"Learning is the process that creates a permanent change in knowledge, skills or worldview, and can be reproduced by a person later. It becomes part of who they are. Moreover, it occurs at different levels of intelligence” (Toomas Trapido, the founder and director of Gaia Academy)
I am Anna Rodionova from Russia, a student of International Master in Adult Education for Social Change. Several years ago I became passionate about sustainability in its broad sense, and a holistic approach to education, when a person gets educated in all aspects of life. The Master programme has become a good foundation for developing my interest in this direction. Thus, while studying in Tallinn during the third semester, I took my placement at Gaia Academy, the Estonian adult education institution for holistic lifestyle studies. In Gaia Academy experiential approach to learning is highly promoted and applied. Experiential learning means "learning from life experience" (Kolb, 1984). It is opposed to lecture and classroom learning, which is more theoretical rather than practical. So, this approach can also be referred to as learning by doing, or hands-on. My learning experience in Gaia Academy was definitely experiential learning for me: whatever I was doing during the placement, was experienced by me in practice. One of the main tasks was to organise and conduct an eco-seminar for Russian speaking adult learners, which introduced some practical ideas how to live sustainably in the urban setting. Below you can read an interview with Toomas Trapido, the founder and director of Gaia Academy, so that you can learn more about its history, main goals and focus, learning opportunities for adults in the field of sustainability, and its hands-on learning approach.
Anna: Toomas, what is the history of establishing Gaia Academy?
Toomas: I was part of the team who introduced Gaia Education (author’s note: the leading provider of sustainability education in the world) to Estonia in 2008. We did several pilot projects at schools and organised the first EDE course (author’s note: Ecovillage Design Education course) in 2011. We also established GEN (author’s note: Global Ecovillages Network) Estonia in 2008. And in 2014 I was also thinking what to do with my life and then I got this idea of creating an organization, affiliated with GEN Estonia, which people will recognise as a separate brand where holistic lifestyle educational activities can be brought together. We launched Gaia Academy, and in 2015 the first EDE took place under its umbrella. Gaia Academy is an organization with the legal right to issue certificates of completion, but the main goal is adults educational activities not only in the ecological framework, but also teacher trainings, in particular, for Gaia School teachers, permaculture courses, and other projects in different areas. For example, we are also planning to offer a course on sociocracy and participatory leadership, so we have quite a wide spectrum of topics.
Anna: How did you come up with the idea of founding an organization with Gaia principles?
Toomas: I studied Biology, and I worked for the Karula National Park and the Estonian Fund for Nature, one of the most active NGOs in Estonia, for ten years. I started questioning what sustainability is and if there are any movements, which create new models of living where there is no such a strong misbalance between those who protect and those who destroy. I started doing research on ecovillages and permaculture, and I met a group of like-minded people in Estonia. In the 2000s we organised a conference and started visiting annual GEN meetings since 2006. Real life projects run by activists was an eye-opener for me, so I decided to develop something similar in Estonia.
Anna: Why did you choose adults as your target audience?
Toomas: Here I can mention another institution, Gaia School, a first official and registered school for children in Estonia and actually in the world, integrating Gaia curriculum into the state curriculum, while Gaia Academy was initially designed with the focus on adult activities.
Anna: Which learning approach do you apply in Gaia Academy?
Toomas: We promote “head, heart, and hands” approach suggested by Schumacher college, or the so-called “learning by doing” approach. The focus of this approach is “interactive and experiential education to develop practical skills and strategic thinking required to face 21st century challenges” (About the College, n.d.)
First, I would like to explain what learning means to me. It is something that creates a permanent change in knowledge, skills or worldview, something that a person can reproduce later on. It becomes part of who they are. It can happen at different levels of intelligence – rational, emotional, bodily, or spiritual. All these things can be learnt. For example, we have a practice of circles, which means creating strong and deep trust between people in one room. This trust is a prerequisite for opening up some thoughts, which emerge during the practices.
