Ecovillages and learning

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The learning process in eco-villages is mostly informal or non-formal, as knowledge and skills there are acquired through everyday tasks or some loosely organised workshops.

Characteristics of informal and non-formal learning

While formal learning is characterised as organised, structured and intentional, and it leads to certain certification, informal learning is not organised or structured, and in most cases unintentional from the learner’s point of view. It can also be named as “learning by experience”, and it happens through daily activities, namely, work, family and leisure (Werquin, 2010, p.22). It is usually provided by an experienced person, although without formal qualifications. Non-formal learning is an intermediate type between formal and informal ones and is represented by all the organised educational programmes with no credits outside of formal education, as people also learn a lot “through workshops, courses, lessons, seminars, and other educational activities” (Duguid, Mündel, & Schugurensky, 2013, p.6).

Informal learning has a marginal place in the literature, and only its minority is devoted to informal learning (Duguid, Mündel, & Schugurensky, 2013). Still, a significant number of researchers recognise the importance of informal learning in adults’ lives (Eaton, 2012; Foley, 1999; Werquin, 2010) despite the fact that it is harder to prove. According to Werquin, “although learning often takes place within formal settings and learning environments, a great deal of valuable learning also takes place either deliberately or informally in everyday life” (Werquin, 2010, p.7). Informal learning is key to making social change in the community and in various activities and practices (English and Mayo, 2012) and it “keeps us vibrant, mentally active and interested in the world around us, as well as our own development” (Eaton, 2012, para. 10). Informal learning is often spontaneous, not organised, happening in a natural setting, highly motivating for a learner, and difficult to quantify. In addition, it starts in the early childhood from learning the alphabet and continues as a lifelong process, and the teacher is usually someone who cares about a learner’s result (Eaton, 2012). This type of learning also includes inter-generational knowledge and skills passed through families and community members (UNESCO, 2016). In addition, Duguid, Mündel, and Schugurensky (2013) differentiate between several types of informal learning, which are “self-directed (intentional and conscious), incidental (unintentional but conscious), or tacit (unintentional and unconscious)” (p.6). They state that informal learning may not always be conscious and intentional, as in many situations it may happen in “natural” ways, through everyday life experiences and group communication, which may also result in tacit knowledge (Duguid, Mündel, and Schugurensky, 2013).

Informal and non-formal forms of learning are more typical of adult learners who are considered to be self-directed, motivated, and oriented towards the immediate application of knowledge in real lives (Knowles, 1970). In particular, adult learners can be more inclined to non-formal and informal learning, because they can combine it with everyday commitments and responsibilities more easily.  Some of the popular non-formal and informal learning approaches, which are practiced in eco-villages are experiential learning, volunteering, and community-based learning.

Non-formal and informal learning approaches in eco-villages: experiential learning, volunteering, and community-based learning

Experiential learning theory was studied and developed by a number of researchers and in its simple form implies knowledge and meaning construction from real life experiences (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984; Knowles, 1970). It is also called involved, evidential, or situational learning, which reveals the whole idea behind its concept: a learner is not a passive listener but a participant, and is involved into the learning process in a proactive manner (Hawtrey, 2007). Learners are actively engaged within their learning environments if they are to gain applied knowledge (Yardley, Teunissen, & Dornan, 2012), and learning is considered “a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb 1984, p. 41). A. Y. Kolb and D. A. Kolb (2005) portray the learning process as a cycle or a spiral, in which a learner “touches all the bases" - experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting” (p.194).

Volunteering has become one of the popular forms of living and learning in an eco-village community. The study by Duguid, Mündel, and Schugurensky (2013) shows that volunteers often refer to experiential learning and informal mentoring, and often use the expression “learning by doing” or “hands-on learning”, emphasising the practical side of gaining new skills and knowledge. While some learning is intentional and explicit, much of learning still remains unplanned and implicit, caused by the necessity to solve a particular problem. Mentoring is considered an important part of the learning process, although it is seldom formalised and tend to be more spontaneous. In addition, learning in volunteering can be both individual and collective, when, at a later stage, an individual can become a teacher or a presenter at some non-formal workshop for the community or when a person learns through different group activities, such as community gardening, community meetings, solving some problems collectively, mentoring, etc. By any learning type volunteers gain a lot of practical and relational skills and “embrace new attitudes, dispositions, values and practices” (Duguid, Mündel, and Schugurensky, 2013, p.232).

Learning in eco-villages is not only based on gaining practical skills through direct experiences, including volunteering, but is also community-based and socially interactive, as it happens within the social context in the community, where veterans, or full participants, pass their knowledge to newcomers, or peripheral participants gain the knowledge through participatory practices. The Russian scholar Vygotsky (1986) introduces the concept of “communities of practice” and the “zone of proximal development’, where learning results from collaborative engagement within “communities of practice”, which learners enter as “legitimate peripheral participants” (Lave & Wenger 1991). Vygotsky suggests we learn, by working with others, what we would otherwise not have been able to learn on our own, but also, we learn more rapidly if we work with others who have more expertise (Worthen, 2014). Peripheral participation implies several steps: upon joining the community, individuals learn at the periphery of the community, and, after gaining enough skills and confidence, they move to the centre to become fully engaged participants. Here learning takes place not within formal education but through social participation, which results into collective learning and collective practices (Pineda, 2011). Thus, informal learning in eco-villages may include several stages: periphery learning, situated learning, and collective learning.

Eco-villages as communities of practice provide their members not only with technical skills but also teach them how to engage successfully in the community and share the community values and norms. Communities of practice are formed by people, “who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger & Trayner, 2015, p.1). Communities of practice are based on collective learning in a shared domain, and “learning can be the reason the community comes together or an incidental outcome of member's interactions” (Wenger & Trayner, 2015, p.2). Not every community is a community of practice, as they should have three key characteristics, namely, the domain, the community, and the practice. Thus, there is a commitment to the domain, which distinguishes the members from other people; members are involved into shared activities, support and care about each other, exchange information, and build the relationships for mutual learning; last, members of such communities are practitioners and have a shared practice in order to address recurring problems (Wenger & Trayner, 2015). Hall (2015) names social inclusion of the eco-village members among twenty elements, which contribute to well-being of eco-village inhabitants and external visitors and are main part of informal education there. Most eco-villages promote inclusiveness of all their members in a way that everyone should take part in common activities, be heard and seen. Inclusiveness is also achieved through participatory art and culture, where participation is more valuable than talent. It helps people to integrate into the community and be active community participants and learners rather than silent observers. Thus, cooperative culture is at the heart of the eco-village approach. Participatory decision-making, conflict resolution, and a ‘we’-mentality are key characteristics of cooperative culture, although the shift to cooperative culture requires a lot of learning for those people who are still part of capitalistic society. Such learning can be achieved through the community, where new values and behaviours are introduced, practiced, and observed (Dawson, 2006; Mychajluk, 2017).


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