Discovery & Habits
Though we are informal in our presentation so as to lower the threshold for engagement with participants, there is a definite pedagogy behind the work we do. We involve participants in basic sustainability practices like composting, recycling, planting, feeding, watering, reusing and constructing. This brings adults and youth into interaction with one another over activities that are intuitively meaningful. In the garden, they discover nature’s various rhythms and how to align themselves with them. They see nature’s interdependence. They explore ways in which these and other ethics of sustainability show up beyond the garden. Over time, they get to taste the actual fruit of their labors. The bonds between young people, the adults in their lives and their shared environment are strengthened, turning eco-friendly intentions into life-long habits.
Whether a club, a fieldtrip, a workshop, a service learning project or something else, for Kid Cultivators discovery and habits formation are its core. “Discovery learning” is a more descriptive term for learning that educators also call “experiential” or reductively refer to as “action,” “adventure,” “hands-on” or even “learning by doing”. The particular term used often depends on what’s in vogue at the time, although there can be differences between each. All are rooted in the education philosophy known in the West as experiential education. In short, all mean “do first, talk later.”
For example, let’s say we want to teach a group of students and teachers to compost. Unless it is a strictly informational session, we don’t start with a lecture or slideshow on the beauty and benefits of composting. We start by saying, “Come with me.” We give just enough information so that participants can engage safely and intelligently. “Shovels should be kept below the waist…. Compost is a combination of nitrogen, which comes from vegetable and fruit waste, and carbon, which comes from dead leaves and wood chips, all of which is broken down to the point that it looks like rich soil (humus). We call the fruit and veggies ‘green stuff’. We call the dead leaves and wood chips ‘brown stuff’. To make compost we have to add the same amount of brown stuff as we have green stuff; then we wet it.”
From that point it’s, “Let’s carry these buckets of food scraps over there.” “Do we want to dump our compost just anywhere? What do you think makes a good place to compost?” “Okay, let’s pile our scraps here…. What do we need to do next?” “Where can we find that?” “Okay, take your buckets and shovels and get that?” “Okay, what’s next…” “Now tell me what you noticed…”
Answers to “What did you notice?” open the door to the dispensing of now meaningful information. The participants experience doing the activity creates the context for that meaning. The science and other potential lessons are now something participants want to know and often begin to figure out for themselves, which takes the conversations even deeper.
We rehearse nearly the same routine every time we meet, expanding it as participants get the hang of each new thing. Before long, participants are engaged in a whole battery of eco-friendly practices, wanting more and wanting to share with others. That’s the power of discovery learning. It draws students into ownership of the learning process, creating context and making education something they want for themselves, not just something others want for them.
Participants discover all sorts of things. Amidst it all, Kid Cultivators focuses on the ethical practices that sustain life-giving relationships. In one instance, the focus may be our capacity, which mirrors the earth’s capacity, to forgive. In another instance, it may be the importance of diversity in building healthy gardens and communities. Beyond the skills and science they are learning, we want to emphasize participants’ place and responsibility in the web of relationships that constitute life.
For Kid Cultivators discovery learning might best be diagrammed like this:
There is little long-term gain in discovery that occurs only once. We seek to engage kids and the adults in their lives in discovery on a regular basis over an extend period of time, which we diagram as follow:
As you consider the diagram above, you may note the occasional loops over time. Growth is not a steady climb. As trained educators, we know from study and experience that all learning is recursive. This is not just true of kids. Think of top athletes. Some days they’re on top of their game. Other days they just can’t get it together. It’s not that they don’t know how to perform. As learning progresses (perhaps in order to progress), it doubles back on itself, almost as if to give the learner a second look at what she thinks she knows. During those times a learner can almost seem clueless, but that doubling back builds momentum to break through to another stage of understanding.
As educators, we want to do more than simply expose youth to sustainability (although exposure has its place). Our goal is to make sustainability sustainable, a way of life that youth continue into adulthood. That takes habit formation, which comes from practice over time. It matters not whether Kid Cultivators leads the practice or simply sets up the structures so that youth and the adults in their lives continue the practice on their own. What matters is follow through.
As is true of the discoveries participants are making, so too the habits participants form strengthen human ecological relationships. Program participants begin to dispose of waste at a rate and in ways that nature can absorb. They start to avoid chemicals that can have harmful effects on the environment. They reach for captured rain water rather than drinking water for jobs that don’t have to do with human consumption. They eat fresh vegetables—at least the ones they’ve grown. They also encourage one another, speak well of one another, help one another and share with one another as well as with the adults who join in the fun.
Most of Kid Cultivators discovery-learning and habit formation centers around ecological activities and many of those take place in a garden. This is commonly referred to in schools as garden-based learning, a location specific form of project-based learning. Project-based learning is becoming more and more popular with each passing day as a means by which to wed academic knowledge with practical application.
The Buck Institute for Education is a leading researcher and proponent of the value of project-based learning. As articulated on their website, in project-based learning students go through a process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student say, most effective projects are carefully designed, organized and facilitated to help students learn key intellectual content, practice important practical skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and produce high-quality, authentic and meaningful results.
Although we do not always function in a school environment, our discovery-learning facilitation features the basic characteristics of project-based learning as defined by BIE. Our discovery experiences:
- Teach significant content. Goals for student learning are explicitly derived from core curriculum and key concepts at the heart of academic disciplines.
- Require critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.
- Requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new. Participants ask questions, search for answers, and arrive at conclusions, leading them to construct something new: an idea, an interpretation, or a product.
- Are organized around open-ended questions.
- Creates a need to know essential content and skills.
- Allows some degree of student voice and choice. Participants learn to work independently and interdependently, learning to take responsibility when they are asked to make choices.
- Includes processes for revision and reflection. Participants learn to give and receive feedback in order to improve the quality of the products they create, and are asked to think about what and how they are learning.
Good projects come in many forms. Much of our cooperative team building, leadership and character development work is not nature dependent at all. However, we love getting participants outside because it engages them in so many unexpected ways. Engaging nature itself can take various forms. Having researched it extensively, Cornell University espouses the benefits of specifically garden-based projects:
“Gardening enhances our quality of life in numerous ways: providing fresh food, exercise and health benefits, opportunities for multi-generational and life-long learning, creating pleasing landscapes and improved environment, and bringing people together.
“Garden-based learning programs result in increased nutrition and environmental awareness, higher learning achievements, and increased life skills for our students. They are also an effective and engaging way to integrate curriculum and meet learning standards, giving young people the chance to develop a wide range of academic and social skills.
“Garden experiences foster ecological literacy and stewardship skills, enhancing an awareness of the link between plants in the landscape and our clothing, food, shelter, and well-being. They also provide children and youth with the time and space to explore the natural world–something that can occur rarely in today’s era of indoor living.”
Although much of what we do takes place far beyond the traditional classroom setting, it is important to us that what we do is backed by sound education theory.