One of the missions of Sunflower River is to be a training and education center for farming, permaculture, sustainability, and consensus decision making. Not only are we working to be a model sustainable farming community, we’re looking to be a place to teach and transmit the skills required to replicate that model.

I’ve recently been doing research to make Sunflower River a better learning environment. A learning environment is an environment designed to make learning and teaching faster and more effective. One in which lessons can be demonstrated and which accepts a degree of experimentation performed by the people in that environment.

The physical layout of a space affects how quickly a person can learn a task. In the language fluency game “Where are your Keys?” this knowledge is embedded in the technique of Set Up, of having nothing in the environment not used in the game.

When Lynn Langit hosts one of her Teaching Children to Program workshops, she hangs example software programs on the walls of the classroom to inspire creativity and exploration.

At Sunflower River, I’ve been focusing on the physical layout and arrangement of resources and tools as our first step in creating a learning environment . I’d like the environment to be discoverable: to permit a new volunteer to learn what tools are available and what they are called. This can be as simple as labeling tools with their name. It would be even better if the environment inspired curiosity–if it took someone who wouldn’t normally ask questions to start. If the environment inspired everyone to task “What is that?”

Optimizing the environment like this has a measurable benefit. Frequently our WWOOF volunteers have no prior experience with farming. If we have to train one of them, we’re very likely to need to repeat that training. The faster and easier this is, the quickly our volunteers become effective.

Not only should it be easy to “grab a shovel,” it should be easy to demonstrate how to properly use it (And yes, there is proper and improper shovel technique) and for that user to understand the reason they’re shoveling.

Each level should help a volunteer see the level beyond that. “That is a shovel” should naturally lead to “This is how you use a shovel” should naturally lead to “This is why we’re moving dirt.”

Future posts will take this broad analysis and discuss specific technologies we’re using to create a learning environment at Sunflower River.