchini from their school gardens. I say: nice photo op, bad idea. The argument for school gardens assumes that by grubbing in the dirt, kids will learn to love eating vegetables. They won’t think chickens hatch into this world as deep-fried nuggets. And they’ll develop a respect for nature.

Here’s the counter-argument: our students shouldn’t be out scrabbling in the hot sun when one in five can’t pass the Grade 10 literacy test administered by the provincially funded Education Quality and Accountability Office. And while Canadian students score high internationally in reading, mathematics and the sciences, Statistics Canada says our relative ranking is declining due to improved performance by other countries. In this era of global competition, we can’t afford to let other nations nip at our heels.

Half of Toronto’s population was born outside Canada, and it’s a safe bet many of them came here for a better life, including a good education for their offspring. A lot of immigrants originate from agrarian regions of countries such as India, Pakistan, China and the Philippines. The last thing these newcomers need is a morality crusade about carrots. Yet more than 200 of Toronto’s nearly 600 public schools now have gardens, and an army of well-meaning parents, volunteers, activists and advocacy organizations with a social agenda is successfully lobbying for more.

The schools I’ve visited tell me that growing your own food is worthy, wholesome and educational. That’s what Chairman Mao said when he shipped millions of Chinese youth to the countryside—and abandoned them there. I know whereof I speak. I moved to China in 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. As a third-generation Canadian, I didn’t speak Chinese. I knew only what my profs at McGill University had taught me: that China was a revolutionary utopia.

At Beijing University, where I studied Mandarin and Chinese history, I enthusiastically embraced Maoism, including the precept that students must “reform” their wayward thinking through physical labour. It was, to put it delicately, horticultural hell. My classmates and I harvested wheat and hauled pig manure and dug ditches. At one point, we marched 20 kilometres to a farm, where we tilled the land for nearly a year. It being the silly ’70s, McGill gave me full credit toward my Asian history degree, and I graduated on schedule. Intensive farm work, however, vaporized my Chinese classmates’ one precious chance at an education. Today, they’re called China’s Lost Generation.

Mao’s agrarian fantasy and the Cultural Revolution sputtered to an end with the Great Helmsman’s death in 1976. China immediately relaunched its vaunted education system, with rigour. This past year, Shanghai beat the rest of the world in reading, math and science in standardized tests managed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

So it’s alarmingly déjà vu to see the gardening campaign underway at so many Toronto schools, both public and private, even if it’s a far more touchy-feely version. Toronto Waldorf School, where tuition and fees exceed $16,000 a year in the higher grades, is an enthusiastic proponent of whole-earth education. It has a chicken coop, a few goats and a $150,000 organic greenhouse that recycles grey water. A farming and gardening program, centered on its three-acre teaching garden, is an integrated part of the curriculum from Grade 3 through Grade 9. Ninth graders spend three weeks living and working on organic farms, some as far away as Europe.

  • JM

    OH PLEASE. DING DING DING Ring the alarm bells!!

    Sorry what was the point of this article really?

    Equating poor testing grades to working in the garden(I’m assuming that’s not the ONLY thing they’re doing in class) is beyond dangerous. Ms. Wong’s examples are used as an across the board standard when they sound more like rare occurrences trumpeted up to be the end times of education.

    Shame on Toronto Life for publishing such fear mongering garbage.

  • vc

    Very poorly defended position on environmental education in Toronto. Ms. Wong’s admitted history of blindly following Maoism in her youth leads me to believe that she thinks that province wide government testing actually works. ha.

  • TorontoDude

    This line of thinking inevitably leads to cutting funding for arts programs in schools too, in favour of increasing academic scores. A well-rounded education is important.

  • Aaron

    So the extra half hour these kids get to spend outside doing physical activity will solve the problem of academic under-accomplishment? Perhaps if parents took a more active role in ensuring kids were on the right academic track from home, rather than passing off all responsibility to faculty and writing alarmist columns online…

  • Donald

    This is required reading for understanding how the work of Jan Wong in Canada’s publications is bad for forward-thinking people.

