May 9th, 2010

Organic gardening: Sustainability Education From Within

By John Gookin

I have the luxury and honor of guiding curriculum development at the world’s leading outdoor leadership school. We call our NOLS expeditions “courses” because we are first and foremost a school. Our core curriculum is interwoven with the typical organic needs of the expedition. We use the word organic in a systems theory context to mean that it is a natural outgrowth of the system, rather than being forced into an existing model. We teach how to set up a tent when that is a naturally emerging need of the students. Sometimes we preload information and skills so people have the tools they need in upcoming situations. Like we teach crevasse rescue before we get to the crevasses, and we teach communication skills before we let a student lead a peak ascent. When researchers ask our students what helped them transfer the concepts and values of our program to their post-course lives they typically mention some form of peak experience that was relevant to them. They also mention how key instruction prepared them to have higher quality peak experiences (Sibthorp, 2008). But students on the same expedition report varied “Aha” moments, despite being in the identical scenario with the identical instruction. This vividly demonstrates how each student constructs their own meaning from these group experiences based on who they each are as a whole person.

When we doctor the NOLS curriculum our first priority is the Hippocratic oath “First, do no harm.” There is everyday magic going on in a carefully guided wilderness education expedition. A classic management faux pas would be to merely add a layer of lectures on sustainability education. This would displace other topics. More importantly, adding new topics to any curriculum, without dropping others, tends to add to busy-ness, waters down all other instruction, and displaces activities that are critical for either application of skills or, worse yet, displace the personal time that our students say is key to the reflection they need to think about transferring their rich wilderness experience to their lives. That strategy adds content and subtracts quality. That is what we don’t do.

What we do do, is integrate sustainability education into our existing core. This includes changing our field rations (we consume about a half million pounds of food per year) to have a smaller carbon footprint. More importantly, we explain to students how these choices have been made, like why foodmiles became a moot point and farming methods became so much more significant once we did the math on our actual food choices. We have made other major green logistical decisions like building our new supergreen headquarters building which is featured in a book called Sustainable facilities (Moskow, 2008), but the thousands of students who walk on our recycled carpets have no idea how green the rugs are so we have not made this part of sustainability education at NOLS (yet). Sustainability can easily be integrated into our existing curriculum. Social justice is an inherent part of the diversity and inclusion aspects of our leadership curriculum. Economic models are essential to understanding rations and the fuels we use. Ecological models are key to our students understanding the principles of Leave No Trace. Our lesson plan on teaching “How to poop in the woods” would fit like a glove in Organic Gardening magazine except for some minor social desirability concerns.

Adding a new spin to our curriculum means chopping appropriate time, content, and focus elsewhere. We are intentionally teaching less natural history now than we were in the past. Learning dozens of flower names is cool, but this is not a terminal learning objective. We still teach students key species, but we have slowly reduced the lists of species we help students learn to name on sight. Interested students can still get out the plant keys, but we don’t emphasize natural history like we used to. This saddens some of us, but this is our least objectionable alternative (LOA in geeky systems theory jargon).

The road to excellence is always under construction. We use an experiential learning cycle to let students and staff tell us what works and what doesn’t. We have a well validated post-course assessment tool we use to monitor objective outcomes, using this evidence to inform improvements. We post lesson plans on an intranet site so our 700 instructors can test run them and give us feedback. After a season or two of development, we print paper copies to distribute. When we publish these hard copies we immediately develop a punch list for the next edition, so we can keep fine tuning them to develop better sustainability education strategies within the context of wilderness expeditions in a way that serves the organic needs of our students.

Moskow, K. (2008). Sustainable facilities: Green design, construction, and operations. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sibthorp, J., Paisley, K., Gookin, J. , & Furman, N. (2008). Long term impacts attributed to

participation in a wilderness education program: Preliminary findings from the NOLS

transfer study. Research in outdoor education, 2008.

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