Many readers will be familiar with what might be considered the most well-known of the Parables of Jesus, in which the story is told of a farmer who planted his crop with varying degrees of success, as the seed fell in different soil conditions – hard soil, rocky soil, weedy soil, good soil. The Parable is known as the Parable of the Sower but at other times, and more accurately (with regard to its purpose), it is referred to as the Parable of the Soils. The key thing for something to grow is the soil.

Many educationalists, most notably Sir Ken Robinson, have long argued that we should incorporate an agricultural metaphor, not the traditional industrial one, when we consider teaching. In the regard, therefore, the Parable above might be told in the following way: “A teacher went to teach his lesson. As he was speaking, some of his words fell on deaf ears, but other thoughts quickly came in the pupil’s mind and stole them away. Some other of his words sunk in and the pupil’s understanding sprang up quickly in the lesson, but when the test came, because the attention was shallow, the understanding was scorched, and it withered because his grasp of the subject had no
root. Other words from the teacher fell among thoughts of home and friends, but these intensified and choked the teacher’s words. However, other words fell into place, and produced a good grasp of the subject —a hundred, sixty or thirty percent increase.”

As a farmer cannot make a plant grow so a teacher cannot make a child learn; we can only facilitate the process and the key part of that is ensuring the soil is conducive to growth.

We must avoid having hard ground in our classrooms. Hard, compacted ground comes when it has been trampled on regularly by many people. It is produced by people, not by nature. Sometimes hard ground is caused by freezing temperatures, making it ice over. So our classroom may have hard, compacted ground where pupils’ thoughts and ideas have been trampled on day after day in the same way by teacher after teacher. We as teachers can cause the hardness of heart in our pupils that prevents them learning and growing. We need to avoid repetition; we need to walk on a different route. We need to avoid cold, icy treatment of our subject and of our pupils.

We must avoid having rocky ground in our classrooms. Some ground is rockier than others as some pupils have more resistance while others have more issues to break through. Some put up barriers (fear of failure) while others have been hardened by put-downs.

We must avoid having thorny ground in our classrooms. We need to eliminate all distracting thoughts from our pupils by making our lessons exciting, inspiring, relevant, practical, to the pupils. We need to remove the negative thoughts they may have of their ability that stunt their growth.

We must rather have good ground in our classrooms. It is interesting to note that, even in good soil, the growth can be very different (thirty, sixty or a hundred fold increase). So with our teaching; we will not necessarily produce a hundred percent yield (pass rate) in all our pupils but we do want to see growth. We must prepare the soil and provide the right conditions and climate for the seed to germinate and grow, recognising that different plants flourish in different conditions.

There is a well-known and often-quoted statement that teachers like to use as an excuse: “You can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.” There is only so much we can do as teachers – we can bring the knowledge and methods to the pupils but we cannot make them learn. However a wise man has made an important additional point: “But you can make it thirsty.” Sir Ken Robinson pointed out that “A farmer cannot make a plant grow; a farmer cannot put roots on the plant, paint the petals or attach the leaves. The plant must grow”. It follows therefore that a teacher cannot make a pupil learn. However, a teacher must know and provide the ideal conditions for each child to learn.

The story is not about a farmer or a teacher; it is about the soil and the seed. Teaching is not about the teacher or even about the teaching; it is about the ground that has been prepared. We must provide such conditions for each child to develop naturally.

Dig it! Whoever has ears, let them hear.