  • Jenn

    Well I’m going to partway agree with Ms. Wong. For the record, my family buys our produce through a CSA share in an Uxbridge farm, we get our meat similarly, and we do a lot of home education about the environment. So it’s not that I don’t think these things are important.

    But, my son is in grade 1 in a TDSB school. I was at curriculum night last night and the teacher let us know that there is no way she can keep track of the various reading levels of her 19 students. I believe her. The students have 40 minutes of gym PER DAY plus two recesses and an hour lunch. They have 40 minutes of music a week, computer lab, and library. They are 6, so coming in and going out, changing shoes, etc. all takes time.

    I am truly wondering when it is they are supposed to learn the basics. The end point of the math curriculum in grade one is that students be able to count to 100 in 1, 2s, 5s, and 10s, and compose and decompose numbers up to…20. Is that really far enough along to really, truly address the environmental issues we have via science and engineering in the future?

    The answer to help kids progress is to have the parents reading and monitoring reading levels at home. Well, of course as responsible parents we’ll do that. No argument from me that this is important.

    But that time is time not spent in our garden, or outside being physically active. So…I don’t see the win from a health perspective, here; it just means kids with parents working tons of hours just to stay afloat don’t have the support they need to _read_ while they might be _gardening_ at school. Personally, I would rather all the kids read at school, and garden at home if the family can manage.

    I believe in arts education. I believe in garden and environmental education, health education and math education and reading and writing and science and history and geography and all kinds of things.

    But we can’t do it all, all the time.

    Is tending a garden really the best way for schools to do environmental education? I’m not sure. As an after-school choice, I think it’s a fantastic club idea.

    In class, I would kind of prefer that the students be studying the science part of environmental science, or learning to read by reading about gardens.

  • aw

    It is baffling to me how Jan Wong can link horticultural programs and low standardized test scores.

    “The Grade 3 curriculum includes a section on plants and soils. Meanwhile, almost half of these third-graders failed to meet the provincial standard in 2010 in reading, writing and math. Nearly two thirds of the 380 students at Winchester speak a language other than English at home, and many of them are on a breakfast program. Clearly, these are among our most vulnerable students.”

    How is it that you point fingers to a well-rounded curriculum that encourages exploration and holistic learning rather than to an inherently Euro-centric standardized test? Perhaps low test scores are not to blame on the students or school programs, but on the TEST itself – a test implemented by a notoriously anti-public education Mike Harris government; a government whose education minister, John Snobelen, never graduated from high school…

    Over and over research on education shows the failure of standardized tests to produce real learning outcomes. Perhaps we should stop pointing fingers at community groups and school programs, and start asking some serious questions to the government and the ministry.

  • Karen Sloan

    How on earth did you connect these dots, Jan?
    Gardening leads to poor reading skills? Where on earth did you come up with this pointless theory?
    Here in Canada, we don’t ship our children to the country and abandon them on farms. It’s just a small part of their curriculum which I happen to think not only encourages better social skills, but blends many of the subjects they learn in school today, such as math, science, and yes, the arts. You could even add physical education to that. Plus, gardening is good for the soul.
    Perhaps Ms. Wong has some childhood angst that she needs to work on in private, instead of here, in this fear mongering article that has no basis in reality.

  • ken hargesheimer

    Ms. Wong writings was a shock to me. How can any intelligent person write such baloney. The students can’t read because they are gardeners??? Gardening can teach math, etc if it is do right. That is proven beyond any doubt.

  • Cat Davis

    I’m sure that MS. Wong has the best of intentions but unfortunately she has lost herself in her own prejudices. Her linking of low test scores in the schools, to schools having student tended gardens, is at best felicitous and at worst an outright fallacy. This article served no other purpose than to voice Ms. Wong’s own frustrations at the failure of schools to produce students who can pass standardized tests. In her article she does nothing more than to voice her own opinions and make dubious connections, all while neglecting to produce any hard evidence as to these two activities having any direct bearing on each other in anyway.