So, Gaia Academy courses aim at developing different intelligences and giving different food during the day: something for the analytical mind, an emotional intelligence (working with emotions and relationships), a bodily intelligence (doing some physical work in a fun way, building something, walking or dancing), and a spiritual one (discussing spiritual issues, doing practiсes like mindfulness and exercises in nature and relating their experiences with it). It is about learning about different ways of being with people and doing things.
Anna: Apart from EDE course, how do you select or design courses? Are there any criteria?
Toomas: The main criterion is a person’s initiative, but of course it should be something related to Gaia framework. And transformative learning. By transformative learning I mean not only transforming yourself but also transforming the world, not only going into one self doing internal transformations. It can happen at different levels, so even a 1 square metre flower bed on the balcony is a change, but it can be a big thing, for example, establishing Gaia school or a new community.
Anna: Who is a typical Gaia learner?
Toomas: I can’t say our learners have some typical characteristics. The age is very diverse and ranges from 20 to 60 years old. What we can see in common is some kind of a call or an impulse inside them. For example, people join us because they want to live more ecologically, or they are interested in permaculture. They come to find out how to start this change.
Anna: Can you recall any memorable examples of how the courses affected learners’ life - the so-called life changing learning?
Toomas: There are quite many. Some of them are quite personal. Change is change, it doesn’t mean it is only good or bad. Many changes happened at the personal and relationships levels – some relationships ended and some people found new partners. Also, some people started some really big projects: for example, they established schools, such as Gaia School , or communities, such as The Small Footprint, some of them developed their own farms or schools.
Anna: Do you consider Gaia Academy to provide adult education for social change?
Toomas: Of course, although we do not use this term a lot. Social change happens at ecological, social, and economic levels. I always mention that the social aspect of EDE is the key aspect, as without it other aspects will not work. Social goes quite deeply in a sense that, in order to work together and make a change, people working together should understand, see, and feel each other.
Anna: Adult education is often considered to be on the margins, as it lacks some funding, state support, and oriented to marginalized learners. Which challenges has Gaia Academy faced so far?
Toomas: Well, Gaia Academy got some funding for its establishment and development at the very start, so I can’t complain about it. Afterwards we didn’t have any direct financial support, so it had to be economically viable. Thus, not everyone can afford the courses, as the fee can be relatively high, but I also experienced that those learners who really want to join the courses, find a way to do it. It is kind of an admission test for them. Nevertheless, it would be nice to get some financial support for the youth, for example, for some members of the “Fridays for Future” movement to attend EDE. So, some scholarships for them could be helpful. We apply for funding from time to time, thus, we got the grant from the Active Citizen Fund for introducing a course in sociocracy and collective wisdom based decision-making generally, for inviting guest lecturers, and developing our pilot course.
Anna: Why did you decide to attract Russian speaking audience in Tallinn to the eco- seminar, which I helped to organise and conduct? Do you see any development of this track?
Toomas: It was a good idea to organise this one-time event with your help, as we have a big Russian speaking population here. I also know that there isn’t any formal EDE in Russia. I am part of global Gaia Education team, so I was thinking from time to time it would be great to launch a similar course in Russia. As I mentioned, things get done, when there appears a right person. So, Gaia Academy is a good legally established platform for any kind of such initiatives, and everyone is welcome to come up with interesting ideas in this direction.
Anna: Thank you, Toomas, for this learning experience with Gaia Academy. I wish you more successful and life changing projects.
Any change starts with an individual, but connecting like-minded people into a network is of high importance to act not locally but globally. Gaia Academy is a good example for me how a variety of projects, courses, and ideas are unified under one umbrella of a holistic educational approach. My further Master thesis research will develop the impact of non-formal and informal education provided in eco-village settings, and hopefully will contribute to promoting "learning by doing" adult learning.
By Anna Rodionova
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning. London: Prentice Hall