Teaching Teachers in a Learning Garden: Two Metaphors

Teaching Teachers in a Learning Garden: Two Metaphors


by Veronica Gaylie
University of British Columbia


There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.grow wild according to thy nature…let the thunder rumble…take shelter under the cloud…Enjoy  the land, but own it not. (Henry David Thoreau, From Walden)

How does eco-centred teacher education promote ecological ideals while transforming the teacher training process? How can a campus garden engage student teachers in environmental philosophy while promoting new metaphors for eco-centred practice?

One response to these inquiries was to build a campus “Learning Garden,” a model school garden and learning site for student teachers. Through research, physical labour and collaborative learning, the garden grew as a narrative where students learned to become teachers with heart, and earth, in mind. The Learning Garden also exposed new teachers to a concept of the land as both a physical space and an experiential learning process, concepts involving responsible land management, risk taking and community commitment.

BoxBuildingA community learning model, with garden work at the core, promoted local and global knowledge of drought, food systems and farming practices; the model inspired students to want to acquire such knowledge and experience in the first place. The garden shifted learner awareness from personal achievement to the environment itself: from student stewardship of the garden to the impact of that stewardship beyond the garden and into the world. The garden challenged assumptions of ‘teacher success’ and also some of the ideals of environmental education. It was especially the challenges that helped realign ideals and exposed students to the unpredictable processes of both teaching and the natural world.

The critical challenges of teaching teachers in the garden can be described through two metaphors: garden as (physical) environment and garden as community. The garden as environment, a literal outdoor space, involved awareness of local climate conditions and the necessity for drought tolerant plants and native species. An awareness of the garden as environment also promoted concepts of ecological and social justice, with, for example, the decision to donate produce from the garden to the local food bank.  In the garden as community, student teachers learned the importance of respecting and interacting with their location; the learning garden was (and continues to be) strongly influenced by local Okanagan Tradition, which challenged a focus on individual achievement common to most academic programming. In this way, the garden, both as physical space and as a conceptual model, also challenged the roots of teacher training.

SchoolKidsSchool Gardens in the Context of Environmental Education

David Orr (2004) calls for the integration of environmental education across the curriculum, and a Science curriculum linked to history, environmental ethics, citizenship, Globalization and first hand awareness of how scientific knowledge affects the world outside the classroom. Such a curriculum supports the belief that “…knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world.” (13)

Other environmental writings (Bowers 2006, Shiva 2005) discuss the reclamation of public space as a way of developing socially engaged, knowledgeable communities.  Shiva discusses ‘living democracies’ that promote biodiversity, local action, and ‘reinventing citizens’ and provide a solution to monoculture and socio-economic injustice. (84)

Researchers also outline the need for practical and critical understandings in school gardens and the need to examine concepts such as direct food, globalization and anthropocentric learning models. Such a need can be realized through teacher education that supports critical, eco-centred concepts with first hand experience of land and food. The garden provides a place where students can consider, up close, the threats to local food sources through global agri-business, the commoditization of a basic life source (land and seeds), and various forms of embedded knowledge that contribute to ecological damage. As gardens grow in North American schools, teacher education must prepare future teachers in critical, eco-centred methods and philosophy while exposing  them to tangible, contextual awareness of the learning process itself.

Garden as Environment

Work in the garden began with an Environmental Education class made up of student teachers and practicing teachers. While we weeded, we considered some conceptual approaches to guide the garden: sustainability (passing on the garden to future learners); interdisciplinary learning (connected learning); hands-on learning (learning by doing); xeriscape as alternative to green lawns (responding to local water issues); organic (a contextual awareness of our surroundings as ecological systems); aboriginal traditions (community minded teaching and learning); rotating stewardship (respect for future groups in the garden).  The means of developing the garden’s principles were also meant to create a tradition of discussion that would be passed on to future groups, who could discuss, change, solve or adapt the founding principles.  The basic plan was for a food/drought tolerant/flower mix that would create a blend of “beauty” and “use” while showing how native, non-native and invasive species responded to drought. If the flowers and vegetables withered due to a water shortage, and the xeriscape plants lived, students would have a visual example of the effects of drought. The plan was not to create a showcase of local plant life but to support a learning process where mistakes could bring understanding. This would be a valuable, difficult lesson for new teachers.

