Category Archives: transformative learning

A Free Range Childhood, Part 2: Cultivating Action

Richard Louv is a journalist and author who recently spoke in our River City. He advocates for children spending more time in “the woods” as North Americans call wild places with lots of trees.

I did not hear him speak in W(h)anganui, but went to a talk he presented at Dartmouth College (USA) eight or nine years ago. From what I remember, he was full of facts, figures, and statistics as any good journalist would be. From what I gather he shared the same type of information during his talk here, although presumably updated.

It is not difficult to document the loss of wild places near residential housing. Nor is it difficult to document the time children spend in front of screens instead of playing in “the woods.”

But like most journos I have known over the last two decades – Chronicle staff excepted, of course – he only tells part of the story. To illustrate this point, I have to begin with a question: For what purpose should we be striving to “reconnect kids and nature”? In other words, why bother?

Here are a few answers I have heard:

To decrease behaviour problems

To get kids “out of the house”

To help develop observation skills

To encourage “respect for nature”

To ingrain an “environmental ethic”

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In my opinion, the primary purpose of providing abundant opportunities for children to spend time in nature would be as part of a greater scheme to encourage the development of ecological literacy. Simply “reconnecting kids with nature” is not sufficient, and here is where Louv misses the rest of the story.

We know that spending time in nature is insufficient to develop ecological stewards or Kaitiaki of the planet because the generations of human beings who caused the environmental degradation we now face spent considerably more time in the natural world than the current generation of children. We may have fond memories, but they do not necessarily translate into sustainable behaviours.

Interestingly, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the current generation of young adults – sometimes called Millennials or Generation Y – embrace much more sustainable lifestyles than Baby Boomers in spite of having spent less time in “the woods.” What is also interesting in that despite their eco-friendly lifestyles, most Millennials do not self-identify as “environmentalists.” Good on them.

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What could possibly explain this apparent contradiction in Louv’s “Nature Deficit” argument? The answer is simple: Recycling. Here is what I mean from a big picture perspective.

In places like New Zealand, most people who engage in sustainable behaviours do so out of a certain level of ecological literacy, which consists of environmental knowledge, an attitude of care, and the ability to act.

Don’t laugh, taking action is a real skill and goes right to the heart of the apparent difference between Boomers and Millennials. Many Millennials had educational experiences in primary school that included learning how to take action on environmental issues while most Boomers did not. The classic example is recycling.

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If you are over 50 or under 30, ask yourself this question: Was there a recycle bin in your classroom?

Learning to take action is equally important to learning to care, but neither is part of what an assessment-driven education system demands: learning da facts! As parents and teachers who want to do our best to raise sensitive children who engage positively with their environment and community, it is essential that we do not take Louv’s prescription as comprehensive but rather as part of a much larger and ongoing learning process. If we miss the big picture, then nature walks run the risk of tokenism, and we will fail to prepare this generation of children for what is predicted to be an increasingly volatile world with greater pressure on limited natural resources.

To be continued…

Peace, Estwing

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Verti’s Free-Range, Local, Organic Garlic

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the River Traders Market

Everybody Loves Us…Almost

Editor’s Note: This is one of my weekly columns for our city’s newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. I use it regularly to help facilitate transformation in our city, and to point out some of the wasteful and unsustainable practices of our council.

The last two columns told stories about our first interns, John and Amy, and how they helped us transform an abandoned villa and section full of rubbish and weeds into a little paradise of sustainability. Along the way, the process of working with us provided vital steppingstones for each of their own transformations to more sustainable worldviews.

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Transformative learning, as I pointed, is a learning theory often applied to adults that seeks to explain changes of perspective that differ drastically from those held previously.

As I have pointed out in this column with regards to Castlecliff Beach, the potential for change can be scary, and so many people resist it. Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order to undergo transformation, learners must experience a “disorienting dilemma” or “cognitive crisis.”

In a nutshell, either of these conditions present the learner with the perception of mixed messages about the world and their place in it. For example, one message might say, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” while another message says, “Western consumer lifestyles are harming the planet.” Then she or he may choose to seek out learning experiences that help change their perspectives and lifestyles accordingly.

The mixed messages that most of us observe and some of us internalize are also sometimes called “cognitive dissonance.” For example, one can smoke cigarettes while believing it to be unhealthy. Psychologists suggest that those who experience such inconsistency (dissonance) are likely to be psychologically distressed.

