This school year Wieneke Maris – geography teacher – is taking a sabbatical with her partner Niels – biology teacher – and she is travelling through Europe to discover examples of innovative sustainability education. The world is in an ecological and climate crisis that threatens our future. She worries about this, and for her the best way to deal with that is to contribute to a solution. She visits schools and institutions to learn more about education for sustainable.
Text and photos: Wieneke Maris
Six-thirty AM, I am harvesting broccoli, and loving it. We are staying at Alm Ostre, the oldest running biodynamic farm in Norway (since 1974). Not only is it a beautiful and peaceful place, and a warm community, it is also an interesting example of experiential learning for sustainability.
My last blog was about my experiences at the Center for Collaborative Learning for Sustainable Development (CCL). Being able to learn from and collaborate with the excellent people of CCL was enough for me to make the visit to Hamar worthwhile. However, it didn’t end there. Sacha Kalseth, advisor to the CCL, organised that we could stay at Alm Ostre. We get a room and boarding here in exchange for helping out on the farm. I am very grateful for this experience. In this blog I would like to share some of the insights the work at Alm has given me about learning for sustainability.
Working on a biodynamic farm has shown me a great example of participatory learning for sustainability. Alm Ostre is situated in one of the most scenic agricultural parts of the country. It is a community farm, run by five farmers, and around ten volunteers working and living together to produce food in a biodynamic way. The volunteers, called ‘practicants’, are mainly young people who spend time varying from three months to a year working at the farm alongside the farmers. In this way, practicants learn directly how food can successfully be produced in a circular way without using pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers. In speaking with the volunteers with whom we share the big farm house and most meals, I learn about the profound effect working at Alm Ostre has on their lives. A large part of the volunteers want to become an organic farmer themselves. “I didn’t know I wanted to become an organic farmer until I stayed at Alm Ostre, now I am going to study organic agriculture.”, says practicant Colin. Vocational education institutes and universities take their students for practical courses here. This makes Alm Ostre both a successful farm operation, and a place of learning for sustainability.
Alm Ostre also shows an alternative model for operating a farm. The farm is owned by a foundation, and managed not for profit, by the 5 farmers as a group. All farmers have a house on the farmland where they live with their families. Retired farmers are still a part of the community and live here too, all fed by the food it produces. What I find interesting in this model is that it shows an alternative to the conventional farming business model, based on exploitation of natural and human resources for profit. Alm Ostre shows us a way of living and working together, growing food, striving to respect nature and its carrying capacity as well as looking after people. It is often these sustainable societies that we find so hard to imagine. We see the downsides of our economic model based on infinite growth, which farmers have been pushed into for decades. However we struggle to imagine an alternative. To create a sustainable society, we need to be able to envision it. That is why in sustainability education, it is so important to see, and indeed experience, the possibilities if we dare to step outside of the conventional.
This experience of being part of a community at an organic farm for me stresses again the importance of experiential learning in the real world. As a geography teacher I teach about sustainable food production; but I have learned so much more about this here working at the farm. We educators know that “doing the real thing”, (the Learning Pyramid, Dale 1957), has the largest transformative impact. However it is not a large part of teaching at regular high schools. So, why not? Ask a teacher what the main prohibitor is to taking students outside of school; I bet they will mention at least one of these: paperwork and a lack of time. Therefore, to incorporate more experiential learning into our teaching practice, teachers need help, especially from school leaders and policy makers: provide time, support and trust to teachers to include learning in the real world. Creating experiential learning opportunities outside of school should takes time and needs creativity: Empower teachers and give them the time and freedom to make this happen. Because education for sustainability requires us to take our students outside, into the community, into nature to work and learn alongside people in the “field”.