Published November 8, 2016
A Rumination on Relevant Education and Great Teachers
After many years of working as an educator in so many different venues, I do not wish to delimit the practice of teaching to one modality. I want to explore the essence of what it means to educate, so that we can teach anywhere, anytime, no matter the age group or the curriculum model. So, this essay morphed into a general piece about education, drawn from many a year’s distillation, refinement, contemplation, and meditation on what this educational thing is all about.
I first entered the embrace of Permaculture in 1988. My friend handed me a copy of Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, the Bill Mollison magnum opus, and I was taken aback and awed by what I found from first to last page. I have read and reread the entire manual from cover to cover every year since. Permaculture addresses the inter-related needs of nature and human beings in a profoundly systematic, simple, and sustainable fashion. It applies to every landscape no matter the scale. Permaculture relies on observation and an understanding of patterning to help us delineate what is already indigenous to a site and what changes we might want to make to retrofit the site into an ecologically balanced and vibrantly abundant land base.
Permaculture consists of comprehensive design (in the fields of agriculture, the built environment, energy, and the waste stream). It addresses functional relationships, stacking functions, and utilizing biological intelligence.
Mollison states: “Cultures cannot survive without a sustainable agricultural base and land use ethic. Permaculture is about the relationships we can create between minerals, plants, animals and humans by the way we place them in the landscape. The aim is to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable, which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute, and are therefore sustainable in the long term.”
All these principles, I believe, help form the basis of a relevant education – observation, understanding functional relationships and biological intelligence, ethics – are these not the key concepts that a relevant education would strive to incorporate? As educators, are we not trying to learn to read the actual patterns in the classroom and in the field, read the students as individuals and as a web of dynamic, energetic beings, as we would imagine a complete ecosystem to be? Can we really “see” what we are looking at?
We have all been educated somewhere, someplace, sometime. So, whether it be Permaculture that you teach or a seventh grade life science class, it is my greatest wish that this small tome will inspire and confirm, push and test, inform and augment the yield of our educational effort.
“The soul having been often born, or, as the Hindus say, ‘travelling the path of existence through thousands of births’…there is nothing of which she has not gained the knowledge; no wonder that she is able to recollect…what formerly she knew…For learning and inquiry is reminiscence all.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Through my years as an educator and teacher the natural world has been my greatest guide. The following principles of learning have grown intrinsically out of many years of wandering the mountains, forests, streams, towns and cities. The countless growth rings of the tree that have grown inside me, with many branches spiraling out of the trunk of time, represent old and new pith alive within the bark of memory.
Dedicated educators are determined to grow universal leaders from the grassroots up. There is no single method to accomplish this awesome task. Therefore, we as teachers constantly challenge assumptions and habitual programming to carry our students toward this ideal goal, and ultimately, to a place of compassion and love for all.
I remember when I first consciously entered the woods as a child. What seemed like a great forest was simply an empty block soon to be filled by split level homes, driveways and manicured lawns. We were crossing the street to bury our pet bird that had died that morning. The sycamore tree in front of the house was just large enough to support the weight of a child. As I held the small bird in my hands I realized sadly that I would never hear its lovely song again or marvel at its bright green and yellow plumage. Soon the earth would swallow that small body whole and turn it into soil. Weeks later the area was excavated and our bird’s tiny grave became nothing but driveway, macadam and tar.
But the memory of that small creature lives on. As I observe the downy woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees, catbirds and robins from my front porch in Illinois, the miracle of flight and birdsong carries with it the memory of a childhood buoyed by lightness and the mellifluous tone of a small bird. In what now seems in the memory like an angelic apparition, something beyond a mere earthly existence, flight and song trickle into the senses and leave me in awe, if I can only slow down and see what I am looking at, hear what I am listening to.
Through my many years as a teacher I have witnessed countless people of all ages marvel at the majestic flight of birds, their sometimes sweet, sometimes raucous songs and melodies, their diversity of brilliant color. How many memories might surface for us? Will we learn to take our observations to new heights of understanding and conceptualization? We have all been witness to, and been touched and retouched, by the animals and plants and stones at some exotic and magic moment in our lives. It is an education worthy of us all.
I am looking for a way to create an environment of learning that will put our highest ideals into practice: goodness, unity, truth, and beauty that surround us and dwell in the deepest places of the human heart.
How can we make our precious revelatory moments of observation and realization true for ourselves and future generations? It will take conscious work and determination to make the necessary changes and to find the discipline and perseverance to follow through. Because we “never step in the same river twice”, we know that change in life is inevitable, that it is the status quo, that life and death are always present and in constant motion everywhere.
Why do I hold onto old and weary methods of learning, instruction and ways of “seeing” the world? I want to penetrate into the essence of this life as it continually flows and metamorphoses into endless forms. I want to dig deeply enough to discern what it is or who it is that continues to create and take apart, ceaselessly, this mountain of existential mystery that appears afresh in every micro-millisecond of our lives, in all that lives and dies.