Mental Farming: Ideas for Improving Educational Approaches

Education as Permaculture

If we are to continue creating a better world for ourselves, it is important to adapt and learn from others. This learning process never has to stop; even when one feels expert there is always more to investigate. Yet how we go about learning is also important, and looking at how we can best create a process and environment which fosters exploration and mutual benefit. Such systems are growing, especially, in the past month here in Europe, and this article will explore some innovative ways of approaching education being put into practise.

Farming the mind

Many critics of state education deem that it takes a prescriptive and quantitative approach, with the emphasis being on measurable data rather than the quality of the learners’ experience (see for example 1). In the UK, for instance, all state schools have to follow the National Curriculum, whose primary purpose is to test students’ levels to create national assessment tables (see for example 2). This system can be useful in the short term especially for parents who wish to give their children the best possible chance at getting a good job by sending them to a school with a reputation for high grades.

However, in the long term it can be seen to lead to unbalanced perspectives on life, which can precipitate mental issues in the individual and wider problems in the community (1). For example, the emphasis on measurable results means that it is more difficult to achieve high grades in those subjects where there is a definitive correct answer than history, art or drama whose grades must by measured with more subjectivity; so in Britain now a disproportionately low number of children are choosing to study maths and science (3).

These prescriptive educational approaches can be equated loosely to intensive industrial farming of the mind; focusing on measurable yields, and with little or no provision for the holistic environment. If what we need to once again reconnect with the ecosystems around us in agriculture is a more holistic approach, then the same can also be said with our learning; perhaps we need to be practising permaculture of the mind.

Why would we wish to “farm” our minds in this way? It may be more beneficial for both the individual and the ecosystem around to focus not so much on measurable data but on the learning experience as part of the journey to becoming “full-blown human beings” (4). We can practise permaculture of the mind at any age; however, this article will concentrate on those kinds of education received by children, as this is the life stage when our minds are most fertile for learning, and in many societies education is mandatory for children up to a certain age.

Echoes from the island

One example of inspiration for how to engage in such holistic mind-farming can be found in the fictional society of Pala, featuring in Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island (4). The children of Pala go to school, though as well as learning to read, write and draw they are taught meditation, how to dance out their fears and rage, self-hypnosis to help them to deal with pain, and gardening (4).

Though such practises are not yet commonplace in ‘conventional’ education systems, almost a century later we can feel echoes of such ideas reverberating around the world, perhaps now with even more resonance. In New Zealand, for example, the Garden to Table (5) programme has been running in schools since 2009 (6), inspired by Australia’s Kitchen Garden (7) programme. Pupils grow what they will eat, so learning about gardening and cooking; in the process “becoming more inquisitive and more importantly they are learning to respect their own environment and each other” (8)

This respect is key to us being considerate of our environment. Last month in the UK, the ‘Mindful Nation UK’ (9) programme was launched, part of which will involve teaching meditation as part of the school timetable (9). Recently it was stated in the UK,

of course academic achievement is important, but so too is turning out well-balanced young people who are able to fulfil all of their potential. (9);

The UK Secretary of Education

Which is very encouraging for more holistic educational approaches in the UK.

Speaking with the vegetables

I just completed a contract working at another example of permaculture education in action in Spain, where the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport this year have been running the ‘Programa de inmersión lingüística de Otoño’ [Autumn Linguistic Immersion Program] (10); a kind of week-long holiday camp where children engage every day in lessons and activities conducted only in the English language, the idea being that immersion will aid their linguistic learning process. Another aspect of the camp which I worked at was that the children were exposed to nature, and taking them on a tour of the organic garden was a part of the camp programme.

Some children I taught were perhaps seeing organic vegetables growing close-up for the first time, and the importance of this experience could be seen in their subsequent ideas about all of our food and farming and if we should change the way we grow food. As the Programme’s main aim is for the children to learn English this immersion in nature was a kind of side effect and as such the camp staff were not given much opportunity to encourage practical exploration by the children. Such things could easily be introduced, however, and the fact that the programme exists in the first place is interesting inspiration for other such ‘immersion’ camps. Why not a permaculture immersion?


The state we’re in

Organised education has many benefits and even if a system has been put in place which carefully chooses which parts of reality are to be taught, the actual teaching is still at present done by humans, who always have the capacity to transmit a more holistic perspective. However, it is also important to remember the resources which we have are not limited to those which any state can give us. Throughout Europe, ‘austerity measures’ are continuing to be introduced (see for example 11), reducing funding in many sectors including that of education. Such reductions can be seen as detrimental in the short term; though in the long term they represent a brilliant opportunity for communities to work together to create our own holistic education.


1. Illich, I, 1970. ‘De-Schooling: Why We Must Disestablish School’. – retrieved 23/11/15
2. National STEM Centre, 1990 – 1999. ‘National Curriculum: Mathematics’. – retrieved 23/11/15
3. Gray, R; Henry, J, 2009. ‘Science lessons are failing to produce next generation of top British scientists’. Daily Telegraph, 21/2/2009. – retrieved 23/11/15
4. Huxley, A, 1962. Island. Penguin Books: London
5. Garden to Table, 2015. ‘How it Operates’. – retrieved 23/11/15
6. Garden to Table, 2015. ‘The Trust’. – retrieved 23/11/15
7. Kitchen Garden Foundation, 2015. ‘About Us’. – retrieved 23/11/15
8. Hunia Williams, Environmental Team Leader, Cannon’s Creek School. Quoted on Garden to Table, 2015. ‘How it Operates’. – retrieved 23/11/15
9. Mindfulness in Schools Campaign, 2015. ‘Mindfulness Nation UK’. – retrieved 23/11/15
10. Ministerio de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, 2015. ‘Programa de inmersión lingüística de Otoño’. – retrieved 23/11/15
11. Mcintyre, A, 2015. ‘How much austerity has Europe actually endured?’ Bloomberg News, 9/7/15. – retrieved 23/11/15

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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