Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Bringing Life to Schools and Schools to Life
By Dilafruz R. Williams and Jonathan D. Brown, Routledge, 2012

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

This challenging and thought-provoking book is a bit like gardening. You need time to revisit it before you see its full beauty and wisdom.

The book is not just about school gardens: it is more about the philosophy of experiential education as it revisits the work of Dewey and Gandhi and their empowering insights between doing, thinking, reflecting and learning.

US authors Dilafruz Williams and Jonathan Brown reject the modern “reform” agenda of standardised testing, efficiency, and accountability that is so damaging to the creativity and joy of learning and teaching. These “reforms” have dangerously pressured teachers into focusing on “didactic approaches to teaching and learning that minimise the role of experience in learning and conditions children and youth to be passive recipients of information”.

The authors outline aspects of modern education that are incongruous with living systems and sustainability: de-contextualisation of learning; loss of curiosity and wonder; acceptance of mechanical and industrial scale; homogenisation of curriculum and learning; privileging of abstract idea; perpetuation of individualism and autonomy; and stimulation only of certain senses.

As their alternative, Williams and Brown offer the metaphor of “living soil” to provide a theoretical framework for how and why gardens should be at the centre of learning in schools. “Living soil” highlights the importance of relationships in schools.

The authors argue that school gardens should be based on: cultivating a sense of place; fostering curiosity and wonder; discovering rhythm and scale; valuing biocultural diversity; embracing practical experience; nurturing interconnectedness; and awakening the senses.

Learning gardens have the potential to enrich students’ academic achievement, personal development and connections to the natural world.

The book highlights the pivotal role that school gardens can play in developing students’ ecological literacy at a time when young people are more and more removed from experiencing nature in their daily lives. Gardens can also provide opportunities for Indigenous, migrant, intergenerational and community learning.

Learning gardens have the potential to bring life to the centre of education as students experience the interconnectedness of all living things. Learning gardens can be a welcome breath of fresh air to schools, giving students further opportunities to learn outdoor and engage with life as they fill their hands with rich organic soil.

The book also includes fascinating insights such as:

  • the relationship between class, austerity and the environment in US society: “Accompanying vast disruption of natural systems is the dissolution of the social safety net in the era of neo-liberal austerity budgets. In the shadow of the Great Recession, an increasing number of Americans find themselves falling through holes in the metaphorical safety net, joining the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed, while wealth continues to be ever more concentrated among a small number of elites”
  • the importance of continuity of purpose, continuity of place, continuity of people, and continuity of curriculum. One could argue that these are core principles of public education that demonstrate why permanent employment is so vital.

Although an American education book, it is based on Australian permaculture principles, developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

The final section of the book focuses on the lived experiences of a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent. It was pleasing to read how the principal recognised how essential it was to have the support of a garden coordinator for teachers implementing learning gardens.

The book provides a strong theoretical support for learning gardens. It’s a worthwhile resource if you have a learning garden in your school or you want to start one.

All books are available to borrow from the Federation library.