By Rowe Morrow, NSW Regional Meeting

‘A demanding and uncertain adventure’ is the title of the Backhouse Lecture which Rowe Morrow will present at Yearly Meeting 2011. Rowe will recount her life’s journey under concern for Earth restoration. In this article for The Australian Friend, Rowe reflects on how her Quaker faith has influenced the way she teaches permaculture.

People often start permaculture courses lacking in confidence, depressed, disempowered, sceptical, disillusioned and angry and finish them, having found new paths to move ahead through engagement in their neighbourhoods and the environment.

Some of these outcomes derive from relevant content, but I have found the teaching and learning methodology is just as important.

The big excitement in my life as an adult teacher was meeting the minds and hearts of Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and Parker Palmer, and applying the processes of AVP and Quaker listening to teaching.

I came from a generation where teachers regarded students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. In the late 1960s I experienced the worst of this kind of teaching at Sydney University. The lecturer walked in, sometimes said good morning, took up a piece of chalk, and by the end of the lecture had filled nine blackboards. Dull and resentful, I slept and wrote and slept.

Then in 1973 at Reading University, I learned how Paulo Freire had enabled Brazilians of the favelas to participate in political life and demand social justice by asking them questions about why their lives were the way they were, and then encouraging them to ask questions themselves to find a better way forward in their lives.

Soon after, I met Ivan Illich in Lesotho where he offered the Government Education Department a new and radical style of teaching and
learning. Illich posited self-directed education supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements. He wanted educational
webs which heighten the opportunity for each person to transform each moment of their living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

Although by then a humanitarian worker committed to helping people access knowledge and skills, I had no idea how to achieve these goals.
Agricultural Science was reductionist and depended upon trials. I returned to Sydney and completed a permaculture course and a diploma in non-formal adult education. I launched myself into a new career as a permaculture teacher at the Katoomba Day and Evening College with eight students.

I was putting into practice methods developed by Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, I was completely committed to non-formal education, but something was lacking. Then, about 1996 I was introduced to Parker Palmer’s concepts, such as education is a spiritual journey and listening someone into being. Through his book To know as we are known, Palmer introduced me to the three parties present in the classroom: the teacher, the students and the content. So I had permaculture and, I felt, a spiritual vocation to teach it.

It was through the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) that I found a concrete process to develop a spiritual, learning community focused
on land restoration and abundance. AVP is enabling. It listens to the voices of participants; it is experiential, transparent, accountable and brings social equality to a class. The AVP process is a superb ‘carrier’ of the permaculture content and brings peace into a classroom while building trust, respect and community.

There are moments of worship-sharing after which everyone sits in silence, and moments of transforming power when people cry or laugh. It has reliable techniques and strategies, such as using an agenda for each topic, a gathering to ensure each person is able to speak without interruption, small group sharing, and practical work with everyone participating.

Most of my working life has been with women, because so often it is women, especially women who work the land, whose voices are not heard. Focused listening gives voice to the voiceless. Listening permits people to establish their existence, and to hear and clarify their thoughts and intentions. It is a powerful teaching method. Equally so is teaching participants to listen to each other.

In some countries, women often do not speak while men or people of higher status are present. Men have sometimes tried to block women’s participation in the course. Holding to the main issue, I insisted that half the class must be women. It was also AusAID policy, I added. ‘Impossible,’ they claimed. I told them we could not hold the course. ‘We have found the womens’, they reported next day.

Many Vietnamese, African and Khmer women speak extremely quietly, or not at all, in class. When I asked the women about their everyday experiences of farming (and they were all farmers), I was astounded to be met with silence. So I introduced sessions called Preliminary
Shouting, which we practised twice a day. In hindsight, I think this was the activity they most enjoyed.

During a permaculture course in Cambodia, women claimed they couldn’t run for positions on local commune committees because they
were too nervous to speak out. We began to work on public speaking through the course content. From discussing pigs and ricefields the women graduated to political environmental issues. The results were evident in the elections when a greater percentage of women
were elected to commune councils in this province than in the rest of the country.

Learner-centred education welcomes and encourages critical doubt. It makes me reflect whether what I say is truthful and accurate. In a group debate it enlists moral views and shares experience. Thinking about the global situation enables comparisons of different cultures and understanding limits.

A seamless synthesis in my life had now been achieved between a message, permaculture, and a carrier, adult learning. I regard such synchronicity as a miracle.

