Permaculture in the classroom

Nelson Lebo (R) and PhD supervisor Dr. Chris Eames with potato harvest. University of Waikato, Hamilton, NZ. February, 2011 (photo provided)

While in Hamilton, I interviewed Nelson Lebo, PhD student at University of Waikato, Center for Science and Technology Education Research.  I was thrilled to learn another academic was researching not only permaculture, but permaculture in education, and eager to hear the details of Nelson’s research.  Here, Nelson discusses the theoretical and practical aspects of integrating permaculture into New Zealand’s secondary curriculum, the focus of his research.

“My research seeks to address two problems:  Number one is incorporating environmental education into secondary schools. The second challenge is that students are dropping out of science after the compulsory years at alarming rates.  Both these challenges are recognized in the international literature.

The New Zealand curriculum is very innovative and allows schools and communities to tailor it to their own needs. This means that there is a potential opportunity to focus on environmental issues – both local and global – by teachers, departments and even whole schools. It empowers teachers because it gives them more freedom and autonomy, but it also scares the hell out of some of them.  When it comes to being creative and running with it, then some suddenly get cold feet. It is a big ask to start teaching in a different way. The New Zealand curriculum offers the opportunity for really amazing and creative curriculum development.  Whether teachers take it up is another issue.

Another challenge is students dropping out of science as soon as it is no longer compulsory.  (Year 10 is the last compulsory year in New Zealand, which is the equivalent of 9th graders in US [14-15 year olds.]) My proposed solution to both of these problems is to make environmental problem solving through permaculture the overall theme of the science curriculum.

So the idea is that, theoretically, teenagers are interested in environmental issues because it’s their future and they’ve gone through primary schools where environmental education is often taught.  And if you engage them in local, solution-oriented, science-based, ecological design they’ll have a more positive attitude towards the environment, towards learning and towards science.  In the end you’ll have a population with a higher level of scientific & ecological literacy.  That’s the theory anyway.

My primary research question is, ‘How can permaculture be integrated into secondary science curriculum to increase scientific literacy and ecological literacy among students.’  My first months of graduate studies were really a literature review.  The topic was so broad, and no aspect of the lit review was comprehensive because it included science education, environmental education, Transformative Learning Theory, permaculture and secondary education.

While Transformative Learning Theory, [which describes the process by which adolescents and adults replace and revise existing knowledge, often assimilated uncritically in childhood, with active construction of new and revised interpretations and meanings] is part of my theoretical framework, in the classroom I’m teaching the science of sustainability. The steps of transformation are integrated into the big picture design of the progression of the different science topics, but the students wouldn’t even notice it.  The goal is that all of the science topics required by the year 10 curriculum are taught from a permaculture perspective. In the classroom that translates to science units that are specific to the topics the teacher is required to cover but with a permaculture focus. Sure, we’re teaching about the science involved in permaculture, but we’re also teaching in a permaculture way. My research in one classroom represented 3 units over the course of 12 weeks.

Chris [Nelson’s advisor] challenged me to do the research in a permaculture way.  In permaculture, we design around the resources available.  In this intervention, I designed it around the resources available.  One of the strongest sectors was the NZ curriculum.  It’s a very strong wind – so maybe you need to design wind breaks, or you put up a windmill and harness that energy.  I told the teacher you give me any topic and I’ll make it applicable to the local community and accountable to the curriculum.

To overcome the main challenges my research seeks to address, it is essential to design around the sector influences and energy flows. So to get high quality EE into secondary schools I had to do everything in a very scientific manner, not in a save the world, tree hugging way, but in an experiential permaculture way.  I was a responsive designer. So I designed a locally-based, permaculture approach and the teacher was then able to pick and choose what ideas he wanted to go with.  Then as we saw opportunities arise that we could not have planned for, I could offer suggestions.

It’s been recognized that pedagogical content knowledge (PCK)- the ability of a teacher to know the topic that they’re teaching and to know the best way to teach it- is extremely important.  And it turns out it is extremely rare to find a teacher with high PCK in EE.  Is that teacher going to embrace environmental education and make it a priority while also being confident enough to be an innovative and transformative teacher?  In my research and my experience in schools, I am finding that the greatest need is for teacher training and professional development.

I taught a course at the University – , Education for Sustainability – , and noticed the same thing among the teaching students I was working with.  Most educational researchers agree that the teacher is the key to learning in the classroom.  It is so imperative for sustainability education to provide the highest quality training for teachers.”

Nelson is currently waiting to hear whether a contract will be awarded for teacher professional development for sustainability education in the city of Wanganui where he currently lives. “The way I proposed it was that education for sustainability is not just good ‘green’ education, it is good education period. When done well, teaching through environmental themes is simply good teaching. EFS is not only good for sustainability, it is good for education. Again, when done well it improves the teaching and learning of all topics in school. But as I mentioned before, the teacher is the single greatest factor in student learning. Therefore, if we want to improved learning we also need to improve teaching. Oh, and while we’re at it we’ll help students develop systems thinking skills, hands-on practical skills, a sense of stewardship towards the environment, and environmental problem-solving skills. All of these attributes are inherent to permaculture and permaculturists. So why not connect teachers and students with local permaculturists – practicing ‘citizen scientists’ – to bring the science curriculum alive and make it relevant to students. Most permies I know are mad keen to share their enthusiasm with others. It’s a source of energy. Harness it!

Feel free to contact Nelson about his research, or visit his blog on applied permaculture for house renovation and property design.

Email: nfl2@waikato.ac.nz

www.ecothriftydoup.blogspot.com

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