Patterns for Experiential Learning

Co-Authored by Laura Killingbeck

How do we learn? When we engage with new information, what enhances or inhibits our ability to move it from our short-term working memory to our long-term reference memory? Each individual learns in different ways: visual, auditory, tactile, etc, but at the heart of all these mechanisms lie a few shared roots. The power to tap into these roots of learning is what makes it possible to turn information into true understanding and wisdom over time.

We have all used a tool – a keyboard, chisel, knife, guitar – until it literally feels like an extension of our body. The understanding of that usage is now built into our reference memory. No one has to remind us how to play an F chord, nor do we have to consider where to place our fingers. This is the sphere of learning we should strive for in our most crucial endeavors, such as growing our own food or constructing our homes.

A recent workshop on the art and practice of fermentation.
A recent workshop on the art and practice of fermentation.

A case study: Racho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center

It is with these constructs in mind that we reflect on and examine the role of learning within Rancho Mastatal Sustainability Education Center as a successful permaculture education model. Located in rural Costa Rica, and operating since 2001, an overview of the project can be seen here.

Fifteen years ago, Rancho Mastatal began building its infrastructure with the help of short-term volunteers and students who benefited from their experience in an exciting and dynamic community. Today the Ranch’s programming has successfully evolved to offer both long and short-term learning opportunities. As this process unfolded, the core team at the Ranch began to pull apart the variations of short and long-term learning by examining the questions: How do we teach so students leave inspired? And how do we teach so students deeply learn?

This evolution and inquiry is not unique to the Ranch. Many of our friends and colleagues with similar education programs have also transitioned or are in the process of transitioning from short-term to long-term or short-long combination models. This progression is a natural evolution for educational programs that grow from the ground up; are small enough to adapt quickly; and have the resilience to adjust to the type of transformation that an adaptive model entails. Understanding what your educational program can provide as well as what it requires from participants is the fulcrum point for forward momentum.

A glimpse into the life of a Rancho Mastatal apprentice.
A glimpse into the life of a Rancho Mastatal apprentice.

Short and long term learning opportunities

Early in the project the Ranch was in need of unskilled labor for building initial infrastructure. Mixing cob, hauling wood, and sanding furniture were common simple tasks. Much of the work was self-directed with guidance from outside course instructors. Many of the tasks could be learned and mastered speedily. The Ranch benefited from this labor, and the volunteers benefited from the excitement and spark of being able to participate in something new. It was a conducive surrounding for volunteers staying a minimum of three weeks.

As the campus and systems grew and matured, it became unmistakable that the minimum stay needed to increase. With beautiful infrastructure and interwoven agriculture systems, Ranch instructors were able to engage participants with a much deeper understanding and skill base. However, it also took more time to teach participants the context that would allow them to be good decision makers in their tasks. A three-month internship was defined and the same process continued, until once again there was an acknowledgment that as the Ranch matured it took individuals longer and longer to become part of its ecosystem. Today, in order to furnish our site’s needs, our programs are highlighted by a year-long apprenticeship and a four-month Natural Building Certificate.

Short-term learning opportunities can give participants an introduction to new ideas, the experience of a new place and people, and the igniting spark of inspiration. Intensive short-term programs also deliver substantial information and valuable alliances and networks. These are good things, necessary things, and form a foundation for expansion of permaculture as a global design system. And as we move forward with this expansion, there is increasingly room for longer term learning opportunities which give participants the repetition and experience which foster continued deep learning.

A one-week volunteer cannot translate the intricacies of the Ranch’s current food system. From the design and layout of orchards to maintenance regimes to harvest and food processing schedules – these are complex systems. They require time to engage with and understand. Yet they all began with humble foundations built in large part by short-term volunteers over many years. This process of transition and the ability to adapt to changing needs as your program grows (and offer new and different opportunities that your program can successfully deliver) is becoming an essential part of permaculture education programs worldwide.

The apprentice team focused on their furniture joinery.
The apprentice team focused on their furniture joinery.

