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9 Sep 2013

The best course I ever did, and 11 Top Tips for creative teaching

Over the next few days we will be sharing the winning three stories in our Transition Training competition of courses people did that changed their lives.  I thought it might be a good idea to start with my story of the course that impacted me the most in my life so far. 

In June 2001, I got off the bus in a small village in Lancashire, with a rather heavy bag and in somewhat inclement weather, to walk up the hill to Middlewood, a permaculture project set atop a hill in beautiful woodland.  The walk was considerably longer than I had anticipated, the road, seemingly to nowhere, seemed to stretch on for miles.  Eventually I made it there in a somewhat sweaty blather, and found my bunk in the Study Centre, a beautiful building clad in timber from the site, graced, at its heart, by the first masonry stove I had ever seen (see right). 

The masonry stove in the Middlewood Study Centre ('teacher' Rod Everett can be seen emerging from behind it).

The reason for my trek was to do a course called Teaching Permaculture Creatively, led by Rod Everett.  I had recently got a copy of the book of the same name, by Robin Clanfield and Skye, and had been deeply impressed by its approach.  I was just about to start teaching the Practical Sustainability course at Kinsale Further Education College and was seeking an immersion in different approaches to teaching. 

Middlewood was a stunningly beautiful place.  The community there lived mostly in yurts adapted for year-round living, and many worked the land and managed the woods.  There were reed beds, gardens, innovative buildings, off-the-grid renewables and so on.  There was also a beautiful river, woods to get lost in, and the Study Centre had a fantastic library of permaculture books.  And, of course, there were the other course participants, permaculture teachers drawn from across the country.

The Middlewood Study Centre, with the yurt we studied in to the right.

The course itself took place in a large yurt, in the round.  One of the early exercises that really stuck with me was when we got into pairs, and were asked to discuss and list things we are good at.  Once each person had done this, we were then asked to reflect on how it was that we became good at those things.  Did we do a course?  Did we teach ourselves from books?  Did we seek out people who could teach us?  There are many ways in which we seek out what we need to learn, and, as Rod argued, the role of the teacher is to enable people to learn through the whole spectrum of ways in which we learn, not just the sitting-down-and-listening-to-a-teacher way. 

We were also introduced to the Learning Pyramid, and how much information people retain depending on the way in which information is presented, and how the best way for people to retain something is for them to teach it to someone else.  Putting this chart up alongside how most learning takes place in schools and universities is pretty sobering.  

What most impressed me was how much of the course, how much of the learning, happened without your being aware that it was happening.  That realisation came later though.  By the afternoon of the second day I was feeling really pissed off.  It felt like all we had done up to that point was chat, go for a walk around the site looking at things, chatted, eaten and wandered around a bit more.  When were we actually going to start learning stuff?  When would the teaching start?  When I mentioned this, Rod got us into pairs to reflect on what we could remember in terms of what we had done that afternoon. 

Sure enough, it turned out we had learnt an astonishing amount of stuff.  The 15 minutes we had spent chatting next to the reed bed actually, it turned out, had furnished me with an understanding of how the whole system had worked, to the point where I could draw a fairly accurate diagram of it. It also left me with a real grasp of soil fertility, the use of different plants in capturing nutrients, and how to use those plants.  And I had thought we were just having a chat.

The 10 minutes sheltering from the rain in the woodshed had left me with a thorough understanding of how reciprocal frame roofs work, and of seasoning timber for optimal efficiency in wood stoves.  Popping in to visit one of the families and chatting to them in front of their woodstove had taught lots about yurt construction, wood heating and adapting yurts to year-round living in the north of England. 

The reciprocal frame roof in the shed.

Enjoying the view from the sloped field and seeing the newly-planted orchard there provided a lot of insight into designing for slopes, working with gradients and so on.  The stroll back across the site, and the conversations on the walk had yielded a real appreciation of how the site’s designers had applied the permaculture principle of zoning.  Even the salad when we got home, and the explanation of what was in it (the leaves and flowers of 24 different plants) was an education. 

But none of it had been formally taught.  No flipcharts, powerpoint slides, no teacher at the front of the classroom, no instructional videos or (heaven forbid) exams.  In part we had taught ourselves, in part Rod had very skilfully introduced us to ideas, engaged us in conversation, without our realising we were formally being taught anything.  That was a revelation. 

The course continued in that vein, and included some great exercises and approaches that I went on to use in my teaching.  Here are 11 of my favourites:

  1. Start the course with a wishlist:  start on the first day by inviting people to suggest what it is they need from the course, what they would want to have covered in order to leave feeling completely satisfied with it by the end.  Stick the list on the wall, and then during the course once something he been covered, check that everyone feels it has been covered to everyone’s satisfaction and then cross it off.  Ideally at the end of course everything will have been ticked. 
  2. Start each day with a revision: we started every day with a reflection over what we had done the previous day.  This was a powerful exercise, arriving in the morning unable to remember much of what had happened the previous day, but bringing it all back to mind was very helpful.  This can be done in different ways.  It could just be getting people into pairs, a 5 minute each way ‘Think and Listen’ (one person talks, the other just listens, and after 5 minutes they swap over), it could be a guided visualisation, an imaginary walkthrough of the day (“first we did this, then we did that”), or an imaginary walkthrough but backwards, starting at the end of the day and running through to the morning.  To bring everyone’s mindfulness back to where we are and what we’ve already done is a great way to start the day, especially if followed by the opportunity to ask questions relating to the previous day’s content. 
  3. Collectively document the course:  one of the things I loved was that every day, two people volunteered to keep a record of the day’s activities, a master set of notes if you like.  This took the pressure off everyone to take their own notes.  At the end of every day, two people huddled together around a table pulling their notes together and producing beautifully presented notes with drawings, notes and mindmaps to capture the day’s learnings.  By the end of the course the entire thing had been captured in this way, and then 3 weeks after the course, when it might have been starting to slip from your memory, the printed copy of the manual of your course popped through the letterbox.  Beautiful. 
  4. Role plays: one day we did a role play, where everyone had a card, setting out their character and their point of view on an issue.  As I remember, our scenario was that we were holding a planning appeal for a local alternative school, with us each representing different person at the appeal.  We all set to the debates with great gusto in our characters, Rod afterwards commenting on how many of the issues raised and dynamics from the actual appeal had also come up in our pretend one.  I have often used this approach since, it can be a very powerful way of exploring complex issues. 
  5. Certificates and ‘affirmation shields’:  at the end of the course, we were given our certificates, but rather than just being signed by the teacher, they were signed by all the participants.  Before they were presented, everyone was given a sheet of paper and asked to write their name on it and to do a drawing of themselves.  Then we went around and on everyone else’s sheet we wrote something we had really enjoyed about spending time with that person.  When that was done, the ceremony of awarding certificates went thus: the teacher presented the first person with their certificate and their affirmation shield, that person then presented the next person, and so on and so on. 
  6. We are all teachers: on a couple of days of the course we each had to prepare a 20 minute session, sharing one of the exercises that we used as permaculture teachers that we felt represented this creative approach.  The rest of the group then were invited to give feedback, which was really useful.  This gave an introduction to a range of approaches which people had already tried out in the courses they had been teaching. 
  7. ‘Get into pairs’: I loved the way that even simple tasks could be turned into fun activities, energy boosts for when eyelids start drooping, or learning opportunities.  Each time we needed to get into pairs, a different way of doing that was used.  For example, one time we were each secretly given the name of an animal, told to mingle around in the middle of the room, close our eyes, and then find our partner by making that animal’s noise.  Another way, at the start of a session about trees and woodlands, was that on the floor in the middle of the room was a circle of leaves.  Everyone was invited to choose a leaf that appealed to them.  They were then told that someone else in the room has the same leaf, and by seeing what everyone else has, to find that person.  Once in pairs, they were asked to identify the leaf, and if they couldn’t the rest of the group was asked to.  One time we were stood next to a long, thin log lying on the ground.  We were told we all had to jump up onto it, otherwise the crocodiles would get us.  Up we hopped, and were then told that, without putting our feet on the ground (and thereby feeding the crocodiles) we were to arrange ourselves in the order of our birthdays, January this end, December that end.  Much manoeuvring and clambering ensued, and then that line of people was divided into twos to form pairs. 
  8. Improvise – do the unexpected: one of my favourites of the sessions where we taught each other was when Ken (I think it was Ken), started by asking for everyone’s coats and jumpers.  In the middle of the room he used them to build a 3D model of a landscape, with valley, slopes and different features.  He then used this to lead a session about slope and aspect, how to use land in different ways depending on its gradient, where to plant forests, as well as a talk about keylining and how to move water around in such a landscape.  I loved the spontaneity of it, and that added frisson of “what’s he going to do with my coat?”, rather similar to when a magician asks for your watch. 
  9. Good food: Never underestimate how important good food is on a course.  I have been on crap courses with great food which have generated very little in the way of complaints, and likewise on great courses where the room is cold and the food is poor, and believe me, things can unravel pretty quickly under those circumstances!  The food at Middlewood was great, especially the bread. 
  10. Keep it changing: different people learn in different ways.  Some learn from listening to someone speaking, others really don’t.  Many people have an attention span of about 15-20 minutes, anything beyond that you start losing people.  So get up, move around.  One of the things I took back to my teaching was that spirit of “right let’s go outside and do the next bit under a tree”.  When I was teaching in Kinsale, we’d often do a short session in class, then go outside, do something practical, play a game, go back in the classroom, break into pairs to reflect on what we had learned, and so on. 
  11. “If you’re tired, have a snooze”:  At the beginning of the course, Rod pointed out that there was a mattress in the yurt, and that if any of us felt sleepy and wanted a snooze, to just go and sleep.  His logic was that if you are battling to keep your eyes open you aren’t learning anything, that this course is also a break from busy lives, and on balance, over the course, you will learn much more if you rest when you need to than if you flog on regardless.  In the early days of the course in Kinsale, I had a mattress in the corner, until the number of students became too big and there wasn’t room for it any more. 

That’s 11, although I’m sure there were many more.  If ever a course shifted my sense of how to do something, that was it.  Twelve years later I feel I’m still digesting the learnings from it.  

Robin Clayfield and Skye’s Manual of Teaching Permaculture Creatively is available from Ecologic Books here.  




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