    The myth of standardized educational performance is perpetuated by a mind set which believes that all students will perform in set and predictable ways when given a directive to do so. It also perpetuates the misconception that the education system should be able to “produce” a standardized level of performance from every student in its system. It is a mind set that views the educational process itself not as an ever evolving individual organic process but rather as a formulaic procedure that when properly executed, will in the end produce students that will be able to meet a set of “standardized” requirements. However standardization neglects to take into account that all students are individuals who will perform in their own way as dictated by their interest, life situations, various circumstances, and their individual desire to perform or not. In other words every student can be given goals to meet by some authority figure, however in the end, it is the individual student who will decide whether or not to meet these goals and no amount of persuasion or even punishment can change this simple fact.

    Ms. Wong is free to disagree with me but there is value to having students step away from the books and classrooms. To be out in nature learning about how it works and why it is important not to forsake this part (the natural part) of our existence. Its very sad Ms Wong that you can only equate the “value” of a thing to its ability to make money. There is more to life than just earning money. Take a walk in the park, look at the beauty that is our world and try to understand that some things are actually priceless-like our children, their childhood, and their learning about and understanding their place in the natural world thru experience and not just books.

  • J. Smolka

    I say horray to all of the people who posted comments on this article because they all make very good points, unlike the article itself. I do not have a background in agriculture at all, unless you count getting all muddy in my grandfather’s garden at a young age. But now that I’m attending a university of life sciences, with a focus on agriculture, I am just now beginning to see how important it is. If it weren’t for agriculture, we wouldn’t have schools at all because written language was pretty much invented to pass on information about farming to future generations.

    This article is nothing more than an opinion with a poorly laid-out arguement. Perhaps there is a correlation between low reading skills and the presence of a school garden, but I agree with other comments here that mention that parents also have to play a role in a child’s education, not just plopping them in front of a computer or a playstation so they stay out of the way while cooking dinner, for example.

    Does Ms Wong know that we are heading towards 3 billion more people in the next 40-50 years? And that there are fewer and fewer farmers in the world? How are we supposed to feed our children then, especially if we know nothing about nature and growing our own food. These are questions that need to be answered in my lifetime, and if we can teach children the value of farming at a young age (I am not saying they should move out of the city and start a farm), maybe they will be able to support their diets with healthy, backyard-grown fruits and vegetables because they learned how to do it in school.

  • Jan Tishauser

    Comparing Mao’s Cultural Revolution to gardening lessons in Canadian schools is almost a crime in itself. As others have already argued: there is not a shred of evidence of any correlation between the gardening and the test results. It is a common pitfall to think that results will improve if children spend more time in the school working on their subject matter. The evidence is, that less is often more. Children need to learn in many ways: physical activities, outdoor activities and arts not only have a value of their own, they support the development of a healthy, well functioning mind. International data show, that a 14 year Finnish child has spent 2000 hours less in school than a 14 year old Dutch child. Yet the Finnish children outperform the Dutch on the international Pisa ranking on reading. The main reason: Dutch children don’t enjoy reading (50% of the Dutch children never read anything for enjoyment, not even comics). Forcing children to work hard all day long on their subject matter in reading, math and science, in order to pass state tests will not only prove to be counterproductive, it also resembles more of the mindset behind Mao’s Cultural Revolution, than school gardening programs.

    Jan Tishauser, The Netherlands.

  • JtotheA

    Ms. Wong,

    Thank you for this article. Education in this area has become asinine. You will notice that none of the school programs slaughter pigs or pluck chickens. It is a caricature of an idealized vegan farmer. In short: it is a lie.

    As for technical applications, this has been on the decline for some time in most schools. Trade schools are becoming less available, and most schools have shut down even the semblance of electrical or mechanical engineering, let alone higher math skills, basic home economics and finances.

    Further, programs such as this, and other “social” indoctrination are taking place.