A pattern language for experiential learning

While much of this has been a natural progression over a decade and a half of growth, some of this change was also due to the inherent limitations of a two-week natural building or permaculture design course. This style of course provides tremendous value through inspiration, information, and introduction to a new topic, but then often ends there, without support for continuing practice. After years of development, the core team at the Ranch found ourselves with an opportunity to give learners an additional focus on practice and understanding of systems building from “foundation to roof” through experiential practice. We found that practice was the crucial catalyst that transformed our participants’ inspiration, idealism, and new skills, into reality.

The Ranch greatly values and adheres to the principles of experiential learning. Reading or learning about how to do something is a useful tool, but unless you practice what you have learned, it remains a tool unused. Our pattern language for experiential learning is based on the concepts below.

1.Build solid foundations.

Complex systems are built upon solid foundations of simple, humble, tasks– you have to learn to sharpen your chisel before you can build a timber framed house. After time you may be surprised when you step away from your “simple” tasks and find you have already built something complex.

2.Recognize learning patterns.

Our program is designed to follow a sequential learning pattern of 1) learning; 2) practicing; 3) teaching; and 4) managing. Each stage of this pattern will challenge and enforce the depth of your skill set. Be prepared to transition your skills into new settings and levels of understanding.

3.Own your skills.

Learn something deeply enough to take with you when you go, not just use while you are here. Ask yourself frequently, what skills do I own now? What skills do I want to own by the time I leave?

4.Value direct engagement.

The Ranch’s experiential education programs are based on direct engagement with the physical world. We believe you can’t truly learn how to plant a tree without actually planting it. Remember that the skills you develop will be embedded in direct engagement with the Ranch’s functioning systems.

5.Find the teachable moments.

Learning is everywhere, and it’s often most effective in the field. Your instructors will pass on new skills and information at times when they are not officially “teaching”. Take time each day to reflect on moments when you learned something new.

6.Learn to fail better.

Not everything will go right the first time, or the second. Challenge yourself to recognize failures as opportunities to learn. As you practice new skills, practice them well—don’t repeat patterns that don’t give you the result you want.

7.Create solutions.

In the face of any challenge, you have the power to create solutions. Community living and experiential education are sculpted by individuals’ and groups’ ability see themselves as solution builders.

8.Be a part of the whole.

The Ranch facilities were built by a network of thousands of people who contributed a part of their lives to build something greater than themselves. As an apprentice you become a part of this larger network. What will you leave behind? How will you utilize this network as you move forward?

By focusing on the above in our programs, we invite students to engage and learn deeply.

The rainy season work of planting taro.
The rainy season work of planting taro.

From foundation to roof—next steps

The word “apprenticeship” connotes a graduation to a next level such as a journeyman. The end of our year-long apprenticeship and four month Natural Building Certificate is merely the beginning of a participant’ journey. They have transplanted vast amounts of information from their working memory to their reference memory, forming the cornerstones of knowledge and understanding. The next step after this is crucial in shaping this opportunity into a career or livelihood.

The Ranch’s long-term goal is to render these next steps through our design/build consulting business. Our team offers permaculture design services for clients, such as developing conceptual site plans or providing advice for construction techniques in the humid tropics. We often do not have the capacity to direct the implementation of this work. Our vision is to connect our apprentices with these projects and bring them on board to manage the implementation. This would result in real-world, real-time experience, challenges, and compensation. It would cement the deep learning built upon the groundwork of our programs. Undoubtedly, we are a number of years away from the finalization of this integration, but with the goal in mind and the pattern language of learning in place, this can become reality.

This type of learning and real world experience is required in the permaculture sphere. We must become more than course junkies, forum readers, and facebook friends. We can take these patterns of experiential learning and apply them across disciplines to encourage a profound learning that will transform inspiration and idealism into reality on both a small and large scale.

We need permaculture education programs that engage learners from all perspectives—both short and long-term, and in as many different ways as possible.

A mixed timber frame, wattle and daub earthen wall, and bamboo shower.
A mixed timber frame, wattle and daub earthen wall, and bamboo shower.

Natural Building Certificate at Rancho Mastatal—August 2016

Interested in taking a deeper look at natural building from foundation to roof to walls? Consider joining the team at Rancho Mastatal in August 2016 as we construct a 500 sq foot timber frame and earthen wall cabin. The aim of this program is for participants to learn all the skills necessary to build their own home!

For more information please see our website here.

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