Creating a forest food garden: Higher education that is disruptive by design
In this blog, we describe a new forest food garden course at the University of Sussex that fosters student agency to embrace uncertainty, so that they might be(come) responsive to human-induced climate change and biodiversity loss. Each year, second-year university students design an aspect of a two–hectare forest food garden, situated on the campus, which they then handover to the next year’s cohort to plant.
The course is rooted in a civic ecology model (Krasny & Tidball, 2009) that involves working with the land and communities – within and beyond the university – emphasising an interrelationship between the natural world and collective human action for fostering community resilience. It necessarily embraces the uncertainty inherent in such a complex, contingent and indeterminate endeavour. It does so in the following three ways.
‘The course is rooted in a civic ecology model that involves working with the land and communities – within and beyond the university – emphasising an interrelationship between the natural world and collective human action for fostering community resilience.’
First, staff draw students’ attention to different knowledge systems, including interdisciplinary, local and global indigenous knowledge of food and food systems. As teachers, we share what we know, including the basics of forest gardens; civic ecology; food security; and culinary traditions for preparing and preserving foods in ways that minimise waste, maximise nutritional content and encourage collective sharing and feasting. Rather than emphasising teacher authority, students also draw on their diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds: some with relevant expertise – such as forestry – often knowing more than staff. Teachers and students together verify what can be known (Vlieghe & Zamoyski, 2020), with reference to specific sources, keeping focused on the management of socio-ecological systems and avoiding the reification or ‘othering’ of any specific knowledge.
Second, recognising that climate change is differentially experienced and entangled with everyday lives, we experiment creatively with the multiple ways of knowing, including the intuitive, experiential and emotional, as well as the rational. Paradoxically, this requires a slowing down to attend to feelings and perspectives as a means to identify what to transform together in response to the urgency of the environmental crisis (Kirby & Webb, 2021). For example, while sitting on the site, students write about how they imagine the forest food garden in 10 years’ time. This supports their experimentation with the complexity of human–nonhuman connections: they explore feelings and existential questions about how to live one’s life; cultural histories; human and nonhuman materiality; global economics and socio-political geographies. Rebekah Fleming, a student, illustrates in her writing how such far-reaching sustainability uncertainties are elicited in a ‘classroom of wild grass . . . Of messy shrubs and messy learning . . . Where ideology mingled with the seeds we sowed’. Students also design a resource that supports younger school pupils to experience an embodied, sensory and imaginative engagement with the layers of a forest food garden, while encouraging deliberation of diverse knowledge and learning ‘facts’. These have included a card game, visualisation and picture book: some are shared with local schools to foster wider educational spaces for engaging with sustainability uncertainty.
Third, operating within a social pedagogic framework, the course recognises students’ capacities and democratic freedom to use absorbed knowledge to discover what could be, and to begin something new (Storo, 2013). As such, it reflects an ontological turn in higher education in which the emphasis is less on what students know – although this too is important – and more on who they might be(come) (Dall’Alba & Barnacle, 2007). In an essay and group presentation, students reflect on what has shifted and become possible for them, with reference to knowledge shared and action taken on the course. They speak of valuing others’ perspectives, collaboration and civic engagement, and finding renewed ways to live with and respond to climate change. They also produce their own podcast, Foraging for Thought.
The University of Sussex strategic plan emphasises higher education that is ‘disruptive by design’, to support students to be(come) ‘critical thinkers, entrepreneurs, commentators, citizens and activists’. This exploratory course and living resource aims to do just that.
Dall’Alba, G., & Barnacle, R. (2007). An ontological turn for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 679–691. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070701685130
Kirby, P., & Webb, R. (2021). Conceptualising uncertainty and the role of the teacher for a politics of climate change within and beyond the institution of the school. Educational Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2021.1933392
Krasny, M. E., & Tidball, K. G. (2009). Applying a resilience systems framework to urban environmental education, Environmental Education Research, 15(4), 465–482. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620903003290
Storo, J. (2013). Practical social pedagogy: Theories, values and tools for working with children and young people. Policy Press.
Vlieghe, J., & Zamoyski, P. (2020). Towards an ontology of teaching: Thing-centred pedagogy, affirmation and love for the world. Springer.