Learning Landscapes: Patterns in Learning

Using Patterns to Design the “Story” of Education

If we work “with” the natural patterns within children and our environments we can transform what it means to learn, educate and be educated.

There are patterns all around us, from the large-scale patterns of our universe to nano-scale of atoms, and in everything we learn. This includes patterns in nature, to patterns in a poem, to patterns in how communities form and interact. There are patterns in time, social structures, landscapes, and conceptual systems of all sorts.

Authors of stories use patterns much like a seamstress uses a pattern to make a finely tailored dress. Almost subconsciously, it is often the pattern of a story that we connect with although we are likely to more often take note of and recall the details.

​ If there is no recognizable pattern, the reader frequently loses interest and the story becomes nothing more than a factual list of bullet points. A list of details, no matter how many adjectives are added or how useful they may be for tasks like baking the perfect pumpkin pie, are not the foundation on which to build an intriguing story.


Can’t See the Forest through the Trees

Planning the learning landscape from details and hoping they will form interesting patterns is like choosing “fun” activities for each subject area and then stringing them together through separate periods of time in the day in hopes that children will see the connections among and between each activity.

Does this sound like the basis of a story that would inspire you to keep reading? Would it inspire natural curiosity? Would it impart an understanding of how we are each authentic persons who are part of and hold a responsibility within our families, communities and the greater world?

The story of education must become more than a journey that champions individual, independent pursuit for academic achievement. Education also, and some might argue more importantly, provides an opportunity for a deeper understanding and connection to people and the world around us. It is our greatest resource for nourishing life.

How can we start to rethink and re-imagine how to design the learning landscape and education as a whole? One way is to think about “the story” we are trying to tell through education. A useful way to do this is by using the tools of whole systems thinking found in permaculture where we seek to design from patterns down to details.

If we work “with” the natural patterns within children and our environments we can transform what it means to learn, educate and be educated. Integrating the permaculture thinking tool “Design from Patterns to Details” into the learning landscape entails embracing a shift of consciousness.

We can move away from a viewpoint that sees education as an exclusively self-directed, self-improvement endeavor that is about “me” the student. If we do this, the story of education can be one that deepens our understanding of “me” through our connections to and relationships with the “we” (our families, communities and the greater world).

“Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer
– into selflessness which links us with all humanity.”
– Viscountess Nancy Astor

One tool that can help us and our children expand how we think about potential patterns that can make up the foundational structure of the educational story is the Johari Window.

The Johari Window is a tool that helps us think beyond just educating based on a prescribed curricula, program or activity. It expands the perspectives or lenses through which we can see ourselves, our learning landscapes and our roles within this world. Through it we can even help our children deepen the experience of their educational story of self-directed learning which is often limited to our children’s self-identified interests and passions.

The Johari Window reminds us that there are at least four ways of thinking about what might be included in a learning landscape. These include the understanding of what the learner:

  1. Knows about him/herself and is known to others
  2. Knows about him/herself, but isn’t shared with others
  3. Does not know about him/herself, but that is ​known to and seen by others
  4. Does not know about him/herself and is also a mystery to others

​​The patterns of learning become much more interesting when we use and value a diversity of perspectives – parents, caretakers, educators, grandparents, friends, neighbors, community elders and more. The Johari Window tool illuminates the diversity of these perspectives. It can also expose the complexity of our learning landscapes when used to explore the patterns across time and space.

Such a tool can help us and our children observe, explore and reflect on the patterns of their learning landscape​. We can design from patterns to details​ not just ​by honoring and valuing different perspectives, but also in place and time as the learning landscape and the learners evolve and mature over time.

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling,
and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” – Plato

Education is often seen as simply the path for self-improvement, but what is possible if our educational stories climaxed when children’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, and personal niches of brilliance were recognized by and used to enrich their community and the world? What if the community (which includes our children) came together and co-created an educational story that helped our children develop the competencies and readiness to be active members within their learning landscapes, community and life?

Designing from patterns to details means more than just seeing the big picture and then using those patterns to plan. It also means that we need to think carefully, compare, contrast, break things apart, re-build and make anew, analyze and evaluate what we are learning along the way so that we can imagine the still unimaginable possibilities and patterns.

Through this “systems thinking” approach of learning to design from patterns to details, we learn to not only observe and recognize patterns, but actively utilize this knowledge to learn, design, build, and do. The details are important, but these are used, chosen and rearranged based on the larger patterns encountered and envisioned.


Patterned Educational Design

By integrating the thinking tools of permaculture with children’s passions and the diversity of community perspectives (resources in and of themselves) anyone of any age can design a personalized, holistic education that is more than just “academically rigorous.” The thinking tools give not only the children, but also those who love them a flexible patterned structure to understand and help them acquire critical life skills. How this patterned structure is filled in and exactly what form it takes is in the hands of each child, family, and community.

Using this framework children are empowered with tools to help them mindfully and meaningfully explore how to learn, how to find what they love and how to bring that to the world. The thinking tools of permaculture like “Design from Patterns to Details” can help guide how we think in our physical world as well as the learning landscape. The thinking tools provide the scaffolding while our children build the structure within.

The thinking tools don’t (or shouldn’t) dictate “what” to learn and when to learn it. Rather they should help guide us understand “how” and “why” we learn, grow and live. They help us identify how we are connected within ourselves, with others and to the greater natural world. The thinking tools support children’s desire to make their passions central to who they are, what they do and what they can do to care for themselves, others and the earth. This is how education becomes our greatest potential resource for nourishing life.

[Photo credit: (cc) Let Ideas Compete]


Jen MendezJen Mendez

Jen is a wife, mother of two joyous children, experiential education mentor, and founder of PERMIE KIDs. She has a M. Ed. in International Education and has worked with children in the U.S. and overseas from early childhood through the primary years, as well as parent-educators. She integrates an ethical, design science methodology with her love for education to help others learn to design a customized education with their children that honors themselves, others, and the earth.

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