The idea of a “Learning Garden” took hold and local businesses eagerly made donations.  The first donation was from a local lumber yard which donated one thousand dollars of red cedar for raised  garden beds, with promises of supplying more at wholesale prices. Other local businesses in the small community recognized that their own children, and family members, would benefit from school gardens.

With so much imported produce in local grocery stores, most of it hauled by truck North on one highway, the students considered the value of maintaining local farms as a means of challenging global food trade. What were the land ethics, the issues of eco-justice involved in building large scale, permanent condo developments on fertile agricultural? What was the connection between a local garden and globalized food ethics?  How could students involve themselves in this knowledge by learning and working in school gardens?

The students engaged in conversations around the larger context of their  local work, providing a practical context for their readings in Globalization from previous course work and personal interest.  While students thought of innovative ways to bring this knowledge to their own classrooms, the method of linking local and global concepts through hands-on learning would challenge teacher education focused on performance standards, organizational abilities and classroom management. By learning in the garden, and in considering the role of the garden in the local and global agricultural community, students began challenging their own teacher training.

PondThe Pond

The garden is located next to a pond filled with a variety of migratory ducks, red-winged blackbirds and other wildlife. One early idea was to use the pond to water the garden, using a pump.

What was the environmental impact of draining the pond? How did we interfere with goals for long term, sustainable land and water use by removing water from the pond? Why was our first impulse in moving toward sustainable land management to destroy it? What previous learning had lead us to seek short term gains, while destroying other life forms?  Leaving the pond alone seemed like an obvious, ecoliterate choice; however the process of coming to this decision was our first instance where a practical need lead directly to questions of environmental ethics. The shift from seeking solutions to asking questions about ecological justice began with contextual awareness, occurring organically within community, within the decision making process itself. Students learned that eco-centred decisions require a constant, conscious effort to weigh the ecological impact of human actions within an ethical framework of ecological justice.

A second example of contextualized decision making occurred when the students developed their garden design plans. The designs were placed on a screen in the classroom, and included a mix of hand-drawn symbols, squares, circles, combined with computer generated garden designs.  One design clearly stood out: it was irregularly shaped, with the exterior parameter of the garden bulging into and oddly shaped arc.  This design was in the actual, irregular shape of the land itself, with areas drawn for garden beds which lead out from a (natural, tree-shaded) classroom area to the composter and soil areas. The plan was organic, irregular, and fit the imperfectly shaped land perfectly. The students were beginning to work with the land by listening to the land itself.

PIC_0379Garden as Community

A community model of teaching and learning grows from school gardens. Instead of prizing ‘ownership’ of land or ideas, the learning garden was focused on an ideal of shared local knowledge. The new cohort of students typically wanted a quick, practical route to becoming teachers. Most of the students had recently completed four year undergraduate degrees in single teaching specialties; they were conditioned by an academic system of independent achievement and individualized recognition. Students emerged from academic undergraduate conditioning and most wanted to know instead of learn in a learning garden. When I told the students they would be developing curricula, methods and lesson plans around native plants, global education, local food and other eco-centred issues, a handful seemed interested.  One student told me: “I hate nature.”  During the second garden cohort, ideals for an eco-centred, community model of teacher education seemed at odds with a college system biased towards grades and individual stamina and success. In Spring, a dedicated group of the middle school cohort, post-practicum, continued building the infrastructure of the garden by building up the soil and designing the beds. We learned of a plan to drain the pond to make way for the new business/engineering building.  Our very presence seemed to challenge the land development that suddenly surrounded us on campus. When I told the students, they wondered how a campus that prides itself on ‘sustainability’ could consider removing a pond. The argument for removing the pond was that the pond was man-made, and therefore not ‘natural.’

The water issue found us taking personal responsibility for decisions  which would have a lasting impact. Our first lesson in making positive, conscious decisions for the garden, taught us the importance of listening to all members before making decisions. The land taught us to stay still. And listen.

The students and I were suddenly aware of the power structures that surrounded us. One student offered to live in a raft on the pond in order to save it from destruction.  At this time, we learned the challenges of building eco-centred community within previous, existing models of learning.  We experienced the growing pains of eco-centred teacher education; their academic, undergraduate education had not nurtured a collaborative learning model and, through eco-centred teacher education, the students and I learned, with some difficulty, how to build community from scratch.