Well people, I’m here to say I’m psychologically distressed. No, I don’t smoke. Nor am I living a consumer lifestyle. Here is the nature of my distress.

During any week, half dozen strangers will stop me on the street and say something like, “I read your column. Keep up the good work.” Or something like, “What you’re doing is so important for Whanganui. Don’t stop.”

Additionally, our work has been praised by leading permaculturists across the country and around the world. Our Eco-Thrifty projects have been featured in national and international magazines. We have been invited to other cities to present our work. Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.06 PM

Meanwhile, it appears that certain elements of Wanganui District Council does its best to ignore the work that Dani and Verti and I do to help make our community more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Please note, I have been advised not to make blanket statements about “council”, as it is a large and diverse organization. I recognize that many council staff may feel their positions have little or nothing to do with sustainability, and that they are not the ones making what appear to be unsustainable decisions for our city.

On another level, I suppose an argument can be made that it is not the role of council to help people live healthier lives while saving money and protecting the environment. Indeed, a senior staff member indicated such in a letter rejecting funding for a Community Contract with which I was involved.

Our council cuts heritage trees, dumps raw sewage into the ocean, and spends tens of thousands of dollars pushing sand to windward on the beach while other councils around New Zealand support innovative and successful sustainability programmes that help people and the planet. Does this explain the cause of my psychological distress?

Leading up to the elections last year I asked the question in this column if “sustainability” and “environment” were dirty words in Whanganui because almost nobody standing for office used them. Evidence of council decision-making certainly supports the suggestion that they are. But this begs the question, WHY?

Given the amount of good will that comes my way and the number of people that ask me to stand for office, it would appear there is a quiet majority of citizens – including some council employees – who recognize and appreciate the win-win-win thinking that I share in this column.

Silence over the last three years on our work appears to indicate the positions of those recently re-elected politicians, but the good news is that two of the newly elected councilors have indicated an interest in sustainability: one has contacted me via Facebook and one recently attended a local Green Drinks gathering.

Could it be the early signs of transformation for WDC? Time will tell.

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Transformations: Part II

Last week I marked the three-year anniversary of the arrival of our first two interns, John and Amy. That was an opportunity to share the story of the transformation of what was once a chimney in Gonville into our brick patio in Castlecliff.

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It was also a chance to talk about transformative learning, a process by which many adults undergo a profound change in the way they view the world. In order to undergo such a major shift of thinking, learners need a nudge, which can come in the form of a ‘disorienting dilemma’ or a ‘cognitive crisis’.

In other words, something happens that renders unsatisfactory their current way of thinking. An easy example of this is a diabetes diagnosis that may force a change in ones view of diet and exercise. Other examples include the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage. It should not be hard to recognize that these would alter ones perspective on financial security and relationships.

For many people in the sustainability movement, transformative learning is sparked by a slow but cumulative body of evidence indicating that the current state of the world is unsustainable. Literally, it cannot be sustained. Trends in everything from ecosystem health to energy supplies to extreme weather events to income distribution show that we are headed for volatile times ahead.

As such, the prudent and conservative thing to do is to look for systems on our planet that are more sustainable. For example, a forest ecosystem experiences a dynamic balance of plant and animal populations as well as materials recycling.

Observing such systems has led to the development of eco-design strategies such as permaculture. As one would expect, many adults experiencing a ‘cognitive crisis’ about the damage that Western consumer culture is inflicting on the planet and many of its people turn to permaculture as an alternative worldview.

Because I knew John-the-intern before he came to us three years ago, I expected that he was already well on his way to developing an alternative worldview. But Amy came to us more or less as a stranger. When she left many months later, not only was she a friend, but also a young woman on a mission. Screen shot 2014-02-22 at 7.23.58 AM

For Amy, it all started when she picked up a hammer and built us a fence. This was an empowering experience for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, she chose the project herself from a long list of options. Second, I set her up for success by providing enough structure that the project could be accomplished with her limited building experience at the time. Third, it looks awesome!

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In the same way that John transformed a chimney into a patio, Amy transformed our former deck into a beautiful and functional fence. Also like John, her experience served as a steppingstone along a path to a more sustainable worldview. Two and a half years after she left us, that path recently led Amy to the International Permaculture Congress in Cuba in December of 2013.

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Interesting how transforming our little villa here in Whanganui has helped transform a few young minds along the way.

Peace, Estwing


We’ve just passed the third anniversary of the arrival of our first two interns. John Wright was a former student of mine from my high school teaching days, and Amy Lamb came to us through her uncle, a good friend and groomsman at our wedding. They were both in their early twenties when they arrived in Whanganui in late summer, 2011.

