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Philosophical Meanderings


If there is one constant among today’s various movements it’s the call for a new story. In The Universe Story, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry lay this out in the most holistic way within the context of cosmic evolution and the human role. They lay out the coming age of the Ecozoic Era, where human know how to live well in their places and with each other. A population cognizant of the cosmic and ecological principles which govern life and so participate within the biosphere in a mutually enhancing way rather than an exploitative and oppressive manner.

Storm Cunningham builds on this particularly in economics in his books with the idea of the “de/re” shift that is underway. De relates to a downward descent based on degradation and destruction, while re speaks of return, replenishing, rejuvenation, resiliency, etc. He adds these prefixes to wealth, to speak of the shift from making money based on deweath to economies based on rewealth.

And so, as Kirsten, reminds us we are stuck in an old story of education, desperate for a new one. I have offered an overall paradigm based on the 3 new R’s: restoration, rejuvenation, and resilience, which are easily applicable to humanity’s overall role on the planet and in line with The Universe Story, and Storm Cunningham’s work as well David Orr, E.O. Wilson, and others. So it comes naturally that if overall these ideas are to be our new cultural story then it must be that it is also educations. That’s easy to say. Mission statements are great on paper, but how does it operate? Here I will offer one new way to think of approaching education based on the design principles of permaculture. This is my rough application of the concepts, this is a developing concept for me. The bottom line for me is that we must begin utilizing systems thinking with an orientation towards holism. This is one perspective that does that.

For those not familiar, permaculture is born of the idea that instead of living within a throw-away, toxic culture, we must build more intelligently designed human environments which utilize ecological truths to maximize productivity, efficiency, and ease. Furthermore, these built environments increase biodiversity, strengthen ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, air and water purification, and flood and erosion control. These are built environments made to last through all the variety of experiences that is the biosphere. These are not built environments designed only to maximize human convenience while severely degrading the biosphere and thus or and its ability to exist within the demands of the ecological world.

So what does this mean for education? Just like in agriculture which is currently under shift from the industrial, green-revolution, model to one of agro-ecology, our education system must also shift; from an industrial, mono-culture to one that is attuned to human development and promotes diversity.

In the beginning stages of permaculture design an analysis is done, what are the inputs and outputs present in a given system. Permaculture design is always trying to close the loops such that inputs match needed outputs and the system takes care of itself. For example, the three sisters-beans, corn, and squash. The corn provides a natural trellis (output) for the beans to grow up (input). The beans fix nitrogen (output) in the soil, which builds soil health (input) and benefits the corn and squash (inputs). The squash creates ground cover (output) which helps to prevent weeds and retain moisture (inputs) in the soil. Inputs and outputs thus relates to the overall system (nutrient cycling, water purification, etc.) and the members (soil, plants, animals) of it. So how does this relate to education?

Well, this analysis potentially provides a more holistic perspective to even begin approaching learning with children. Instead of just throwing manufactured seed and fertilizer (curriculum and materials) around classroom, you first actually take inventory of who is in your classroom, what are their individual needs? Where do they come from, where are they in development (cognitively, emotionally, socially, etc)? How do they learn best? Right off the bat we will recognize that regardless of those answers an input necessary for any child is good, nutrient dense food, physical activity, respect, compassionate guidance, and free-play. We can also argue that now, digital access is also a necessary input. From there we can attend to individual differences.

Moving to outputs, we come to know the gifts and challenges of each student, what do they produce? Beautiful visual images? Kindness and sharing? Defensiveness?

So how can we begin putting these together? If we learn that Chelsea is a whiz in math and Tyron has a knack for big-picture business ideas, couldn’t the two work on a business plan together? We can find a plethora of such “companion plantings” in the classroom. The point is that instead of mandating that the classroom produce one thing only (standardized test scores), the intrinsic nature of each student is valued, and everyone is enriched by the diverse system that is created.

Just like in agriculture, a more resilient system is created. Instead of the entire crop (students) being vulnerable to a condition such as pests or weather, their ability to tap into the resources around them to creatively adapt to the situation is promoted. This means that not only will individual members be more likely to survive but that the greater population will be too.

So what do you think? Does this analogy prompt any new ways of looking at education systems in relation to human development? Have I lost it?


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


9 thoughts on “Edu-ecology/Permeducation/Permaeduculture/Edupermaculture?

  1. I’m on my way out of the house right now, but I’ll make a few points now and a few points later.

    I do like this metaphor…because it’s verdant (ha!)

    I also like the implications for how we all interconnect, and how if we scale outwards from our own classrooms (garden?) we start to see the effects of designing more enriching ecosystems for growth. This is the same scale permaculturists see, and I don’t know why it can’t work here.

    Have you ever flown across the midwest? Patchwork land as residual effect of industrial monoculture. This is the most famous image when it comes to the systems that produce our food.

    This is the view you get when you talk to agriculture lobbyists.

    I remember when I took a bus to the north of Peru. From the top of a mountain I saw a valley full with small farmers. It looked nothing like a quilt, but rather a maze of what seemed like boundless confusion. I later talked to one of those farmers, who described his own connection to the land, as well as the design aspects of his farm. Ironically, he had to work harder than larger farmers just to grow food the way it was meant to be grown…and made less money while at it.