What is the role of a teacher educator in guiding student teachers toward community based, eco-centred learning? Planning the garden, then planning and replanting the garden during the second teacher education cohort, brought forward the importance of process. Nurturing plants from seedlings, observing their growth, at the same time students and teachers learn from the garden, is a powerful way to help future teachers learn how to learn. Initial reluctance largely gave way when students worked together to apply their knowledge. I observed how problems resolve with the literal manifestation of abstract plans and knowledge. If, for example, a student wants to plant a rose, instead of native, drought-tolerant plants, a prolonged, decontextualized discussion could ensue in a classroom environment.  In the garden, however, it is obvious that a rose in our local climate requires a lot of water and care.  Is the student willing to provide that? Is a rose practical in a desert landscape? What are the cultural assumptions that lead the students to believe a rose is ‘beautiful’ if it uses one hundred percent more water than a local plant, such as an Oregon grape? For students new to a garden, learning does not lie in certainty, but in mistakes, and in defying preconditioned notions of learning.

BigGardenDuring the first year, threats to the garden community (physical, ethical, external, internal) all somehow related to concepts of individual ownership. In a western model of education, it seems that just as people care about land, they also want to control it.  The experience of the garden as a co-operative, shared model of learning made us aware of land models based on ownership and profit. Building the garden made visible the larger learning community, and prompted new understandings of the role of teacher education within that model. Is the role of a teacher educator simply to teach students how to exert control over all other natural species, including their students?  As Wendell Berry (2002) states, a community “…must change in response to its own changing needs and local circumstance, not in response to motives, powers, or fashions coming from elsewhere.” (163)  When learning supports peace, community, and environmental awareness, new values emerge that help learners make ecologically just decisions that challenge ingrained learning patterns. In this way, a garden challenges teacher education at its very roots.

“Hope Trumping Despair”

The story of the learning garden is about the impact of local, small scale actions on larger systems.  One school garden, with sometimes just a single teacher’s involvement, can produce far reaching effects.

Garden-based teacher education puts the ideals of environmental education into practice. Conceptualizing new forms of eco-centred teacher education also helps remove the myth of control and knowledge “ownership” for new teachers. It would be impossible for one person to build and maintain a school garden, and it would be purposeless, since land cultivation is always rooted in a process of shared knowledge. A school garden is always, simultaneously, environment and community.

BuildingStairsAs David Orr and others have stated, while it is vital to inform students of the scientific facts about environment, it is even more important to change the ways of living and thinking that have contributed to environmental destruction. Working in the garden teaches teachers to approach the land in the same way they might approach their students, taking a holistic, process-oriented approach. Such a community depends on individuals succeeding within and for the survival of the community; in working the land, students see how their efforts helped the land produce at a level that is sustainable, in context, with minimal impact on surroundings. In a garden, students are not silenced into discipline or disciplined into silence; the reasons for both talk and silence are apparent. Community becomes both the process and goal of learning. As taught in aboriginal Tradition, a garden teaches young people to also learn ‘how our actions are always tied to others, and how some actions disappoint and hurt.’ (Armstrong et al. 2000)

Beginning with visions and ideals about the land and learning, the students teachers and I grew alongside the garden: unpredictably, in the context of organic life. A garden reveals how the process of learning, rooted in the context of one’s surroundings, becomes the lesson itself. To learn in a garden with students is to be in a constant state of environmental and community activism. As veteran social activist Grace Lee Boggs states, a community garden is a sign of “hope trumping social despair” at the grass roots level where we ‘regain our humanity in practical ways.’

Veronica Gaylie, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, has worked as a high school English teacher and is now a teacher educator in interdisciplinary, ecology-based learning. She is the founder of the learning garden at UBC Okanagan.

Higher Education’s Role in Creating a Sustainable World


by Carol Brodie


There are over 4,000 institutions of post-secondary and higher education in the United States, with over 14 million students.  In 1999, 2.3 million degrees were handed out. These technical schools, colleges, universities, and professional schools prepare the majority of the professionals who will work, teach, and live in our towns and cities.  The graduates of these institutions will affect future generations by their example and their teachings.  Their alma maters, therefore, play an important role in how society defines its priorities and goals, and accomplishes its objectives.

