Food for Thought – Episode 3: Teaching How Systems Work Through Gardening

In our 3rd episode of Food for Thought, our director and creator of the Learn & Grow Educational Series discusses how to use gardening to teach kids about systems, how they work, and how they interact with each other to create larger systems.


Fundraiser: Buy non-GMO seeds for your own self-watering container garden (affiliate link) –

Transcript of Audio from Video:

Note:  The paragraphs of the transcript are numbered for reference in your comments/questions.  For example, “In paragraph 7, you state … My question about that is, …?” 

Anne Zachry

  1. Hi, my name is Anne Zachry. I’m the director of the Institute for Educational Equity, Inc. and I oversee one of our divisions, which is our Learn & Grow Educational Series.
  2. Today’s topic: We’re going to be focusing on using gardening to teach children about complex systems, because we’re using gardening to not only teach people how to feed themselves, but also as a vehicle for critical thinking skills instruction and problem-solving skills development. And so we’re looking at gardening, not just as a standalone thing to learn, but its greater role in the lives of humans.
  3. The standards for California, particular the science standards, are very rigorous. There’s a really big expectation that the math and the written language, the language arts component, is going to be woven into history and science. That’s sort of the expectation under the Common Core. And the whole point is to teach kids about how all the little constituent parts come together to make this whole that is greater than simply the sum of its parts.
  4. And in psychology, the term we use for that is “gestalt,” which is a German word. And basically, that’s what it means is that the whole is greater than simply the sum of its parts. And the way that I learned it was, if you think about an intricate timepiece, you have to assemble all of those parts together in a particular kind of way. And then when you do what you have is greater than simply a big pile of hearts on the table. Now you have a thing that is something that does something unto itself, when all those parts are put together, and they all work together in a complex system.
  5. So, when you’re talking that biota, that kind of environment that you create in your self-watering containers, the soil, and the quality of the soil, and the life that you put into it, it becomes its own little ecosystem. But this is a really, really creative way to teach children about how complex systems work together, not just in general, but specifically in nature.
  6. You know, when you use the example of our garden, where we’re taking the stuff that we cleaned out of the bottom of the chicken pens back in March, and as we go through and fill them up with with soil and top them off with more fresh dirt and, you know, go to fertilize and we’re fertilizing them with that leftover dirt from the chicken pen. It’s turned out to be some pretty potent stuff. And so we have used it now to fertilize a number of the containers.
  7. That’s actually what I was doing before I started filming this video, was just putting, you know, a shovel full of old chicken poo dirt into the container that I pulled something out of, and a little bit of potting soil, and mix it all around, and put new seeds in, and water and stand back. And you know, in a few days, we’ll start to see some sprouts coming up and in a few weeks we’ll have a whole bunch of really cool stuff.
  8. And so that’s what we’ve been doing. And also things that are already established that look like they can use a little, you know, pick me up, we put some of the old dirty chicken pen dirt in there too. So to be able to use that and have that also serve as a closed system, because we’re raising our chickens to give us eggs; we’re taking the garden scraps and feeding them to the chickens. And so whatever doesn’t get eaten by people comes back to the birds.
  9. And so that becomes a closed loop, then they create waste, we eventually have to clean all of that up, it becomes compost, we let it set off to the side for a little bit. And then once it’s gotten nice and “eww-y,” then we start shoveling it into our containers as they empty out and need to be replanted. What was created as waste in one situation in the garden has now become food for something else in the garden. And it’s sort of self perpetuating. And there’s not a whole lot from the outside that we have to keep bringing in.
  10. So when you’re talking about closed and open systems, you know a closed system is one that is completely self contained where it takes care of itself. And what we’re trying to make happen in our homemade aquaponic system is along those lines. That is intended to be a closed loop system because once it gets established and going, the roots of the plants are going to clean the water through the gravel and absorb all the particulate and bacterial things and nutrient things that are being created by the fish pooing in the water. And so the fish will create fertilizer for the plants in the water and it will support both the plant life and the fish life, and then the roots of the plants are going to clean the water and oxygenate it, which will benefit the fish.
  11. An open system it’s more like our chickens where there is some closure to it because garden scraps and kitchen scraps that are generated from food we grew in the garden will ultimately come back and go to the chickens, which comes back to us as eggs. And so, to a certain extent, there is a closure there. But, we’re also having to supplement their food with organic chicken feed that we bring in from the outside. So to that extent, it’s an open system. The egg shells can also come back and go into the vermiculture composter.
  12. And so we’ve got a composter, that whatever vegetable matter, plant matter that we’re clearing out, that wouldn’t be appropriate to feed the chickens – you definitely don’t want to feed chickens raw onions or garlic – but those kinds of things can go into the composter. And, that compost breaks down and we’ll run water through it, because we have to keep it wet for it to compost, and the leachate, which is the runoff, gets collected and then we dump that into the containers as fertilizer as well. Whatever rots in the composter becomes food for whatever is growing next. We’ve got this closed loop, where – this closed system – where we’re using what we grew to make fertilizer for what we will grow down the line.
  13. And, it’s the systems that already happen in nature, that’s just the way the universe is put together, that has allowed human beings to figure out how systems in general work. We observe these things in nature, and then we repeat them in our own artificial creations. And so if you look at like, for example, the supply chain, the automated supply chain, or especially like, if you’re talking about the commercialized food supply. Good Lord! I mean, the industry that goes into that!
