How Does a Seed Know How to Grow

Our first attempt to answer that question in any empirical way – beyond the fun 7th-grader hypotheses: “there is something inside that tells it,” “It just knows,” “It grows with the soil,” “It reads something – DNA,” failed in a comical way. In both intentional and accidental ways, we built some momentum, some curiosity about what we might find inside lemons. Intentionally, we sketched the conch glyph and thought about journeys. We built Karla’s caterpillar and wondered what squares and triangles, particular kinds of right triangles have to do with journeys and spirals and maths. We intentionally looked for connective tissue in our other disciplines – autonomy and Ancient Rome, invasive species, ratios and proportionality, Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

It’s hard, here, to know just what experiences, specifically, led to what happened, to what I’m writing about. They all did, I suppose. But I can’t recreate a trimester of experience in the context of a blog post. I have to shine light on certain moments and hope something emerges in the shadows and silhouettes.

These early efforts were clunky and unsure – nepantla, like first attempts at piano or riding a bike. Yet 7th-graders also have inside them rich stores of wanderlust and trust. They played along and tried out answers, framed questions.  

Accidentally or coincidentally, Dr. Puglisi arrived one day with a stack of post-its and a challenge. Could we slice this square into five equal parts? Could we slice this triangle into five equal parts? Squares and triangles in the post-it note challenge. Squares and triangles in Karla’s caterpillar. The early connections were obvious? Tentative? Enough to keep exploring.

Then the funny failure. Dr Cordova arrived with a bag of lemons, stainless steel cafeteria trays, and a knife. What do you think we’ll find inside? Let’s predict: how many seeds will be in each lemon? “Two!” “Seven!” “Five!” Nine, I think was the highest guess. One, the smallest. 

He sliced the fruit in half, gave each learner the haves, and they dug in, their various techniques unique, quirky and shaped by what they saw table mates doing. Juice dripped from elbows. Faces winced into grimaces on tasting the lemons. 

How many seeds in each lemon? Zero! Twenty-three lemons, not one seed. Some tough bits of pulp almost fooled us, but no. Zero seeds. But…a whole new set of questions.

A second batch of lemons provided the seeds we were after and an opportunity to apply DNA (Deep Dive and Document, Notice and Name, Analyze and Announce). I’ve come to see DNA as pedagogical, as a way of accessing what is inside, student-led rather than a transaction, that I can apply and appropriate across disciplines. 

As students reported out, analyzed and announced, Dr C introduced the concept of events and sub-events, phenomena studied from an ethnographic perspective. We are all ethnographers wielding DNA as a tool for co-constructing meaning. 

So, we wondered aloud. What does this deep dive into lemon seeds have to do with Karla’s Caterpillar? We started to see the special right triangle as a wedge, a work cycle that opens new space. We have or know or are able to do something new as a result of that work cycle. These events and sub-events don’t unfold randomly. They are dependent on constants, actuals-the square. Within this square are those cultural rituals and routines we have put in place. Evolutionary biology teaches that those actuals change and adapt, but the work cycles and emerging future (Scharmer) are intimately connected to the square! 

Watered and stored away in darkness, we left our seeds for a week. Checking on them allowed for another work-cycle, another iteration of DNA. The language of learners, we noticed, was becoming less tentative and awkward. More confident. Fluent. Connections emerged.

And then!!! we handed them music boxes. Without being asked, learners initiated a deep dive. They figured out these boxes made noise of you slapped or dropped them. The whole room was soon slapping and dropping the boxes. Someone figured out how to open the box to see what was inside. We DNA’d the box as we had the seeds. And we debriefed. The conversations and connections to emerge were among the more rich and profound of the semester. Learners made connections to experiences and lessons going all the way back to August. Learners were using academic language to describe new phenomena. Gustavo said, “Well, it’s another work cycle. When you turn this key, or push the wheel something happens. Music happens.” Yes and, Madeline offers, DNA is another work cycle. And then, that “yes and” language spread through the room. New knowledge being passed along, learner to learner.

For me the moment that precipitated this post is when Mia’s face brightened. She pointed to our mystery box. Something is inside! We can use DNA to figure it out, to predict (my language).

Phenomenon-based or project-based learning is student driven, student led. Learners are not empty and in need of filling. There is, as they guessed that very first day when we asked them how a seed knows how to grow, something inside. Yes. There is something inside the seed. There is something inside the music box. There is something inside our mystery box. There is something inside each learner that shapes the arc of emerging possibilities. This isn’t to say a teacher is unnecessary. Quite the opposite. This isn’t to say learners don’t need to acquire background knowledge, facts, skills. No. But they do need the freedom and support to realize the adjacent possible, the future that wants to be.