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Updated: Jan 2

GRO Learning Gardens, University of North Dakota College of Education, and Grand Forks Head Start established a partnership to bring sustainability education directly into classrooms because all education should include sustainability and must start with the earliest of learners.


Updated: Jun 3, 2023

“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation” Freeman Tilden, 1957

Learning gardens are often described as places where environmental education happens. They provide a holistic and systems approach to understanding dynamic processes, natural communities and how humans fit into these communities. Learning gardens are typically located in and around pk-12 schools, being rare on college and university campuses.

We would like to integrate a different concept into this discussion of what learning gardens do and situate this within a view towards higher education; that of interpretation. Interpretation comes from the world of heritage and environmental interpretation most typically practiced in nature centers, parks and preserves and other nonformal educational settings. If you imagine a National Park ranger leading visitors on a hike chatting about ecology and history, you get the drift of what interpretation basically looks like. In its most fundamental state, it is described by the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) as "a purposeful approach to communication that facilitates meaningful, relevant, and inclusive experiences that deepen understanding, broaden perspectives, and inspire engagement with the world around us."

So, right off the bat, interpretation strays from formalized ideas of education or schooling and drifts towards more holistic forms of awareness and experience. Consider some of the key words in this definition; meaningful, relevant, deep understanding, inspire, broaden perspectives and engagement. We don’t often hear these words at the forefront of formalized education; mainly because they denote expressive, affective, evocative and provocative ways of learning.

Learning needs to entail information; yet it must go deeper to evoke a sense of place and expressive ways of knowing a place. Even further, learning in interpretive ways should provoke people into action that is sustaining, life affirming and sustainability oriented.

Interpretation along these lines should be viewed as a blending of arts and sciences in the sense that the work provides a holistic approach to place-based learning that fosters aesthetic, expressive, affective experiences in ecological and cultural communities. This line between arts and sciences has historically been a wee bit murky and we similarly see this distinction as quite a blurry situation. In fact, in our work, we see them needing to be permeable and porous for the give and take of ideas and experiences. True sustainability should not be limited by strict categorization or compartmentalization.

Interpretation as a field, is fully attended to holism, with telling broad and encompassing emplaced stories so that a person walks away with not solely a scientific understanding. GRO Learning Gardens has a goal to create learning gardens in both educational and interpretive ways and this means that engage the whole person, a wide range of sensibilities, provoke awakening and action towards sustainability and stewardship, and deeply engage with the social and ecological worlds around us.

Let’s explore some notions from Freeman Tilden, a fella foundational to the concept and the field of Interpretation. He listed 6 Principles of Interpretation in his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage. In this he first defined interpretation as an “educational activity, which aims to reveal meaning and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” To unpack this definition and provide more guidance, Freeman than lists 6 principles of interpretation. Here they are:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

We take these ideas to heart with GRO Learning Gardens. Ideas such as relevance, revelation, art, provocation and holism are integral to making connections between people and places. These are the pathways towards fostering a sense of place and towards living well in that place. Towards dwelling rather than simply residing. Sustainability education requires an interpretive approach that tends to a wider range of human experience and awareness rather than mere abstractions or compartmentalized knowledge. An awareness that is relevant to the learning, is inspiring and meaningful and that deepens engagement and leads to action.


“There is no doubt that all of our knowledge begins with experience.”

~ Hans-Georg Gadamer

John Dewey, notable American philosopher of education, writing specifically on experience gives us a foundational understanding that “experience is what we do.” While seemingly a simple definition, he dives more deeply to assert that we cannot divorce – or compartmentalize- the person from the experience. In critiquing the stimulus and response behaviorist psychology in education, Dewey’s learning is the continuous “trying” and “undergoing” of the constant (re)construction of experience of which the person and experience are inseparable.

Jean Piaget is known for his work in child development, ardent supporter of education and educational theory of constructivism. For Piaget, "only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.” Constructivism argues that learners are not passive receptacles within the direct learning experience, but rather we all construct new understanding by using our prior knowledge as we participate through experiences.

David Kolb was influenced by John Dewey and Jean Piaget, which becomes evident in his process-driven theory of learning. According to Kolb, learning begins as people engage in a concrete experience, leading to reflection, then abstract thinking, making conclusions and further conceptualizing the experience. Kolb’s experiential learning discusses the structure of knowledge from what is basically a social psychology perspective.

Paulo Freire’s pedagogical work similarly challenges the notion that students are mere empty vessels to fill with one-way knowledge from teacher to learner. Instead, learning is a relationship between the two and should specifically encourage student dialogue and movement toward action. Gloria Ladson- Billings extends upon this partnership in learning to emphasize how teachers’ knowledge is situated in their own specific cultural experiences and thus necessitates critical awareness of the cultural assumptions teachers and learners bring to the experience of learning. We can see here an essential relational element in the learning process.

The cursory review of these authors is purely representative and just skims the surface of an exhaustive understanding of experiential learning. For even more resources we include references for writers in psychology, philosophy, sociology, education, etc. at the very end.

Learning Gardens are multi-disciplinary spaces where the arts, all scientific (both natural and social) approaches, people of varied cultures, and learning theory all intersect in an interpretive and educative space.

One discipline yields a singular perspective limited to the confines of specific and accepted frameworks within that discipline. The benefit of a multi-disciplinary approach to experiential learning is akin to a diverse garden- complex, complementary, room for intersections of history, cultures, and validation of multiplicity of frameworks and voices.

Our approach to experiential learning begins with this foundation - that we are what we experience and we engage in experience through who we are. And thus we assert that for sustainability education, the experience must be in the physical living space (with all the natural sights, smells, touch, and sounds) and we are engaging with another physical being in that space. It is the active participation in reciprocal relationships that are at the heart of an experiential learning environment.

As we’ve previously written in the space between education and interpretation, GRO Learning Gardens are rooted in direct and lived experiences in the physical garden. Virtual learning, conversations with chatbots, gaming, computer applications all have a place in the world; but not here. Learning Gardens are located outside, filled with dirt, animals, sunshine, rain, and while they may have ambassador spaces in the indoors, the goal is to experience the outside world and learn from what it teaches us.

GRO Learning Gardens approaches experiential education as learning that occurs through direct and physical participation in the “events of life'”(Houle 1980: 221) that occur directly outside and cannot fully be replicated within indoor or virtual experiences. Learning may be supported via formal education institutions (schools, universities, organizations) but learning is only achieved by the people themselves, thinking about and reflecting upon their direct experience.


Berding, J. W. (1997). Towards a flexible curriculum: John Dewey's theory of experience and learning. Education and Culture, 14(1), 24-31.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: Heath.

Houle, C. (1980) Continuing Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.

Jarvis, P. (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice 2e, London: Routledge.

Jarvis, P. (1994) 'Learning', ICE301 Lifelong Learning, Unit 1(1), London: YMCA George Williams College.

Kolb, A. and Kolb D. A. (2001) Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography 1971-2001, Boston, Ma.: McBer and Co,

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that's just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Munari, A. (1994). "Jean Piaget" (PDF). Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education. XXIV (1/2): 311–327.

Piaget, J., Psychology and Epistemology: Towards a Theory of Knowledge (New York: Grossman, 1971)

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