  14. So, you’ve got hundreds of square acres of produce being grown, and these big monstrous tractors that go and, you know, combines and whatnot, that go ripping through the earth and tearing things up and putting things down, and cutting things and harvesting things, and then they get packaged up. And then they get trucked to some packaging plant, and then they get cleaned and prepped, and the good stuff gets packaged up – the pretty ones – to go sell on the produce section of the store. And all the bumpy, ugly ones get chewed up and run through some kind of process to make processed food. And that gets put into a box and vacuum sealed and shipped off and stuck on a shelf somewhere.
  15. And when you start looking at how complex these systems are that we have created to meet our needs, or at least we think we’re meeting our needs, sometimes what we end up finding is the systems we’ve created for ourselves are more cumbersome, more costly, and are less efficient than the ones that exist in nature. And so while we’ve gone through this phase of scientific development, and this burst of technology, in the last 150-200 years, you know, the newness and the novelty and the, “Oooh! Look what I can do!” at some point has to wear off for the species, because, just because we can make something doesn’t mean we should.
  16. So the point is that when you’re trying to teach kids about systems and the complexity of systems and how all of these different pieces come together to make something happen, assisting your students or your own kids, if you’re helping with work at home, to do this research and to parse out, you know, “Okay, well, these are the different constituent parts of this complex system, and this is how they all go together to make, you know, things work.” You start to realize, “Good Heavens, is this really how things work? Is this really how the universe comes together?”
  17. And when you look at the systems in nature, they may be brutal, and they may seem cruel, but they’re efficient. They’re highly efficient. They’re meant to eliminate waste, and achieve balance.
  18. And then you look at the systems created by people, and they’re not as balanced and they’re not as efficient. Because people are creating systems that just don’t make things happen in a clean and practical way. They also work their agendas. When people create systems, very often their personal interests and their emotional motivations will color how those systems come together. And this is how biases become institutionalized.
  19. You know, we say nature’s cruel because it’s blind to these biases, and so, whatever advantages we may have because of biases are lost, because nature doesn’t care. You know, for example, COVID-19 does not care about your balance sheet. It doesn’t care about your income taxes. It doesn’t care about how much money you do or do not make. What it cares about is whether it can invade your cells and use them to replicate itself. And your economic status has nothing to do with whether or not your cells are vulnerable to penetration by a virus.
  20. And so nature is indifferent to all of these systems we’ve created for ourselves, and that’s a harsh reality that a lot of people are struggling to comprehend. What’s normal to people is relative to the circumstance they find themselves in. What’s critical about teaching kids about systems, and the complexity of systems, is they start to identify where they stand in the grander scheme of things. They start to see that the little “micro-verse” that they live in is actually a bigger part of this “macro-verse.”
  21. If you want to go according to Bronfenbrenner’s socio-ecological explanation of human development across the lifespan, you have little Microsystems, which are the little environments that you always interact in: home, school, work – the places you normally go – the places where you normally interact with other people and their systems – where you’re interacting with others and things are being made to happen within those systems.
  22. But then immediately outside of that is what’s called the Mesosystem. And the Mesosystem is where all of these Microsystems exist. And then outside of that, you have what’s called the Exosystem.
  23. And, you’ll have … the Mesosystem interactions are like, home and school communication when you’re talking about parenting, and having to, as a parent, communicate with your child’s teacher. The school classroom is one Microsystem that the child participates in, and home is another Microsystem that the child participates in. But when mom and the teacher talk to each other, now you’ve got this interaction between two Microsystems that may not even involve the child – that is happening without the child’s direct involvement. But it involves things the child is directly connected to in two different settings. So what goes on around the child between those two microsystems is called a Mesosystem event.
  24. And then you have Exosystem events, which are things like mom’s employer. Whether mom gets a raise or gets laid off from her job, the child’s not directly involved in that, but that definitely directly impacts the child because mom is going to come home with either more or less resources to support the family. The same thing can happen with the teacher in the classroom, that whether the teacher’s budget gets increased for the classroom, or it gets reduced, has direct impact on how that child is going to benefit from that classroom situation. But this, again, we’re talking about a complexity of systems because now you’ve got the Exosystem acting in a way that impacts a child, but indirectly. And then outside of that, you’ve got, you know, the Macrosystem, which is like the community at large and all the different social rules and social norms that affect the Exosystem events.
  25. And then you’ve got, outside of that, the Chronosystem, which are time sensitive things are going to affect everybody who happens to be alive at that moment in time, just because it’s one of those things. Like, the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example … the Great Depression, World War Two, the death of Princess Diana. And so, every once in a while, there’s just something that only the people who were alive when it happened will ever truly understand what it was about. And it’s going to be interesting how history remembers what’s happening right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. Because this is, like, one of the first Chronosystem events of this magnitude that has this much verbatim record keeping. You have so many people taking videos at home and wherever they happen to be. Here, I’m serving a perfect example of that. Here I am in our garden, adding to the public domain and the knowledge about what people can do to become more food secure, especially in times like these.