Johnson and Beloff (1998) state that education is the best way to prepare future citizens to respond to an environmental agenda, and that higher education is the best place to provide that instruction. Cortese (2003) states that in order to solve some of the current and pending environmental problems, humans need to understand their impact on the earth, and their connections to the natural world.  He states that the change in thinking needed is “a sustained, long-term effort to transform education at all levels” and that “higher education institutions bear a profound, moral responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge, skills, and values needed to create a just and sustainable future.”

According to Orr (1994), one of the goals of higher education should be to prepare its graduates to be responsible citizens, including the knowledge about their place in the natural world, and the sustainable practices needed to protect that world.  However, teaching these values is not necessarily, by itself, enough — higher education should “practice what it preaches“ and make sustainability a fundamental part of its curriculum, operations and investments.

Universities function as a microcosm of society; therefore, the manner in which they carry out their day-to-day activities can be a demonstration of the ways in which we can achieve environmentally responsible living.  By looking closely its own practices, the university can set an example in sustainability, and engage students in understanding the ecological footprints institutions and individuals leave (Abate et al., 1995).

A movement was begun towards these ends in 1990.  In order to attempt to define and promote the concept of environmental sustainability in higher education, the Talloires (pronounced Tal-Whar) Declaration was created. The president of Tufts University convened twenty-two university leaders and nine international environmental experts in France to voice their concerns about the environmental condition of the world and to create a document that spelled out actions that colleges and universities should take to create a sustainable future. This gathering defined the importance of higher education in the following way:

“Universities educate most of the people who develop and manage society’s institutions. For this reason, universities bear profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create an environmentally sustainable future.” (Report, 1990).

The Talloires Declaration is a plan with ten “action items,” and is intentionally broad, covering the major areas of university activity: teaching, research, operations, outreach and service. The Declaration is designed to be interpreted and shaped for each individual institution. (Report, 1990).

Increasingly, universities are bringing sustainability into their curriculum, and incorporating its principles into their operations (Barlett and Chase, 2004; Cortese, 2002).  Making this change has helped them to realize economic savings and esteem amongst their peers through the greening of their campuses. As an example of savings on a larger scale, in California the state’s Sustainable Building Task Force commissioned a report to assess the costs and financial benefits of constructing sustainable buildings in the state. The report shows that it costs, on average, nearly two percent more to construct a green building than one using conventional methods. However, the energy savings realized equal more than ten times the initial investment during the life of a building, conservatively assumed to be twenty years (California Integrated Waste Management Board, 2003).

How can universities promote sustainability?  There are so many ways.  Since they are such microcosms of society, they can model green principles in every aspect of their operations.  For example, consider their physical plants.  These operations manage the physical environment in which students live and learn, and employees work.  They have enormous capabilities to save money and resources through green practices.  Native plants in the landscaping save water. Chipping and spreading green materials saves money on mulches, saves water, and reduces removal fees.  If they follow the Green Building Council’s standards for LEED certification in new and retrofitted/renovated buildings, they will discover energy savings – for example, night cooling systems and occupancy sensors reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and save universities money at the same time.

An exemplary model of sustainability in buildings can be seen at Lewis and Clark College in Portland Oregon.  Their new residence halls have been rated LEED Silver, and their new social sciences academic building (Howard Hall) is expected to be rated LEED Gold.  The new 50,000-square-foot building is expected to consume 40 percent less energy than a typical building of the same size, with raised-floor displacement ventilation and night cooling systems. Its elevator operates with 40 percent less electricity than standard elevators and does not use hydraulic fluid.  Its storm-water filtration, storage, and reuse system has already received praise from the Oregon Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Touring the building in October of 2004, I at first found its exposed steel, unpainted concrete blocks, and polished concrete to be somewhat stark; however, they have softened the effect with student art and other projects.  Howard Hall has a smaller ecological footprint than the structures it replaced, but it brings a net gain of 25 offices and 14 classrooms to the campus. Additionally, the contractors recycled more than 95 percent of the construction debris and used low-toxicity adhesives, carpet and composite wood products throughout the building.

Additionally, Lewis and Clark has a natural gas co-generation unit for electricity and for heating the school’s swimming pool.

