The Carpenter and the Gardener

I was recently listening to Hidden Brain, and came across an episode about a metaphor from Alison Gopnik’s book, The Gardener and the Carpenter. The metaphor goes as follows: as a parent, you can either be a Gardener or a carpenter.

The Carpenter:

If you are a Carpenter, you have precise control over a final product — the house has blueprints and you follow them as closely as you can in order to create something that was mostly pre-planned.

The Gardener:

If you are a Gardener, you have precise control over the environment you create for your plants…but you don’t know exactly what the garden will look like. The rabbit may come and eat your carrots. The nearby tree may drop its seed. These events affect your garden in unexpected ways; the final product likely isn’t exactly what you planted in the beginning.


Gopnik talks about these roles as ways of being a parent – the Carpenter parent tries to grow their child to fit a specification, while a Gardener parent crafts environments for a child’s exploratory and playful spirit.

This metaphor also works for different styles of education.

What we think of as a “traditional classroom” usually fills the role of the Carpenter – standardized testing, learning standards, etc. are a blueprint for what a student should be.

Perhaps a Student-Centered classroom should fill the role of the Gardener, then.


I have more thoughts about the metaphor and the way it applies to SCE, but I want to leave this post fairly short. I highly recommend you listen to the podcast [30m], and form your own opinions to discuss in Slack.


[2018-11-23] EDIT: An interesting musing from Norm Kelly related to this post:

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