    This is the view you get when you talk to farmers who nurture ecosystems.

    Industrial agriculture lobbyists lament: “how can we possibly feed all these people?”
    Industrial education lobbyists lament: “how can we possibly teach all these people?”

    We have a different story.

    Industrial education is what you get from education lobbyists, but something more like that small farmer is the view you get from us. We are stronger if we connect from the bottom, and act in accordance to the principles you have outlined in this post.

    Thanks for the story!

    Posted by mrsenorhill | July 26, 2010, 9:23 pm
  2. oh cool. you two are a perfect match up. please let Hans play…

    can’t wait to see what comes of this. i’m loving it.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 28, 2010, 5:19 pm
    • Wow, I am so mixed about what I think about this. On the one hand I think the teacher is a genius and deserves a standing ovation. On the other it’s the same story of school with new window dressing…I can’t stand the inner conflict!

      Posted by Adam Burk | July 28, 2010, 8:39 pm
  3. i hear you Adam… at first i wasn’t even going to share it.. then i saw the bike making electricity.. now you have to agree – that is cool. (help some of my kids do that, k? and you know hans is doing permaculture) – there was some pump on the side that said ethics… i just caught a glimpse of it – but a great visual.

    i’ve always been eclectic and thought that meant i was odd. my house is odd. it’s eclectic. i think the web is allowing that now.. more than ever. (not my house. ..people)

    i see this room and i see an eclectic gathering of ideas for projects.
    however, i have a hard time thinking a room of 25-30 doing the same thing is to anyone’s best interest. why should it be? i can’t think of a reason now. especially since we have the means to offer personalization.

    tell me more Adam.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 29, 2010, 1:38 pm
    • The bike is great, and I saw the “ethics” gas bottle too. I love that the teacher has incorporated her passion into the classroom and is really trying to make the usual learning situation a bit more dynamic for students, even if some of it is novel. This was good documentation of the “Champion” or “Master” teacher within our current paradigm of education.

      “Funny” thing is its still operant conditioning. I shake this can (asteroid attack)-you duck under the table. Kids still looked plenty bored in some of those shots and it was still all about everyone is learning the same thing, like you point out.

      Posted by Adam Burk | July 29, 2010, 8:14 pm
  4. Adam, I really love this and it’s a great metaphor, a very coherent narrative that works with schooling on so many levels. It’s verdant! It’s alive. I stake my bean-y ideas to your stalks of corn.

    A few things that stood out to me:

    “we must build more intelligently designed human environments which utilize ecological truths to maximize productivity, efficiency, and ease.”

    Given that we are talking here at the COOP about how to language into the mainstream policy discourse, these words seem particularly fruitful. Productivity, and efficiency sell. Ease? It helps.

    So how would you take this vision bigger? How would you scale up your metaphor? If you had a chance to go down to Washington and sit with Arne Duncan and his staff, what would you tell them that would grab them by the compost pile and help them listen? How do we move the stories into the mainstream talk?

    Plow to the end of the row,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 29, 2010, 5:21 pm
  5. A quick note here. I love the idea of permaculture in the classroom except the classroom cannot hold the idea. What we are talking about is agri-culture writ larger. That is indeed what we need. We had that in my part of Kentucky for about 200 years until the current system took it down over the last two generations. It is nearly gone. That means the cultural web is nearly gone as well. We are a pitable collection of hobby farms, meth labs, and retirees. How can we reach this Eco-zoic era without a hard collapse. We probably can’t and that is what takes me aback here. Even something as simple as plowing is not simple if you have ever done it. I have a furrow in a field below my house that an ignorant plowman put in there over 30 years ago that still is prominent. What we need is a new set of sustainable initial conditions from which this edupermaculture can emerge. It is the work of generations and, as such, will require a motive force to push us to adopt it. I think the question is will we be ready to offer an alternative when the ground is ready and push comes to shove?

    Posted by tellio | August 5, 2010, 12:15 pm
    • Terry,

      I appreciate your perspective. To clarify, I was in large part trying to use permaculture as a metaphor, something like permaculture is to agriculture as edupermaculture is to education.

      Unfortunately, there is no way to now create “sustainable initial conditions.” We’ve done too much damage, this millennium has to be about the three new “R’s” restoration, rejuvenation, and resiliency. We have hard work to do to restore ecosystem services and holistic health. Our industrial paradigm has degraded environmental, personal, and community health. Since we cannot magic up new “sustainable initial conditions” we must study ecological principles and incorporate them into our decision-making and design processes in order to restore and rejuvenate our ecological and human communities. By doing this we will create resiliency both for the human-created problems of climate change, and the unavoidable natural events which are integral to life. Without this there will be no cultural shift, there will be no ecozoic era. In fact, studying and incorporating ecological principles into our daily lives is by definition what create the ecozoic era. Does that make sense?

      I think the question is not will be ready to offer an alternative when the ground is ready, but are we prepared to implement alternatives in order to restore “the ground?” If we wait for the ground to be ready, it will be too late, we have done too much damage. We have to now participate in the healing of the planet. Does that make sense?

      All the best,

      Posted by Adam Burk | August 5, 2010, 1:39 pm

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