How Teaching is Like Composting

I started composting at our summer place in 2009, and now I’m a convert. In the summer, we live on an island that’s mostly rock covered with something the locals call “organic matter.” Growing anything this far north on this soil base is challenging, but compost has made a big difference. My bleeding hearts, campanulas, delphinium, phlox, and coral bells are far more impressive than they used to be.

Teaching Professor Blog I wrote a blog post about composting when I first got started with it, and it seemed that it might merit a revisit. My thinking back then was that education was a process similar to composting. “You take a disparate collection of ideas, information, and toss them into a student.” (I’d add skills to the list now.) Good compost is a 50/50 blend of greens and browns (food scraps and garden detritus), layered in and mixed regularly. The booklet that accompanied my composter recommended chopping up items before adding them. Most of us do chop our course content into smaller pieces for our students, but courses continue to be very separate learning experiences.

Also, composting is expedited with regular mixing. We ought to be mixing our various course materials more regularly and systematically. Left on their own, students don’t push themselves to make connections between the content in the different courses they take. You can see that in how they organize their materials. They have a separate notebook or computer folder for each course. They don’t want to get their courses mixed up, and with different assignments, requirements, and due dates, that makes sense. But in my composter, eggshells mix with coffee grounds, banana peels rub against corn husks, and pine needles poke out of everything. The mixing makes the individual items less recognizable and more like parts of a whole—just like messy problems blur and blend the boundaries between knowledge domains.

The goal of composting is what comes out at the end—brown, nutrient-rich soil. Oh, you can still see bits of eggshell and the occasional avocado pit, but it’s mostly dirt with a wonderful, earthy smell. At the end of four years (or sometimes more), students come out of the educational composter looking and acting a whole lot different than they did when they first entered. At graduation, the effects of individual courses and teachers are indistinguishable from the outcome of the whole experience.

We can stand in awe of the process, but what happens in the composter really isn’t all that mysterious, and it certainly isn’t beyond our ability to control the process in significant ways. For example, we know that for best results, we should place the composter out of direct sun and dry hot winds. The transformation of food scraps and leaves into soil is accomplished by microorganisms that need the right balance of oxygen, water, and nitrogen. Compost is a living thing that doesn’t tolerate neglect well. Likewise, we can create classroom climates that promote learning. With care, attention, and the right balance of intellectual nutrients, students also grow and develop more impressively.

The microorganisms responsible for transforming the greens and browns into soil do most of their work in the warm core of the composter. Education that changes students also happens at the center of who they are as human beings. It changes how they think about themselves, what they believe about others, and what they aspire to accomplish in the world. These aren’t the kind of changes you can see happening. Nothing looks all that different from day-to-day or in one course, but in a healthy compost heap, the microbes are always at work.

Compost accomplishes a variety of purposes. It improves soil structure by binding particles together. It aerates clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. If the pH of the soil shifts, compost acts as a buffer, protecting the plants. Education accomplishes just as many varied purposes. It enriches the lives of individuals, enables cultures to look for connections beyond their borders, and makes democracies work. Educational composting isn’t always glamorous, but it’s a worthy endeavor.