Under these influences I rewrote the permaculture syllabus as a beginner’s text because I could see the need. This was Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture. I then wrote a Teacher’s Guide to
Permaculture for other struggling beginner teachers like myself. Again, I could see the need.

Building learning communities

One goal of adult learning methodologies is to grow a learning community in an environment fair to everyone. To achieve this, learners must
talk to each other, exchange experiences and develop respect for difference. At the beginning of the course I have the attention of the class, but gradually I bring them into relationship with the challenges of the content. Students learn to listen to each other and the content.

For example, when the unique place of water, its ethics and importance to life is introduced, I want to attract the learner’s attention and respect for the topic. I introduce the known facts about water and then open a discussion. As students become proficient and build their learning community, they turn to each other for experience, knowledge and support. These exchanges lead to understanding and often sympathy for others. My role changes; I step back to become a reference and mentor.

Participants arrive at courses usually carrying their experiences of a formal school environment, or, if illiterate, no experience at all. They may be nervous about holding a pencil. At first they sit quietly, waiting to be told what to do and when. The change comes when they realise that learning will be a sharing process, that their experience is important, and that they have options and can make choices. Some will learn to become better listeners, others to speak their truth, their doubts and passions.

A safe learning environment is created. Drawing on AVP, a Care Code is set up in the first session on the first day. This is a technique for conflict resolution and fairness. Students also watch, and sometimes provoke, situations to see how you, the facilitator, will handle conflicts or a difficult person. We revert to the Care Code if necessary and ask for class resolution.

We begin talking together about our hopes, fears and the problems we now face globally and locally, and they see they are not alone. Through
discussion, tentative community bonds form as students begin to consider all the factors of their lives and what is required to transform them. They start to make links between themes such as destruction and repair, depletion and abundance through analysis and synthesis, which together are design. Generative themes such as water, soil degradation, forests and ecology move from general to particular, from the
design to the detail.

The course continues with dialogue, handing over the chalk, sitting in circles, speaking thoughtfully and listening well. The best learning evolves from the shuffle between action and theory. Participants encourage each other to think about, discuss and practise social and physical Earth ethics. They acquire their voices and get blisters on their hands.

Participants are required to complete two assignments. They are provocative, exciting and use analytic skills to weld all the nature variables of weather, soil, microclimate, plants, animals, wildlife, weeds and even potential disasters.

The first task is to make a comprehensive design of a familiar site, preferably their home. This is the time of
analysis. Once they have been guided to progressively gain skills through the first half of the course, they work together
in groups of no more than five people to prepare a design for a much larger site. This is the time of synthesis. This is taxing. They must analyse the site in depth and then arrive at the best possible sustainable design. Conversations go on all day and, sometimes, all night.
Spouses are given the course at home. The process demands hard thinking while immersed in a group with all its tensions and potentials. My role as teacher is now a guide.

By the end of the course they must demonstrate a sound knowledge of theory, skills in analysis, then synthesise the theory and skills into design. Each one must demonstrate the essentials of a permanent, rich, resilient and restored landscape, and cultural synthesis, melding the old and new, diversity and specificity.

Learning communities in action

The best communities form where the students all live locally. These groups go on to meet and work in each other’s gardens, sometimes for years. They initiate seedsaving groups, heritage plant groups, map the community for food and water, teach in schools and community gardens, start co-ops and markets. They change the community.

At the start of this century, 25 of us (mainly Burmese and Thai activists, others from Europe) made a camp, built a kitchen and compost bins and lived together for eight weeks in Thailand on the banks of a river bordering Burma. We became a tightly bonded community,
learning together under a huge mango tree, on mats beside the river. Water from the river was pumped by bicycle power. Two course participants went on to open eco-learning permaculture centres. The Burmese activists planned to teach permacuture to ethnic groups
in Burma where tribal people are being displaced by the military.

When I arrived in Vietnam about 1990 I found the people already had organic intensive home gardening processes based on traditional
knowledge. Permaculture techniques had little application, but the design itself became very important. Farmers who had learned permaculture were able to show banks their farm renovation design when applying for a loan, and demonstrate how they would cost and
implement the design. This has now become general practice.

Permaculture and the teaching method assisted the Vietnamese people to begin rebuilding society after years of war. In this communist society, hierarchy was perfectly understood, but a learning method where participants shared their experience and expertise challenged the
accepted order.

