While working on my model classroom presentation for this afternoon, I discovered a metaphor that helped me crystallize one of the things that makes learning today radically different than it was when I was in elementary school, and gave me a better grasp on how and why teaching and schools need to be different.

In the 1970s, writing a report was like buying fast food. I remember writing reports on many topics in elementary school: Morse code and Iraq are two that specifically leap to mind. (When we were selecting our countries to report on, I picked Iraq because I thought it was cool that the name ended with a Q. Yeah, I know.) I selected my topic, went to the library, found a book, read it (or more likely, skimmed it), then sat down to write my own version. Report writing really wasn’t research then, it was more like retelling. Like fast food value meals, someone else had really done all the work of taking the information ingredients, processing them, and putting them together into styrofoam containers and paper cartons. All I had to do was pick meal #2 and consume it.

School today is still set up for our kids to be fast food knowledge consumers. State and federal governments have already done the work of selecting what kinds of things are on the menu. School districts and textbook publishers have already chosen the ingredients, developed the recipes, and prepared the food, ready to deliver to the students. And just like fast food, it all looks and tastes pretty much the same everywhere. A Whopper in Denver is identical to one in Philadelphia.

Simply being a consumer is no longer sufficient. In the seventies, kids (and most adults for that matter) couldn’t access information directly. We only had limited sources, and all of them had been preprocessed for us by others. Today, on the Internet, we can tap directly into the raw data. The problem is, many of us still just consume it the same way we used to. We’re getting fresh produce and meat, but we are eating it raw.

We must teach kids not how to pick a good value meal, but what do do with the ingredients they have. We have to teach them how to create their own meals. We’ll begin by following recipes, but we have to also teach them the principles behind the recipes, the thinking that went into creating them, and eventually how to develop their own recipes. They need to know how to select quality ingredients, and which ones go together well. They need to develop their palates so they can experience the enormous variety of ideas and relationships that exist in the world. This will involve skills like critical thinking and problem solving.

Even this isn’t enough, though. I believe we need to get kids out of the grocery stores and into the fields. Teach them not just to select the right foods, but to grow them. We need to give kids the seeds, the tools, and the techniques for becoming their own knowledge farmers, to create knowledge and share it with the world.

And of course, all of this means that teachers have to get out of their own value meals and learn how to shop, how to cook, and how to farm. I suspect that at least for a while we’ll all be learning these things just half a step ahead of the kids, but that’s okay. What matters is that we recognize that there’s a world of cuisine outside of the food court and that we’re willing to live there.