Composting Education

My allotment has always been a source of refuge and inspiration, far more than just growing food. Recently I’ve dug through 18months worth of weeds and grasses to resurrect from near abandonment. A sizeable task that also felt like failure, having to start again after 10 years of graft, growing and slug patrol. But the skimmed off bramble and nettle revealed rich dark layers of goodness. The soil had a memory, year after year of compost, cardboard, grass clippings, mulching, manure, seaweed and kitchen scraps had done their work. Well that’s not strictly true, the microbes and fungi have done theirs. The hidden magicians for every gardener.

The soil culture of my allotment is a memory of the intentional and unintentional past. The weather variations of Cornish mizzle, dry Aprils, cracking summer storms. The activity of worms aerating and mixing, blown seeds germinating, mice, the occasional rabbit! My gardening mistakes and successes, the essential chats with the resident expert, (every allotment group has at least one) Pete was a gem. A life’s wealth of experience and an expert too, national award winning flowers and veg. All of this mingles in the soil, the new layers with the old, networking, making connections in all directions for a rich culture. Even the weeds have their place, the short term opportunists composting down to help the next layer of earthy goodness.

I often think of the similarities between the allotment and education. It literally is my field of study, a place where mind has many places to tether. The better prepared the field the better the fruits of the students’ labour. The challenge is to provide the right soil culture for a student’s root system.

The recent TEF has caused much spin across institutions, the usual sound bites of student centred learning and life long learning are bouncing off ministers and department heads alike with the customary lack of detail, noise instead of actually engaging with the complexity of learning. Having studied at a school of education and life long learning, navigated two OFSTEAD inspections and a QAA visit, lifelong learning has come to resemble a non accountable value judgement on education practice. Grasping smoke with bare hands springs to mind.

Depth and breadth of learning should be the metric of success. Measured at the end of a life not at the start. Completely incompatible with our systemic reliance on instant measurable success criteria, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shift towards them.

Breadth of learning from encouraging the learner to travel sideways through the soil culture. Follow and grow networks across many strata in multiple directions and dimensions. Institutional boundaries and subject specificity have little meaning in this process.

Depth of learning from our own composting systems. Allowing the day to day surface to be fluid, to compost it, recycle and reflect, to build layers of knowledge, theories and practice where experience will eventually be the stuff of worms and microbes supporting our own root structures.

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Plant Invasion of the Soil Sensors

The primary invaders of the soil sensors are established, some are coming into flower so they’re feeling right at home. I’ve had many surprises as this project has unfolded, I wasn’t expecting the surrounding flora to feature quite so heavily in the outcomes, for example the Sticky Weed (Cleavers/Galium aparine), Bramble (Wild Black Berry/Rubus fruticosus) and Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) are quite aggressive invaders, all leaning into view or casting a shadow from off stage. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting this, it’s obvious really when you think about it, but I was preoccupied with seeds blowing in from above rather than suckers, tubers, climbers and ramblers creeping in from below.

Sensors 4 and 5 are under large trees so fallen twigs and leaves feature quite heavily, there’s not much light so only the bramble has made a start.

Sensor no.2 is a particularly good example of the plant invasion. It’s surrounded by allotments which is probably why there are so many common weeds.