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 We were in the heart and guts of our renovation: ripping open walls, adding insulation, hanging Gib and weatherboards, installing solar hot water. Much of what we were doing at that time required close supervision, as it would be scrutinized by our building inspector. I’ll admit I was a bit of a taskmaster, which went over better with John than with Amy.

John had come to us straight after 4 months on a lobster boat off the coast of Maine through a Northern winter. Amy was fresh out of uni, and looking for a gap year type of experience.

By the time they left us, both had experienced transformative learning experiences on different levels. John returned to the states and immediately took up a lease on a two-acre organic vegetable farm. Amy took a job with a conservation organization, enrolled in a permaculture design course, and now works with a sustainable forestry consultant.

Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order for one to transform their perspective they must first recognize that something is wrong with their current perspective, then look for alternatives, and eventually adopt a new worldview. For those like John and Amy, the Western consumer lifestyle messages bombarding them on a daily basis did not satisfy their need for meaning.

They came to us and experienced some alternative worldviews such as sustainability, permaculture, and what we call eco-thrifty living. For the first month they spent with us, most of their ‘transformative learning’ took place outside of our nine to five workday dictated by the NZ Building Code. It took place over the dinner table, in the garden, and even during our weekly trips to Hayward’s Auctions.

But as the pressure of pre-line and post-line inspections waned, I allowed John and Amy to select from a long list of non-consent jobs to engage with while I got back to writing my PhD thesis.

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After building our outdoor pizza oven together, John embarked on laying second-hand brick for our patio and Amy set herself to constructing a fence. I’ll share John’s experience this week and Amy’s next week.

In my 14-year teaching career, John was one of my top 10 favourite students. Although not a strong academic, he always worked hard, had fun, and was open to new ideas. He was just an awesome kid.

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I had no problem telling him to build me a patio and trusting he would do a good job. The bulk of the work involved carting many wheelbarrows of sand to fill and level out the trench beneath the former deck that was full of rubble and rubbish. John was the perfect candidate for this job because he was strong as a horse, but also carefully used a leveling line to place each brick. John took ownership for the job and followed through with an amazing result more or less on his own.

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The project is a good example of eco-thrifty renovation because it involved second-hand materials, local materials, and free materials. With a little vision, hard work and patience, the bricks that made up a chimney in a Gonville home are now our patio in Castlecliff. What a transformation.

Times for Permaculture

There is a fantastic article on permaculture in the New York Times that is well worth reading.
I especially love the Lexus ad at the top of the page.

Of particular interest to me as an educator are the many references to transformative learning experiences that tend to accompany peoples’ discovery of permaculture. Permaculture is a holistic, regenerative design system that can be applied to rehabilitating degraded land…
Transformed from a weed-infested yard full of rubbish.

…a falling down house…
Transformed from the verge of collapse to a warm, cozy home.
…or a dysfunctional, unsustainable culture.
The belief in perpetual growth without consequences must be overcome.
For learners of all ages, permaculture can be both the journey and the destination. And the truth is, we never really arrive. It is all about embracing certain levels of sustainability, peace of mind, and joy. Here are a few gems I picked out of the article that just might make their way into my dissertation. (See link above for source.)

“It’s an ecological theory of everything,” Mr. Cody said.

The ethic of permaculture is the movement’s Nicene Creed, or golden rule: care of the earth; care of people; and a return of surplus time, energy and money, to the cause of bettering the earth and its people.

In its effort to be universal, permaculture espouses no religion or spiritual element. Still, joining the movement seems to strike many of its practitioners as a kind of conversion experience.

As a system, permaculture impressed him as panoptic and transformational. “It shook my world,” Mr. Pittman said.

“I don’t know that anyone has ever done a double-blind study of permaculture,” said Mr. Pittman of the national Permaculture Institute. “Most people in permaculture are not that interested in doing those kinds of studies. They’re more interested in demonstrating it. You can see the difference in species diversity and yield just by looking at the system.”

As Mr. Weiseman observed, permaculture may be a “leap of faith.” But not leaping might have its own consequences.

“We know what’s right,” Mr. Weiseman said. “We know what’s best. We feel this thing in our bones and in our heart. And then we don’t do anything about it. Or we do. And I did. And it’s bearing fruit.”

And I thought all the NYT was good for was mulching the garden…
Peace, Estwing