Non-Traditional Education: Reconnecting to our Roots

Non-Traditional Education: Reconnecting to our Roots

winterline gap year permaculture

By Tim O'Hara

Modern, conventional education systems do not work for everyone. They cater well enough to many of today’s students but not to a significant portion of the population that might be better served by alternative pedagogical approaches. In most countries, at the age of 4 or 5, or even younger, kids are shuffled into busy classrooms to learn subjects that will reportedly prepare them for a successful future. As our economies become less predictable, politics less appealing, and the environment ever more damaged, current educational models are losing traction with increasing numbers of people who recognize that the one-size-fits all approach to education is not working for our society.

Terms referring to non-standardized teaching methods and ideas such as homeschooling, unschooling, gap years, Waldorf and BOCES are all becoming more familiar in today’s educational vernacular. Instead of paying an inordinate amount of money to learn how to navigate broken social and economic structures to barely make ends meet as an educated, employed adult, more and more people believe that it’s important that humans begin to train and prepare for meaningful, place-based work that provides a fair wage while better connecting to the elements that we most need to thrive; clean water, clean air, clean soil and clean food.

In our specie’s experiment to educate our populations to be good, productive denizens of the planet, we have lost sight of how to responsibly meet our basic needs and in the process have contaminated the resources that are inherent to a healthy life. We’re becoming a society more apt to care for our latest electronic purchase than one another.

Most visitors to the Ranch come to learn in a different setting. Many of these people are attracted to our experiential methods of teaching. As an education center since 2001, we have discovered a great deal about our students and how they develop best. We have also witnessed a trend over the last decade and a half that has students arriving to the Ranch with ever decreasing hands-on skills. It’s not uncommon to host students that have never picked up a shovel, dug their hands into the dirt, or cooked a meal from scratch.

Our education systems today praise computer work more than physical labor. While I think both skill sets are important in today’s economy, I would argue that we’ve let the pendulum swing much too far towards the idea that the solutions to today’s challenges lie only in high-tech devices and multi-billion dollar mega-projects that ignore our historical connection with and dependence on nature.

As parents, Robin and I have chosen a hybrid approach that has our daughter enrolled in Mastatal’s local, Spanish-speaking public elementary school and learning from Robin through a Waldorf-style homeschool curriculum during our trips outside of Costa Rica. We hope that this will provide her with a dynamic and solid educational foundation that will prepare her for the global problems that she and others in her generation will inherit and face as adults. We look forward to explore the growing number of non-conventional educational options as she gets older.

Gap year programs like those offered through Winterline provide an alternative to graduating high-school students. They allow students to better refine their interests before investing tens of thousands of dollars in an education that may not provide them with the schooling that they desire or need. Organizations such as Winterline recognize the existing gap in public education and focus on providing students with opportunities to learn hands-on skills. The growing popularity in these programs is a sign that parents are more willing to let go of the rigid ideas and standards that they experienced as students.

We’re proud to be a part of a more common sensible approach to schooling and we believe that well-thought out, inspirational and practical, applied programs can oftentimes provide students with a superior and more relevant learning experience. Some of today’s problems may require large, expensive and highly-engineered approaches, but others demand simplified but intelligent thinking and a genuine connection to the earth. The latter can and should be cultivated in our society’s educational programs.


Paul Stamets, the renowned mycologist, provides inspiration and an example via his mycoremediation work that partners with our fungal brethren to clean up toxic sites using simple, inexpensive and accessible technology as do Vandana Shiva’s efforts promoting food and seed sovereignty in India. Winona LaDuke’s achievement to build and restore community by means of wild rice harvesting and her work with the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Wes Jackson’s advances in perennial grain production in the Midwest of the US with The Land Institute provide us with precedents to learn from. Our hope is that the Ranch too can provide an example and a place for compassionate people in search of a better way to learn, teach, heal and live.

Check out our calendar and consider organizing a group to join our team as we promote a more rational, sensible and connected educational movement.   

News from around the Permaculture Community

One of our favorite alternative education programs is Sustainable Summer. Their groups are always one of the highlights of our year and the students who go through the program leave us feeling hopeful for the future. If you are looking for something different to inspire your high- schooler, we can't recommend them enough.

We have two new stellar workshops on the calendar for May 2017:

Our cob oven will be seven years old this season! We are looking at re-building the oven so that it better fits our kitchens needs. Ovens are great starter projects and these plans for a double chamber cob oven just might give you the confidence to tackle the project in your own backyard!


The Ranch Crew