Transportation is becoming a hot topic at universities.  Visit just about any campus today, and you will find electric carts being used by their dining services, physical plant, housing, student life – you name it.  Electric carts are just the beginning, though – universities are coming up with some very innovative – and fun! – sustainable solutions.

Let us consider the example found at the University of Oregon (UO).  UO has one of the highest concentrations of bicycle per capita in the State of Oregon, possibly the country.  This high level of bicycle use benefits the campus, the city of Eugene, and the state by reducing the usage of fossil fuels, and reducing the need for parking on the UO campus.  University campuses are facing a huge problem because of limited parking areas and increased numbers of cars.  Being in Eugene is beneficial for the campus, too, as that city has built one of the most sophisticated and highly developed bike route systems in the country.

Bicycle “taxis” are another innovative – and fun! – step that UO has taken. The Tandem Taxi Service began operating at UO during the spring term of 1997, and was first service of its kind on any college campus.   They use 2 and 3 seat bicycles to provide free evening transportation for the University Community. And in the spirit of teaching sustainable practices to our young, Tandem Taxi introduced a new program of giving children from UO’s child care program experience in riding a bicycle.

California State University at Chico has developed an extensive transportation program designed to reduce the University’s contribution of air pollutants to the valley portion of Northern California. The University has selected three transportation alternatives on which to focus, including the increased use of bicycles.  To encourage bicycle use, the campus has over 5,000 bicycle parking spots and has cooperated with the City of Chico to establish a major cross-town bicycle path that terminates at the University campus.

Food service is another area in which universities are leading the way.  For example, at the University of Portland, their food service provider, Bon Appetit, strives for sustainability by buying from local organic farms and co-ops.  Their “Farm to Fork” Program involves the purchase of produce and dairy (organic when available) from small local farms, meat purchases of grass-fed animals raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and sustainable seafood purchase principles.  They also feature recycling and energy-saving efforts such as using biodegradable disposables.

At Portland State University the Food for Thought Café is a student-run café that embodies sustainability principles.  It began in the spring of 2000 with a group of students interested in promoting sustainability in their campus food systems.  They have a community business mentor, and partner with the Western Culinary Institute which assists them with menu development and the placement of interns.  Most of the food in the café is local and grown sustainably.  Disposable materials are eliminated as much as possible, and recycling and composting are within easy reach.

Even our office practices can make a difference.  Margins on our letters and reports, for example, can save on paper and printer cartridges.  At the University of Pennsylvania a policy was set that mandated reducing margins on most university documents.  This simple and painless step saved the university over $120,000 per year (Pearce and Uhl, 2003).

University curricula are an obvious area in which universities can teach and model environmental sustainability.  Environmental studies/sciences programs and majors can be found at many universities across the country, such as Sonoma State University, The Evergreen State College, and even small private schools such as the University of the Pacific.  Environmental sustainability is also found incorporated into other university programs such as law (Hammer, 1999) and business schools (Pesonsen, 2003).

Very few teacher preparation programs include environmental education — the numbers of such programs has dropped significantly since the 1970s heyday.  This is one of the primary reasons why basic environmental education is rarely taught in K-12. Gabriel (1996) claims that one of the reasons basic environmental education is rarely taught in K-12 is that teacher preparation programs rarely include environmental content.  Gabriel identifies barriers to incorporating environmental education in higher education, and they include such factors as the disciplinary structure of higher education, and the fact that state teacher requirements do not include environmental education.  Strategies offered for influencing higher education institutions to include environmental education in their teacher prep curricula include such ideas as implementing faculty development programs in the area, establishing partnerships with local schools, developing campus environmental stewardship programs, and taking the leadership step of signing the Talloires Declaration.

So, where do we go from here?  Let us start with encouraging higher education institutions to sign the Talloires Declaration.  Then, let’s ask them to walk their talk.  They should implement faculty development programs in the environmental sciences and establish partnerships with local schools to teach our young about their own place and their planet.  Universities can implement sustainability principles in their operations, housing, purchasing, and community and campus environmental stewardship programs.  All these steps are important, and overall represent a collective intention for a sustainable future.

Carol Brodie is a doctoral student at the University of the Pacific, exploring case studies of universities at varying levels of organizational environmental sustainability.