The Farm-Based Education Network


Systems Teaching and Farm-Based Education

Linda Booth Sweeney, Ed.D., is a systems educator, researcher, and writer who is dedicated to helping people of all ages learn to embed everyday decisions with deeper understanding of living systems principles.

Her article below, Teaching about Living Systems on the Farm: Remembering What We Already Know appeared in the Winter/Spring 2009 FBEA Newsletter.

Article-related material:

Principles of Living Systems (PDF)
Systems Education Activities for farm-based educators
Linda Booth Sweeney's website
"Meet" Linda Booth Sweeney - view a photo

 Teaching about Living Systems on the Farm: Remembering What We Already Know
By L. Booth Sweeney

These days, children tend to learn about nature far from nature. In classrooms and labs, they try to understand the nutrient cycle and other living systems that compose our world. Farmers understand living systems. They exist to protect and help us all benefit from healthy living systems.

 When children meet farmers and are immersed in the real work and cycles of life on a farm, farms can become classrooms where students can see and touch systems and come to understand the interconnected and interdependent nature of all living things. When farmers become educators, they can share their understanding gained from experience, that nothing stands in isolation, that connections in nature, people, problems and events bind us all.

On a recent trip with a group of third graders to Gaining Ground, a non-profit farm in Concord, Massachusetts, I found myself spellbound by the outhouse.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  The outhouse had been lovingly painted in a riot of colors, and carved in a gingerbread theme.  It was at once whimsical and functional, and clearly a valued structure on the farm.   The farmer, Verena Wieloch, talked about the structure to students, who had cautiously gathered around it, giggling, wincing, and pinching their noses in anticipation of foul odors.
 “Is this where we go to the bathroom?” said a boy, squeamishly.

Verena smiled.  She had a sweet secret to share: This was no ordinary bathroom. This was a composting toilet. “After you use the outhouse, the waste is composted, or broken down into a fertile soil that is full of rich nutrients, like nitrogen, for the soil. The farmers here put that compost on the herb and vegetable gardens.”  Verena stopped before detailing what that meant: We then eat the herbs and veggies that grow in the compost from the outhouse. After digesting our food, we can return to the outhouse and the cycling of nutrients continues.
Yet Verena’s point that day was that in nature, there is no such thing as waste. One species’ waste is another’s food. This is the “waste = food” living system. At this farm, the outhouse-to-garden practice of turning our waste into food for herbs and vegetables reveals how if we understand living systems, we can work with them, rather than disrupt them. And how our farms can thrive when they mimic the ways of nature and in doing so, foster respect for land and nature, an essential element to understanding and meeting today’s environmental challenges.

Developing Systems Intelligence on the Farm

The idea that waste = food, or closed loops of nutrient recycling, is not new.  What is new is the increasing interest among educators and school administrators to teach students to think about systems, to see and understand the interconnections and dynamics of the natural and social systems around them . Students who understand the principle of waste = food, may then be challenged to look for examples in their everyday lives where  waste from one system can become food for another. What about cafeteria waste?  Can that become “food” for the school garden?
In the last fifteen years, a growing number of schools in the U.S. and worldwide have begun in earnest to teach students to think about systems – rather than fragments--  as the context for exploring complex problems, and for fostering more intentional decision making about the natural world.  According to the 150 educator-authors of Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, thinking about systems -- "thinking about a whole in terms of its parts, and, about how the parts relate to one another and to the whole" -- is an essential element of scientific literacy that should be mastered by the time students graduate from high school .” An increasing number of schools around the country, including several State Departments of Education, are embedding systems concepts into “Education for Sustainability” (EFS) -- learning that promotes understanding of the interconnectedness of the environment, economy, and society -- and are requiring EFS be included in middle school science standards.
How can farm-based education foster literacy about systems? When we become systems literate, we do three things:

1) we see systems, the whole and its parts and processes, as the context for decision making and learning, (we make visible the connections among the chickens, the manure, the soil, the crops, the farmer and so on),
2) we develop enduring understandings of the principles that guide living systems (Principles of Living Systems) , and
3) we develop (or remember) what educator Art Costa has called habits of mind – characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolutions of which are not immediately apparent”, when we encounter systems, both simple and complex. For instance, we may begin to anticipate unintended consequences by tracing loops of cause and effect, always asking “what will happen next?” (More related “habits of minds”.)

Farms Are Living Systems
A living system is an animate arrangement of parts and processes that continually affect one another other over time.   Not everything is a system though.   If you divide a heap of bricks in half, what do you get?  Two heaps.  The collection of bricks are a heap, not a system.  What do you get if you cut a cow in half?  Ask any child over four this question and see what they say.  Most children know that you don’t get two cows. (For a related activity, see Systems Education Activities).  Living systems have an integrity;  the parts matter, and the way the parts are arranged matters.  The great American conservationist Aldo Leopold brought our attention to this integrity when he called for “intelligent tinkering” with the natural world:
"The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

We see living systems on all scales, from the smallest plankton, to our own body, to our communities, to the planet as a whole. When we understand what constitutes a living system, we also see that our families, communities, organizations, and our farms are all living systems.  The parts of a farm are the farmer, animals, crops, insects, soil, and weather that are connected to and nested in each other.   The farm is part of a larger food production system that includes natural and human resources, waste, food processing, distributors and consumers.
Farmers and farm-based educators can join another living system, a system of learning and teaching, in which students, teachers and other visitors discover how a farm is not a set of interesting but disconnected parts, but a living system nested within larger systems.  Farmers know this well. With a little help and a few ideas, they can be remembering what they already know, and then helping young people to make connections beyond the farm, to their everyday lives.

Taking a First Step
Systems education activities for farm-based educators
Most of us were not taught in school to “think about systems.”  Traditional schooling has tended to separate the material world from the social world, reinforcing the notion that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts. Growing up, I was taught the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it or break it up into parts.  I wasn’t taught in school to see systems of multiple causes, effects and unintended impacts. Yet these are the some of the skills our children will need to build healthy food systems, navigate interdependent financial systems and deal with issues of global impact such as climate change.  Without these skills, we continue to operate from crisis to crisis, stuck on the problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse. 
“The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.”  So said Lao Tzu, the famous Chinese Taoist philosopher.   Where do we begin? Rather than seeing the farm as a collection of unrelated pieces, how will you encourage, or continue to encourage your visitors to understand how the parts of your farm work together and how your farm is connected to and nested within other systems? How will you use the vibrant and enriching context of the farm, to encourage a child’s natural inclination to look for connections on the farm and among, nature, people, problems, and events?   However you choose to encourage systems literacy, please share your ideas with others in the FBEA network.  Your fellow farmer-educators and future generations will appreciate you for it!
Article-related material:
PPrinciples of Living Systems (PDF)
Systems Education Activities for farm-based educators
Linda Booth Sweeney's website

Author Acknowledgements: I interviewed several farmer-educators, including Rebecca Gilbert (Native Earth Teaching Farm), Verena Wieloch (Gaining Ground), and Edie and Tom Sisson (Drumlin Farm) for this article. Many thanks for your generous contributions.

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