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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 5|February|2001

the Garden

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

Metaphors offer powerful ways to change our thinking and our ways of viewing the tasks ahead. Especially when exploring new possibilities and uncertain futures, metaphors can help us to identify promising combinations and surprises that might elude a less imaginative thinking tool.

Metaphors drawn from the world of gardening may provide illuminating insights for those planning for the introduction of information technologies to schools. If we are doing our jobs well, we will be clearing areas, weeding, cultivating the soil, fertilizing, planting, weeding, pruning and weeding some more.

Unfortunately, some school planners leave out some of the most important steps in the planning process, installing a network without cultivating the soil - investing in program development or professional development. They may plant desktop units where there is little willingness to use them, the equivalent of planting sun hungry plants in heavily shaded areas.

Most of these missteps occur because these planners do not view the change process as organic. They focus on wires, cables and equipment. They neglect the human and organizational elements that are basic to a thriving and robust effort.

Cultivating and Fertilizing the Soil

The fundamental issue is readiness. What preparatory steps will create optimal conditions for the success of the innovation? We have growing evidence (Becker, 1999) that teachers vary dramatically as to styles and preferences regarding technologies for their classrooms - that these inclinations influence the quality and depth of penetration the innovation may achieve. Related research from Fullan (1991) shows that many teachers are caught up in the "daily press" of teaching and have difficulty adopting innovations unless planners have made an effort to address these daily survival needs.

Basic to cultivating the soil is the provision of deep professional development in combination with standards-based program development that offers teachers practical learning units that they see matching their needs. It will take many teachers 2-3 years of sustained professional development (30-40 hours yearly) to develop the skill set and enthusiasm to support dramatic and frequent use of these tools (McKenzie, 1999.) Many of those hours must be spent actually creating classroom units.

"Can I use this on Monday morning?"

If we put the cart before the horse, we install equipment before developing staff support, enthusiasm and readiness. This lack of cultivation can lead to substantial resistance and a lack of broad-based usage, as is more fully outlined in the November/December, 2000 issue of FNO, "First Things First." Click here for the article.


If a gardener installed bean poles but forgot the bean sprouts, most observers would shake their heads in dismay, but that same practice is quite common when it comes to educational technologies. In all too many cases, the mere existence of fencing, bean poles, furrows and drainage ditches is seen as the creation of a garden.

The importance of program and curriculum is often ignored or overlooked in the enthusiastic laying out of garden pathways, reflection pools and borders.

Just as the gardener must make wise choices about when to plant, what to plant and where to plant, schools should be asking when to start new learning programs, what kinds of programs and where they stand the best chance of growing. Developing, testing and phasing new programs is a matter of strategy.

When schools mistake installation of equipment for the goal, they often ignore these strategic issues and opportunities, distributing equipment willy nilly across classrooms without trying to develop critical mass or optimize results. For more on the issue of strategic deployment, see the January, 2001 issue of FNO, "The Unwired Classroom: Wireless Computers Come of Age" Click here for the article.

Monet's garden at Giverny © J. McKenzie

Pruning and Weeding

Many plants and shrubs become thin and straggly if left to grow without periodic cutting back and pruning. While it may seem counter intuitive, the same is true of school programs.

As we progress through the second and third year of an innovative program, we should be asking which strategies are working and which ones have failed to produce significant results. The disappointing strategies should either be modified to enhance success or should be laid aside in favor of other strategies that have proven more powerful.

The continuance of weak program initiatives undermines the health and strength of more valuable initiatives, just as suckers can starve the basic health of a rose bush. For those who value substance over appearance, the weeding and pruning process offers a dramatically effective strategy to promote progress and value.

Unfortunately, weeding is not always a popular act, as teacher librarians sometimes discover when setting aside aging books and other materials whose contents no longer merit inclusion in the school collection. When introducing innovative practices, it is sometimes uncomfortable to admit that some strategies have succeeded better than others. Sometimes the emperor can proceed without clothing for a very long time. Sometimes the garden can choke itself with excessiver growth.

Monet's garden at Giverny © J. McKenzie


Becker, Henry. Internet Use by Teachers. 1999.

Fullan, Michael G. (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press.

McKenzie, Jamie (1999) How Teachers Learn Technology Best.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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