    Unfortunately, many have taken the view that we can no longer let our children explore and grow, discovering new solutions, and becoming stronger citizens for it. Many have taken the view that this is a dying world, and we need to see less, shelter more, and limit ourselves, It appears that many wish to institutionalize children so they are more conformist to these adult issues as soon as possible.

    I do not subscribe to that view. I am an optimist. Only 4% of the universe is known to human beings, and to limit ourselves in this manner is ludicrous. Let children explore, and learn. Let them finish tasks that they have undertaken. Let them have fun and learn. Let’s not through ourselves back centuries of fun and work.


  • Laurie

    What the F is wrong with you people. Especially Ms. Wong. Do you really thing having a garden stops children from reading? Do you think working in a garden doesn’t require math skills? And what are seeds and growing things, but SCIENCE? Geez, I’ve never heard of such narrow minded people in my life. Not only does gardening in the schools do all that, but the kids are learning teamwork, responsibility, data collection, social sciences re:native ways of planting, and nutrition all the while enriching the curriculum and having fun in the sun while doing it. Shame on all the naysayers. This should be supported and encouraged throughout the education system.

  • Mark McAlister

    For the first time in many years, I recently purchased a copy of Toronto Life, thinking it would help me to get the pulse of our city. I do not regret spending the money, although the benefit was not what I expected. There was indeed some good journalism elsewhere in the issue (e.g.the profile of Tim Hudak). However, the real gem was the Wong article – I plan to keep it around for a while. WOW. Jan should have lunch with Rob Ford.

  • Jordan

    JAN WONG IS JOKE. Clearly she only writes such rubbish to grab attention and get people all worked up. If she really believes the crap she writes than I feel sorry for her having such a small mind and heart. Toronto life is also a joke for hiring this fool.

  • @sarlowes

    How can such fallacies even be published? Since when does one person’s narrow-minded prejudices get so much attention?

    Jan Wong obviously knows very little about the Ontario curriculum, for instance that environmental education is part of every grade’s expectations for the year. There is also extensive research to support that the use of gardens supports imagination, which helps brain development and the use of higher order thinking skills.

    Anyway, thank you Cat Davis for eloquently articulating a well informed argument. Let’s think about the whole child here, being able to pass a test only proves that the child is able to write a test well.

  • Ryan Lindsay, Toronto Waldorf School

    Jan Wong Gets it Wrong:
    Jan Wong tried very hard to correlate Toronto Waldorf School’s award-winning farming curriculum with the mediocre literacy results of some Ontario public schools, but, while conducting her interview with me, failed to even ask how our students actually measure up. Here’s the answer: TWS students have a 100% pass rate with the Grade 10 Ontario EQAO Literacy Test. While few schools actually have farming (or other hands-on) curricula and do not have 100% pass rates, TWS students excel in literacy precisely because they are engaged in such a rich, integrated academic program. It is partly due to the farming, woodwork, handwork, movement, art, music, French and German classes that blend with literature, math, science, history, etc. at TWS that students are able to build both the will to work long and hard and the interdisciplinary thinking capacities to attain deeper comprehension of complex material. Students from Toronto Waldorf School are so well versed in writing and reading that they would never have written such a sensationalist article based on missing facts and a false premise. No wonder other schools are now borrowing the Waldorf curriculum. Please feel free to contact me again to get the facts straight so you can print a correction.

  • Charles Arymowicz

    An important part of inteligence is to establish proper priorities. On teh basis of this article Jan Wong has demonstated that she is an idiot.

    Twice over. There s this business of going to China in the 1970 for a utopian experience.

    Nor does she take responsibility. She blames her McGill professors for inspiring her to go to China.

  • EH

    This is quite a rant about a program that demonstrably has been so good for Toronto kids in so many ways. It’s too bad Ms. Wong doesn’t think being outside, getting exercise doing something that’s actually productive, improving landscapes, learning some important ecological principles, applying measuring and planning skills to a real space, and working cooperatively on something real is good education. She’s not telling us that art or music or physical education or drama or any other “hands-on” types of school activities prevent students from achieving desirable test scores – so this piece unfortunately reads like a personal vendetta against memories of hard Mao times.

