What the Natural World Can Teach Us About Schools

By Madeline Raynolds

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” —George Moore

Working the soil to grow vegetables for the Woodstock Community Food Shelf inspired an educational model rooted in nature and permaculture. Photo: Madeline Raynolds.

After a long career working in schools locally and around the world, in 2021 I came home to Woodstock and took the job as Community Gardener Assistant for Sustainable Woodstock. For 30 years, I worked in classrooms closely observing how young people learn and then built on those conclusions to collaboratively design school systems as an administrator. In all this time, while I truly believed education had the potential to change lives, I knew we didn’t have our educational systems quite right.

Ironically, it was here in the garden across from Billings Farm that I unearthed a sustainable solution for improved education through gardening. It was the very practice of working with this precious land that made me realize much more than my academic studies alone could teach me. I learned the principles of permaculture through application and went on to research even more to discover a whole world of sustainability thinkers who were way ahead of me. I ended up publishing an article in an educational journal, but I would like to share a snapshot of one conclusion, “permaculture recognizes and works with evolutionary dynamics.” The application of this principle for our schools is that student voice and choice is not just good for enhanced learning, it’s an evolutionary imperative.

Evolutionary dynamics, most simply, is the theory of forces that allow a species to survive. It is recognized that higher adaptability is critical to the survival of the species, and in the case of humans, it is what we understand as having agency. Agency is the power to act purposefully to one’s advantage. In evolution, agency became most advanced in human beings as the species with the highest intellectual power to act with purpose on this planet. “As an evolutionary shaped capacity, agency is a particularly ‘human’ capacity. It is indeed a defining characteristic of our species” (Welzel & Ingelhart, 2010, Maryanski and Turner 1992). These principles show the vital significance of self-determination in the wellbeing of the species. As a result, I have suggested two tenets as necessary parts of school design.

Democratic Practices

By maximizing student agency in schools through the participation in democratic institutions, students are given increasing voice to co-construct effective school structures. As students take increased responsibility for their education and their learning, these invaluable civic discourses are inculcated through practice. There are living examples of democratic school models in which students play important governing roles in almost every facet of the school. And yes, while increasing student democratic participation is about better schooling and engagement, it is also about increased agency as an essential in evolutionary dynamics. As Welzel & Inglehart citing Birch and Cobb (1981) assert, “one can see the evolutionary trend to increase agency both in the biological evolution of organisms and in the social evolution of civilization.” Schools need to be more democratic.

Thoughts= Evolutionary Agency

It has been suggested by both scientists and philosophers alike that our human thoughts impact reality just as reality affects our internal lives. Reflecting on the ultimate goal of evolutionary dynamics is to recognize the potential of human participation in co-constructing the future that will serve regenerative purposes and imagining new ways to connect with the natural processes of being human. “Darwin saw organisms as active participants in evolution” (Baldus, 2006). While humans obviously have inherited traits, there is much we can do in deciding where to give our attention. If we understood evolution and the human role in it as a fact, we would seriously take care of how we must condition our minds. 

As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” The application of permaculture to the educational landscape is an opportunity to see anew the critical challenges to the sustainability of the species, of the planet, and how this effects school systems. These are interrelated domains that require a collaborative approach to seeing the complexity of nature. In many regards, the current map that got us here is a blueprint of what not to do. Repeating old solutions in the cause of sustainability is worse than impractical, it’s dangerous. As we start to see the epistemic dust settle, we can map a new way forward to design practical and manageable solutions by re-orienting ourselves to the world around us. We need to think and speak into the future, utilizing lateral thinking by taking ideas from divergent disciplines and applying them. We need to be multidimensional thinkers. 

What we think and what we do really matters. We are agents of evolution whether we own it or not. There is the evolution that is happening randomly through natural selection and there is also something known as conscious evolution (Hubbard, 2015). Every human being has a unique contribution to make; maximizing each person’s individual uniqueness contributes to the whole and the whole is greater than the sum of the self-parts. This is the true vision of our educational potential. Only a self-stabilizing ecology can last into the future. As we are conscious of evolution by design, we become the world we create and create the world through our becoming.

Madeline Raynolds is on the board of Sustainable Woodstock as well as a Woodstock native with 30+ years as an educator. Madeline is a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University investigating the topic: Community Schools: Creating Community Spaces for Proficiency- Learning.

Baldus, B. (2006). Evolution, agency, and sociology. Oxford Scholarship Online. Retrieve December 26, 2021, from https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195130027.001.0001/acprof-9780195130027-chapter-9

Birch, C .and Cobb Jr., B. (1981): The Liberation of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 353.

Hubbard, B. M. (2015). Conscious evolution: Awakening the power of our social potential. New World Library. 

Maryanski, A. and Turner, J.H. (1992) The Social Cage Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Stanford University Press, Redwood City, 119.

Welzel, C., & Inglehart, R. (2010, February 18). Agency, values, and well-being: A human development model. Social Indicators Research. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-009-9557-z


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