Text: Charlotte Louise Langdon
Job shadowing for Aranya and Caroline Aitkens PDC course this spring has given me a great deal of inspiration for developing my teaching. This I would like to share with you here.
We were about 18 people who spent two weeks at High Heathercombe Centre: this included a teaching team of 3, plus me as the shadow, 2 working in the kitchen and 12 participants.
Here I have collected some of the things that made the teaching on this course so effective.
- What we teach- is the content relevant?
Questionnaire was sent out before the course beginning- covering participant’s previous knowledge of permaculture, their interests, expectations and future plans for using permaculture in their life. The teaching group read through the questionnaire replies together, on the day of arrival. This meant we were able to see who in the group had previous knowledge and who were beginners. This helped in organising groups and making the content relevant to all participants. Other methods could be a show of hands, where educators ask the group about their interests. The questionnaire also helped to flag up and unknown circumstances like health problems, shyness or learning difficulties.
- How it’s taught- is the process engaging and interactive?
Course days were filled with activities and opportunities to relay content to suit many learning styles. Visual learners were met with slideshows, free standing pictures, as well as pictures and clear mind-maps on the whiteboard. Linguistic learners could talk it out in pairs or groups, kinaesthetic learners got the opportunity to move their bodies and complete practical activities, audio learning was aided by discussion and presentations. Participants were invited to work in groups, in threes, pairs and often came back to the whole group presentation in order to share the individual experiences from the activities to the whole class. This meant that the course felt dynamic, but also that participants could compare their own findings to the findings of others, thereby broadening their understanding.
After-lunch sessions were particularly reserved for practical and outdoor activities, since this is usually a time of low-energy when sat in a classroom situation. Activities included soil-testing, observation of natural systems, water audit for the teaching centre, measuring slope with bunyip and A-frame. Handouts meant that it was possible for small groups to go and work independently while still receiving guidance from the educators. On the handouts were questions which should be filled in for later presentation to the whole group. How is the soil where you have taken your test? How does this compare to the other test site?
It was very clear that the educators had been inspired by multiple intelligences, the Action Learning Cycle and Accelerated learning in their teaching. (Participants are prepared by offering a safe group working environment and building on previous learning. The content is presented creatively and interactively and the participants then have the opportunity to practice the learning in real-world situations. They are then offered insight into their performance through peer support, coaching, personal observation, evaluation and feedback)
- What relationships does this information make with our
existing knowledge- does it connect with previous learning?
Reviews of the previous day’s content were carried out by each of the groups in turn. They would prepare a review for the rest of the group and were offered inspiration for how to do this with some “idea cards” The idea cards were based on the multiple intelligences- so it invited the review team to refresh their peers memories through mime, logic puzzles such as word scrambles, kinaesthetic activities including recreating the forest ecosystem with their body poses. Linguistic methods were also used in reviews where the participants could talk about their memories of the previous day with a partner. One fantastic review was auditory/musical and consisted of the group singing some very funny songs about the previous day’s content. Very memorable!
End of week reviews consisted of the whole group drawing in image form, what we had learnt throughout the week, trying to match the memories to the day that we covered the content.
- How does it lead us forward- what can we do with this new knowledge?
The educators gave many practical examples of how the new knowledge could be used by the participants, introducing them to agroforestry methods, small-scale home sufficiency, national and global organisation and alternative economy. There were 3 visits to sites where practical examples of the course content could be found. Martin Crawford’s forest garden, LAND matters community and Odd-Job community recycling station.
The teaching crew had a library of relevant books on the subject matters covered. They would lay the relevant books from the library on the floor, so participants could see them, have a flick through or borrow them to read while staying at the centre. This gave a great deal of inspiration for further reading and where to go next. Participants also got the chance to go deeper into what they feel is relevant for them, outside of session time.
Participants gained the ability to actually start designing whilst on the course, presenting their design to their peers and receiving feedback from the educators and teaching apprentices. Achieving this learning outcome was made possible by the creative presentation of course content, group dynamics and support systems, and opportunities to practice design techniques.
A good example of this is the presentation of principles of permaculture (in slideshow form) and principles of ecology through drawings on the board and discussion, always asking the participants to contribute. “What is the difference between these two ecosystems?” Through inquisitive questioning, observing the image and thinking, the group cement the principles in their knowledge.
After being introduced to the key planning tools, participants were given a small design exercise to work on in groups, starting with a simple problem solving exercise: where to place a compost bin in a small garden. The course culminated in detailed group design work and finally presentations, feedback and celebration.
- Teaching styles, individual sessions and the course as a whole were reviewed, both between the teaching team (when participants were busy with practical activities) and by the participants themselves through the opportunity to write feedback on post-it notes and pin them up- while the teachers were out of the room.
Design of Teaching Structures
What else can we learn from seeing, interactive, well-planned, quality practical and theoretical courses that are held in the UK. Part of the learning can come from looking at the course itself: teaching techniques, tools and the fantastic online and print learning resources available to students.
But we can also learn from the overreaching structures that support these courses, in the form of teacher’s guilds, mentoring opportunities and common teaching resources which make it possible for a group of educators to offer the same high quality education and worth to participants across the country.
Aranya is part of a teacher’s guild called “Designed Visions” which consists of Looby Macnamara, Chris Evans and Hannah Thorogood. They have worked with creating course materials, course timetables, improvement of courses and teaching, support, inspiration and peer review. They also have a common webpage where courses can be posted publicly.
Caroline Aitken had been working under a skilled mentor: Patrick Whitefield, where she had learnt many of the interactive teaching skills and techniques that came through on the course. These strategies make a great deal of sense, especially when working with permaculture. We know that an integrated system is more resilient and stable than segregated elements (The group outlives the individual)
So on your next workshop or course, don’t forget:
- Prepare well with lesson plans and learning outcomes
- Prepare the learner by creating a comfortable and relaxed learning environment and nurture a cooperative group culture.
- Find out about participants previous knowledge and make the content relevant to their needs.
- Allow opportunities for group, pair and individual working.
- Keep the course dynamic by including lots of different teaching methods.
- Get the participants to review and refresh content often.
- Guide participants to actually start putting the learning into practice, and offer feedback or peer-2-peer sharing following these exercises
- Cater to the multiple intelligences