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What Bonsai Trees and Wildflowers Teach us about Personalized Learning

By: Justin de Leon on November 15th, 2021

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What Bonsai Trees and Wildflowers Teach us about Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning  |  Professional Development  |  Instructional Coaching

To many in the gardening and plant world, bonsais are among the most impressive trees. Bonsai is seen as a blend of gardening and art – a way to create living sculptures. A gardener might spend decades pruning the tree, little by little, year over year, so that it grows to the gardener’s exact vision. For instance, a Coast Redwood tree that, in the wild might grow to 100’-200’, may only grow to 1’ under the curated, decades-long care of the gardener.


Recently I was listening to a podcast, where Julie Lythcott-Haims – author of best selling books on helping young people become healthy and happy adults, and former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University – applied the concept of growing bonsai trees to the way parents raise their children.  She shared:

"We treat our kids like they are our bonsai trees… The bonsai is such an exquisite creation of the gardener.  The gardener decides the direction in which that tree will grow, which branches will be clipped and which will flourish, and the shape of it. And, it is a lovely creation, but at the end of the day it is a possession of the gardener.” - Julie Lythcott-Haims


She was speaking about parenting, and the approach that some parents take — one that is similar to gardeners who design bonsai trees. That parents who take this approach are curating and directing the major decisions and milestones that students reach. She talked about how oftentimes, children – who, raised by these types of parents – encounter certain scenarios in high school, or in their transition to college or their first job – are unable to function on their own because they are too dependent on following the direction and prompting of their parents. 


Dr. Lythcott-Haims later goes on to suggest that thinking of children as wildflowers is more conducive to healthy growth, development, and long term success. Wildflowers are resilient. They adapt to the conditions presented to them. They need soil, water and sunlight, but are hearty enough to thrive with little support from their environment.


Blog - Bonsai Trees, Wildflowers and Personalized Learning - Wildflowers

After hearing her words, I thought about how this idea – of raising children as bonsai trees or wildflowers – applies to the context of the classroom, and the student and teacher experience.  Whereas a “bonsai” classroom is teacher-centered and largely teacher-directed, “wildflower” classroom is student-centered and largely student-directed – these students have opportunities to have agency over what, how and why they learn. Bonsai classrooms might be effective at helping students to master standards, or might expose them to certain books and content; but it might sacrifice opportunities that help students to think for themselves, make decisions about their learning and develop their own perspectives.


As educators, we must take time to reflect and consider our beliefs and approaches to teaching and learning. We must ask ourselves:

  • As an educator or educational leader, am I mindful of the extent to which I am choosing and deciding for students?
  • Do I reflect on the impact that my decisions have on students’ development and long term success?
  • Is my classroom or school experience something that is done to students? 
  • Or is learning something that is done with and for students?


PL Core 4 White Paper CoverTo help you reflect on these questions, consider using the Core 4 of Personalized Learning.  The Core 4 are research based best practices that power teaching and learning in student-centered, personalized classrooms.  At Education Elements, we believe that student-centered classrooms balance student voice and choice, alongside the expertise and care of teachers, so that students do not grow up to be perfectly curated and uniform bonsai trees, but healthy, thriving individuals who are ready togo weather the conditions of and thrive in the wild.   





The Core 4 of Personalized Learning include:

  • Student Reflection and Goal Setting - Student reflection and goal setting are practices that can build a bridge for students between the content they are learning and why they are learning it. While these are two separate practices, they can, and should be interconnected in the classroom. Reflecting on what we know and how we learn builds self-awareness that can make goal-setting a truly meaningful experience. 
  • Collaboration and Creativity - Personalizing learning encourages students to work with one another, share ideas, create new solutions and projects, provide one another with feedback, and, in the process, learn more about themselves. 
  • Flexible Path and Pace - Students learn in different ways and to truly personalize the learning experience, there must be opportunities for students to progress towards mastery of their learning through flexible learning pathways and at different paces. 
  • Targeted Instruction - At its most actualized, targeted instruction means that students can articulate what instruction they are receiving and why, and students have some choice over the instruction they recieve.

About Justin de Leon

Justin de Leon is a Partner and joined Education Elements in 2012. He began his career in education teaching English at Brownsville Middle School in Miami-Dade. In his first year, he shifted from a traditional model to a blended model as a way to personalize and saw management issues disappear and achievement increase. During several school years, Justin worked with Teach for America to provide mentoring, coaching and professional development to ELA corps members. After moving to the west coast, he gained experience in the charter world while teaching ELA at KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose, CA.

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