How planting trees is a bit like ‘teaching’

I was talking to a delightful lady from Northern Ireland the other day, who is on retreat for 3 months in New Zealand. We got to talking about how important it was to take some time away from all the gadgets and devices, and to take some time out. I mentioned how lucky John and I were to have a bit of land up in Northland, near Kerikeri, and much of time there we used to plant trees.

Since 2008 we have planted about 9,000 trees, shrubs, and flaxes…most of them about 20cm tall. We carefully prepare the soil before planting and then: plant, stake, protect, mulch, feed, water, weed the tree (and yes, I am sometimes seen going around and tickling the odd leaf and have been heard murmuring encouragement)…and then, all we can do is wait. Sometimes, in spite of all we do the tree will die.

It struck me during the conversation with this lady that we can’t make the tree grow. As well as the nurturing we can provide, there are genetics, drought, flooding wind, pipe clay, an interesting left over from all the volcanoes called ‘pan’ (compressed ash deposit in the soil that the trees find it tough to grow in), insects, escapee sheep and so on.

After this realisation I then made the leap to learning (and I’ll try not to extend this analogy to the point of tedium! :-p). As with the trees, you can’t make it happen! You can provide opportunities that are likely to suit as many learners as possible, you can nurture the learners with conditions that will support their non-cognitive needs as well as their cognitive ones, and, depending on the environment in which you work, you can make sure that everyone is warm, has enough to eat and drink, and are generally as comfortable as possible. In addition, you can encourage your students to be self-advocates and impact their learning environments, you can encourage the parents, whanau, and wider community to get involved and to take more of an active part in supporting the learner(s).

However, there are always factors you won’t be able to influence…things over which you have no control. While this isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card (i.e. of course you pursue every avenue you can), there will be learners you can’t reach…and certainly cannot make learn.

John and I have found it invaluable in our tree-planting is to try different approaches to the planting and nurturing, often informed by talking to our wonderful neighbours about their own tree-planting experiences, and, using social media, reading, listening, watching, and talking to people about what they are doing around the globe. We just keeping planting, and tweaking our approach as we learn what works best in the various environments we have here. As we plant we have noticed many positive things…the older surviving trees(some now twice as tall as I am) create a nursery for the younger trees, we have some self-seeded trees growing now…and the birds are beginning to come back. The soil is improving, and we are delighted to have lots more worms, and greater drought and flood tolerance.

As I said, I am not going to extend the analogy to breaking point, but, for me, it has been a useful way to think about learning…especially the realisation that with both trees and learners, a ‘one size fits all’ approach never works.

Image: cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Hazel Owen:

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ ( I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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