  26. And, you know, I’m able to talk in real time about this Chronosystem event that, 100 years from now, is just going to be something that people will only know about, because they watched a video like this one, or you know, 1001 Tik Toks I know that have been produced in the last few weeks. And so, you know, there are these things that only those of us who are around right now are ever going to be able to fully relate to. And when you understand how these complex systems affect each other, and how they interact with each other, a Chronosystem event is going to be of a big enough magnitude, it’s going to force us to change our behaviors on a systemic level. What is normal today can be completely asinine tomorrow, just based on what the facts on the ground are and how quickly they change.
  27. This Chronosystem event has now changed so many people’s behaviors on a global level, just with something simple, like wearing a mask. And now what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. Can I help you? [directed at a nearby chicken clucking for attention] What starts out as this Chronosystem event affects the Macrosystems. How our cultures, how our societies, how our cultural norms change, because now it’s normal no matter what culture you are in to wear a mask if you’re going to go outside. That didn’t used to be the case just a matter of weeks ago. And that just happened globally. So now you have what was the Macrosystem, what’s normal in your community versus what’s normal in another community; now normal has been changed in Macrosystems around the world because of this single Chronosystem event.
  28. And these Macrosystem changes are having Exosystem changes, because now what’s happening: We have school closures, we have all these businesses closed, we can’t interact with each other the way that we use to. All of our Exosystems … all these Exosystem events are happening, that are affecting how we interact with our Microsystems. And then it also affects how our Microsystems are connecting with each other or not.
  29. When you’re explaining complex systems to children, you first have to understand them yourself. And so one of the things that will be included with this video is, in the links below [actually, the links are above this transcript], I’ll include links to information about Bronfenbrenner and his socio-ecological model of human development.
  30. And he made the observation that human beings are the only species that we know of, at this point, that is aware enough to be able to alter its environments on purpose, in order to improve how we individually develop. We can shape environments that will make all of us healthy and happy.
  31. If everybody actually understood how all of these systems interact, and how all of these things play into human development, across the lifespan, there would be so many different decisions being made by voters and representatives around the world. We would have so many different outcomes for human beings regardless of where they are and what they’re going through, because everybody would get, “A causes B to happen no matter what.”
  32. And you can argue against it. You can say, “I don’t want to believe in that.” But, if A equals B, if one plus one equals two, it is what it is. And, once you understand just the black and white cause-and-effect relationships of how these systems play into each other, interact with each other, and affect each other, then you become that much more effective explaining it to your kids and in giving them guidance as to how to make informed decisions using that knowledge.
  33. And then you become a good model of it. You become better at modeling how to use that information to make good decisions, because your awareness increases. And that’s the wonderful thing about being a teacher or a parent, is the more you interact with your kids to explain things to them, the more the life lessons start to resonate with you. And the more competent you become as a problem solver and as a critical thinker and as responsible adults.
  34. And so, let’s just keep you safe. And if you want to help me explain you can, okay? Yeah. [directed at persistent chicken wanting attention]
  35. You know, the cool thing about teaching with the garden and, you know, I have the added benefit of the laying hens as well, is that you’re going to have these naturally occurring examples like the system of the life in the buckets, and the system of the life in the aquaponic tank, and the system that we have with the composting, and the system that we have with the chickens where, you know, we’re cycling food through their …
  36. What? [directed at attention-seeking chicken]
  37. So, thank you for joining me and Quiet Riot as we explain how to teach complex systems to children using gardening as your teaching medium, your teaching vehicle. You know, it’s really not that complicated. It basically provides you with its own examples without you having to, like, invent anything.
  38. Complex systems are easily explained by just taking what already is, and narrowing it down to something relatively focused like, you know, okay, ladybugs eating the aphids off of the tomatoes. The garden is a controlled situation where you can allow nature to take its course. But you’re using nature to your advantage to accomplish something. And so it’s because you’ve got everything self contained in those buckets. It’s scalable; it’s not this big, enormous thing that you have to work really hard to explain, “Here’s the big overarching big picture.”
  39. You can reduce it down to just what’s going on in a bucket. And so for kids, that makes life a lot easier when you can focus in on something that’s a little bit more narrow, but it illustrates a grander point. So that’s our video today on teaching complex systems to kids using gardening as your teaching medium and your teaching vehicle.
  40. Quiet Riot and I hope that you found this informative and that you’ll look forward to coming back for more information from us with our other videos. If you do like this video, please of course like below and subscribe. If you have questions, of course, you can always email us or comment below, through our website and just contact us.
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  42. So, like, subscribe, support us. Donate if you can. We’re a nonprofit organization and every little bit helps. Again, thank you for joining us and we look forward to having you join us against soon.

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