I would put people into groups for discussion, only to find that one person had rearranged the chairs so he was focal and was lecturing. Without speaking, I would re-arrange the chairs so the top-down dynamic did not work so well. This was one example of how setting
up the learning space can facilitate or destroy classroom participation. In group reporting back, I insisted that each person from each group report one thing that was discussed. Some were unhappy, but others were able to carry these skills into meetings where they wanted to have a voice in decision-making.

In Cambodia, in 1991, the effect of learner-centred teaching methodologies was quite different. The Khmer people were still badly traumatised and not sure of a lasting peace. Under the Khmer Rouge, spying and reporting on each other was common and encouraged. The penalties for real or imagined transgressions were extremely harsh. People distrusted being in groups and detested the words collective, or co-operative. They did not wish to speak. They had no trust in any sort of leadership either.

The goals of learner-centred education slowly re-created social bonds, trust and confidence. The topics stayed closely to skills around food production and what people knew/had known of growing food and animals. We used many ice-breakers and co-operative games. As many women were illiterate or semi-literate and were replacing former community leaders who had been killed, I focused on the essentials
of food and water, and building trust.

The value of the discussions and field visits was, I believe, to refocus thoughts and actions on the need to rebuild their communities, villages and provinces. Meeting in classes with their focus on neutral but essential topics, women began the work of social cohesion. Permaculture gave the women and men a job to do with knowledge and means to do it. This was permaculture for peace.

In Cambodia and Vietnam we started with projects in poor and sometimes very remote communities. Often they were poor because they were remote. We trained trainers and they taught the farmers. Later another AusAID permaculture learning project in Vietnam trained trainers in permaculture and learner-centred teaching methods in half of the country’s provinces. FAO then funded the identical project for the rest of the country. So people in all districts in Vietnam were trained in learner-centred teaching methods and the ethics, principles and techniques of

In Timor Loro Sae in 2009, students after the three-week permaculture course developed the confidence to rebut ILO officials who were defending the establishment of large company and expatriate-owned coffee plantations. ‘We have just learned that a fundamental permaculture principle that all people have the right of access to land to meet their needs for food and housing, and land is best cared for when locally owned and worked,’ one student told the officials.

Arriving in Kerat, Ethiopia in 2008, I found the classroom was only a bamboo blind shelter.A German carpenter who had enrolled for the course built a classroom in just one day. We had no water or electricity, no paper and pens, only one old blackboard and a little white chalk. We were often hungry and all lost weight. One-third of the class spoke Konso; one-third were illiterate, while the remainder spoke either Kambata, German, English, Armaric or Philippino. With as much participation as possible, we had the Armaric speakers teach the Konso, and the English speakers teach the Kambata and everyone to draw and show every time we ran into a learning blockage. The course assignments were excellent – mainly, I think, because we carried the portable blackboard outside every five minutes and related drawings on it to the landscape.

After the courses end

Permaculture and the learning process seem to motivate people and enable them to act in ways I can not anticipate. Permaculture learning
centres have been opened, school curricula have been transformed.

About six of the Konso are engaged in restorative work today. One man has started a permaculture village in some hilly, dry stony land; another has started an outstanding community garden and is paid by an NGO to do it. On Mondays he voluntarily teaches
women in his village how to grow food. On a visit in 2009 I saw that many homes now have food gardens, which are totally new to them. Each of these students was stimulated to start these works from class discussion of restoration possibilities.

Orphanages in Uganda, Timor Loro Sae, Tanzania, Vietnam and Cambodia now have extensive gardens.

In the Blue Mountains permaculture graduates work in the local council, in schools, in bushcare groups, in the Slow Food Movement, in the churches, in the Save Heritage Varieties groups, in a permaculture network, in permablitzes, in community gardens and school gardens, in conservation societies, in seedsaving groups. There are hundreds of them. They form a loose network. Some made a garden on starting the course, others waited until the course finished. Some rebuilt houses; others, the reflective learners, waited years before they became active in an area of fascination to them.

As for me, I continue to teach wherever I am. I can’t help it. Teaching keeps my head small and my heart soft.

1 Ivan Illich, Deschooling society, 1971.

2 Parker Palmer, To know as we are known – education as a spiritual journey, Harper, San Francisco, 1993.

Share This