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June 25, 2014 - 11:56pm

Enviroblog: Let permaculture grow amidst public education


Lindsey Scullen/Daily

There was a bug on the picnic table in County Farm Park and suddenly not one of the Summers-Knoll fourth graders could sit still. Pencils fell onto pieces of paper, which had “permacul-” written in big letters at the tops, and little bodies buzzed like bees around a flower, trying to suck information out of the bug, trying to get a peek, trying to analyze.

The kids in this fourth grade class from Summers-Knoll Elementary School in Ann Arbor learned about permaculture — commonly thought of as permanent-agriculture or permanent-culture — earlier this year. I was lucky enough to observe.

To give you some background, naturalist Bill Mollison planted the term “permaculture” into popular culture in the 1970s. At its roots, permaculture is an agricultural design science sowed “to produce an efficient, low-maintenance integration of plants, animals, people and structure,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s website. In laymen’s terms, permaculture means mimicking nature’s efficiency and cooperation to nurture more sustainable gardens and farms.

I, however, argue that since first sprouting permaculture has grown into something more. Permaculture’s vines have climbed out from under the “agricultural design science” category and are exploring new territories. Territories like the world of education.

I further argue that we need to start adapting our world of education to these permaculture principles. Our educational system is in as dire a need of improved sustainability as is our agricultural system.

But to continue speaking in plant-language, there are two different species of permaculture vines exploring education’s lands:

Species #1: Permaculture means introducing teachers to permaculture concepts as they apply to teaching
According to Summers-Knoll fourth grade teacher Chris Swinko, permaculture has grown into a “lens” through which to see the world.

“The contrast between how nature solves problems and how we do becomes very clear,” Swinko said.

Nature solves problems by seeing the value in a network of diversity. It then capitalizes on that value, on the sum of the unique functions played by individual organisms.

But this process only works, only sustains because nature is sensitive to each organism’s unique needs and ways of functioning. Nature doesn’t expect each tree to need the same amount of water nor the same type of environment. It allows its organisms to seek what they need, to adapt, to change, to grow by way of whatever type of nourishment they each require.

Teachers need to start solving problems as nature does. They need to see that each student thinks differently, learns differently, needs differently and contributes differently. They need to stop molding students to the assimilating system. They need to start molding the system to the diverse students. Diversify. Experiment. See from the kids’ varying perspectives. Adapt to their needs.

The question then becomes “how?” How does a teacher see from his students’ perspectives? The answer, though, is simple: open source education. Let them tell you, show you their perspective. Make education in general more of a dialogue. Find a way to make students understand that feedback is acceptable. Students learning under a dictatorship will react as citizens living under a dictatorship often do: their frustrations will make them either riot or remain silent and docile. Neither of those options, if you ask me, seems conducive to learning. Nor is either in line with nature’s cooperative way of working.

So public education, in the name of open source education, hear this: Most kids don’t function well in a factory-style learning environment. We’re all different and we need you to see that you can’t cookie-cutter us through our education. We need to capitalize on our differences rather than eliminate them. And one more thing — most of us can’t fully comprehend generic, non-contextualized lessons.

Ann Arbor’s King Elementary School fifth grade teacher Neha Shah is a teacher who’s already advocating for contextualized learning, a teacher who’s already working to understand learning from her students’ perspectives.

“So many teachers are teaching inside, in a controlled environment,” Shah said. “But there’s a whole lab outside.”

Shah stressed that, in her experience, kids have a natural ability to understand concepts when teachers orient what they’re teaching in real-life environments and situations.

“[Kids] are really smart, but we underestimate them all the time,” Shah said. “I don’t underestimate them.”

Species #2: Permaculture means introducing kids to permaculture concepts as they apply to agriculture and to the world
A new generation of permaculture designers is beginning to see value in teaching students explicitly about permaculture and its concepts. Take Nathan Ayers, for example. Ayers is the permaculture designer and founder of Ann Arbor’s Chiwara Permaculture firm.

One of Chiwara’s goals is to make permaculture education programs available for K-12 schools, universities and community members all over Michigan, with locations in Ann Arbor, Highland Park,and Beaver Island. Using both the Chiwara House demonstration garden and other natural sites, like the picnic table of buzzing kids in County Farm Park, Ayers makes nature his classroom. And in said classroom he teaches kids to see the value in nature’s systems.

His lessons revolve around the importance of nature’s diversity, the importance of the network, of nature’s way of being sensitive to each organism’s unique needs and functions.

The take-back for kids learning about permaculture, though, is not only that mimicking and being sensitive to nature is important as pertains to our food systems and ecosystems. It also includes a discovered understanding: that there’s value in a network of diversity. In my opinion, they start to understand that a network of diverse individuals who cooperate means a healthy society. They learn that a society that mimics nature’s way to prosperity too will be prosperous.

Teaching students permaculture concepts then has the potential to make them aware, make them active players in their communities on both an environmental and community level.

“We need to be teaching children how to be community-oriented,” Shah said. “They are the ones that can change their communities.”

To me permaculture seems like a good, contextualized way to do this.

The conclusion? Both species of permaculture vines have value in the world of education. Allowing these new ideas to enter would mean both allowing kids to explore, find and understand their unique abilities (species #1) and allowing them to see themselves in the context of the greater system, to see the value in being a part of a diverse, cooperative network (species #2).

It would help make the kids themselves, their educations and their communities beyond more sustainable. More permanent.

Lindsey Scullen can be reached at