Making Connections, Part 3: The Daffodil Project

This is the last post in the “Making Connections” series. After this, I will turn to other topics: P21 and advertising, the worship of change in education reform, and more.

In my second and third year of teaching, I started reading Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, Jr. I don’t know how I would have fared without their books. They made sense of the confusion I saw around me and showed me the way to other kindred thinkers. Thanks to Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch–my favorite book on American education—I learned about the brilliant and delightful work of Michael John Demiashkevich (1891-1938) and found my way to his books. Demiashkevich was by no means opposed to progressive ideas, but he railed against excesses such as the obsession with “integrated learning,” an attempt to make all subjects revolve around a given theme. He relates the story of the “daffodil project” (An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pp. 282-283):

A teacher relates that she organized the entire instruction in one of the grades around the daffodil project. She devoted her time, first, to the anatomy and physiology of the daffodil; next to the poetry about it; and finally, to dancing around the flower bed. The daffodil project was still on at the time we heard about it last. We do not know how much or how little the students have learned through it in terms of information and mental habits; this depends very largely on the ability and culture of the teacher, whom we do not have the pleasure of knowing personally. But we are wondering if the majority of the daffodil project students did not finish by hating the daffodil and waiting as for deliverance for “the clang of the school bell,” which some new educationists would do away with as the sinister symbol of the conventional school which “shatters valuable attitudes.”

I see nothing wrong with teaching the anatomy and physiology of the daffodil (and other flowers) in science class, and poetry about the daffodil in English class. The problem with this “daffodil project” is that it makes everything revolve around the daffodil. It gains a false eternity and a forced community. In this daffodil project, what becomes of Wordsworth’s “They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude”? Or Amy Lowell’s “I too am a rare / Pattern. As I wander down / The garden paths”? Or Robert Herrick’s “Like to the summer’s rain; / Or as the pearls of morning’s dew, / Ne’er to be found again”? Would the daffodil theme enhance the understanding of these poems or stand in the way, a giant daffodil idol demanding worship?

And would Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring” be omitted because it does not mention a daffodil? (“Nothing is so beautiful as spring / When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush…”) That would be the most grievous mistake of all, the omission of non-daffodil-mentioning things.

There is something sound about studying a variety of subjects and keeping the overarching themes at bay. Students learn more concrete material in this manner and are at liberty to find larger meanings on their own.

Not that a good theme or project here and there couldn’t be wonderful; it could, especially if the teacher had the knowledge to execute it and the wisdom to refrain from forcing it. The error lies in taking a theme and making everything fit into it. The error lies in the assumption that if everyone and everything dances around the daffodil bed, we will learn more and marvel more. Not so.


  1. I don’t recall ever being subjected to anything like the daffodil project when I was young. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I realize I had pretty sensible teachers. They always, well, almost always, expected to teach, and they expected us to learn, directly, efficiently, and effectively. At least that’s the way I remember it.

    An important principle that enters in here is what I call the principle of concentration. To learn any subject we must isolate and concentrate on one small part of it at a time. Of course there is a complementary principle. After we have concentrated on a very limited topic we should then relate that topic to the rest of the subject. Both principles are important, but they are distinct, or at least should be in the teacher’s mind. I have never understood the appeal of “integrating” everything. But I observe that that appeal must be very strong to a lot of teachers.

    Some years ago I put together some ideas about arranging the topics of a subject into a coherent sequence. Here’s a link.

  2. Dick Eagleson says:

    Reminds me of the ‘You Gotta Have a Gimmick’ number from ‘Gypsy.’ True for strippers, maybe; for teachers, not so much.

  3. deirdremundy says:

    The Daffodil is clearly “interdisciplinary education” taken to far.

    On the other hand, it’s possible to do a really awesome medieval unit, with Medieval Lit in English class, Astronomy and ‘Alchemy’ in Science, and Art/architecture in art class (and, of course, Medieval History in history.)

    The problem isn’t having a theme to link lessons… it’s choosing a theme with enough breadth (flowers instead of daffodils, for instance) to be interesting instead of dreadful.

  4. Physics Teacher says:

    In my first semester as a education student I witnessed two actual elementary school teachers (apparently working on so-called masters degrees) teach a science unit about evolution. Of course, it couldn’t be about evolution, but about a greater theme: “How things change over time.” Their lessons taught young minds that a) puberty is evolution because it’s an example of your body changing over time (this also combined science with health) and that b) evolution is like your room getting messy over time (connecting science to the students’ lives).

  5. Diana Senechal says:

    A historical era is a great example of a workable theme. But even there it has to be approached carefully. If the theme is the Great Depression, it is important to read the literature for its own sake, not only for its Depression elements. It would be a shame to read The Glass Menagerie or Of Mice and Men solely (or even primarily) for their depiction of the era.

    When I was in eighth grade, we put on Romeo and Juliet. We read the play carefully, learned Shakespearean songs, learned about Shakespeare’s life and times, made costumes, and more. Yet math class went on as usual. We read other books in English class. In history class we studied medieval and Renaissance Europe, not only England. The theme was there, but our studies were not confined by it.

  6. Hmmm… isn’t daffodil just a type of Narcissus?

  7. I have no clue as to whether daffodils enhance understanding poetry. But then, I don’t understand poetry, and my eyes just glaze over anything in verse.

  8. SuperSub says:

    Physics –
    Since I didn’t see any judgement in your example, I’m hopefully assuming that you were criticizing the practice of integration.

  9. Super Sub,

    I think he was criticizing two teachers who had no clue what evolution was.

  10. Kirk Parker says:


    You left out the best part of the medieval unit: building a trebuchet in wood shop!

  11. Kirk Parker says:

    Oh, and also getting to try it out during PE!

  12. Reminds me of the ‘You Gotta Have a Gimmick’ number from ‘Gypsy.’ True for strippers, maybe; for teachers, not so much.