    It would be good if Ms. Wong would do a little homework on the usefulness of education that integrates some of education’s basic reading, writing and numeracy skills into applied personal skills-learning. She might also take a look at the changing world out there that globalization has wrought: our style of education for “the economy,” for a cog job (no personal skills), a credit card, and consumption as success is wreaking havoc on the natural world. (This is not propaganda or ideology, it’s the very well-documented science we would do well ensure our children are taught.)

    Being in physical contact with nature in a school garden can help children begin to understand the importance of biodiversity (and habitats), of mitigating climate change (growing food and eating locally and organically is one very big fossil-fuel-emissionss-reducing idea), and of the pleasure of knowing how to do real things (pulling your first carrot is an unforgettable moment!).

    How I would have loved to have someone show me how to fix a toilet (or anything) in school. Maybe I would have found education that fretted about all those boring tests more interesting and relevant!

    We need to educate our children for sustainability now, Ms. Wong, and school gardening is one of the must successful “new” (to us) ways of integrating important principles with knowledge and skill. Bravo to Ms. Harrison, to Bendale and to the Eco-Schools programs that are finally letting children expand their learning beyond the boxes of the classroom and specialist reductionist curricula and getting a feel – and a taste – of the real world they will have to face.

  • D Moodley

    I was irked by Jan Wong’s correlation between horticultural initiatives and low standard test scores. I was outright appalled by her ridiculous analogy between Maoist China and school gardens. That is the most absurd thing I have read in years, and I am disgusted by the fact that T.O life is wasting money on this garbage. Journalism is meant to be supported by fact, not be scattered with ridiculous claims and outlandish correlations. Comparing a bunch of Torontonian kids at a school learning about the importance of nature for a few hours a week to slavery, and dictatorial rule is absolutely dumb. It’s poor journalism, it’s weak writing, and honestly I would not buy T.O life again after reading this nonsense.

  • jh

    Jan Wong’s ‘investigative’ journalism seems out of place in Toronto Life. As the intellectual heir of Lubor J. Zink, she would find more supportive readers at the Toronto Sun.
    So by default, what I’m getting from this article is:
    1. Farming is not “worthy, wholesome and educational.” It’s insidiously communist.
    2. “Scrabbling in the hot sun,” should be left to uneducated peasants or profit-driven multinational food companies because learning to grow food offers no intrinsic value.
    3. Schools and teachers are utterly incapable of teaching multiple subjects because pinko gardening & arts programs are directly responsible for low test scores and poor academic performance in business-friendly maths and sciences. Funny given this NYTimes story on Tech Execs who choose to send their kids to garden-friendly Waldorf:

  • J. Zimmerman

    What a load of manure!

  • Lisa Hart

    Just a quick reminder that aspects of all of the subjects taught in the classroom can be taught through gardening. Gardening can become a valuable outdoor classroom where the children are more stimulated to learn, by seeing the practical applications of the lessons taught in the classroom. I know I always learned much better when I saw the practical applications to subjects I was learning. As well, having fun while learning a lesson has been proven to be a helpful in the retention of the subject matter. Kids, go garden – and teachers, make the very most out of it you can!

  • B

    Ms. Wong has tried to defend the position that we must make sure young students have acquired adequate skills in reading, writing and math before we have the luxury of offering diverse classroom experiences which are secondary to the big three. It is remarkable how Ms. Wong has completely missed the mark. Sounds like being a professional contrarian is her motivation. Of course, when popular opinion is how valuable it is to bring kids into nature and expose them to new experiences in the natural world, it makes a great headline to bash it. Ms. Wong shows a real lack of professionalism in her research. Moving humanity forward has long relied on the sciences, so what about that so offends? Our future inventors, thinkers, engineers, scientist will rely on this kind of learning as the spark that will ignite a lifetime of curiosity and understanding. This is ignorant on so many levels, I won’t have room to list them all. Shame on you Ms. Wong. A rookie mistake in journalism if there ever was one.