The Infinite Learning Machine

Last weekend I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at Oakwood, a small low-impact educational project run by friends in Devon. It’s an innovative and exciting place, and the space in which Mrs H and I tied the knot.

One of the most recent developments has been the creation of the infinite learning machine. The machine is an outdoor octagonal space of pathways and raised beds. It’s beautiful in its own right, and the beds were full of flowers and veg plants, weeks ahead of my own allotment – a fertile space in more senses than one.

It allows for an eight stage crop rotation, and the raised bed construction means that different beds can contain different growing mediums. They’re experimenting with biochar, composted donkey manure and more to ensure that each bed maximises the potential for growth.

It’s far more than a garden, although the kids who learn at Oakwood do use it to learn about, and enjoy, growing. Its design draws on a whole raft of spiritual and philosophical sources. The main paths are aligned with the cardinal points of the compass. Its construction allows for it to be used to learn about maths, geometry, astronomy, the turning of the seasons and more. The choice of plants in the beds opens up new avenues for learning – for example growing Cherokee Trail of Tears beans starts a conversation about colonialism, ownership of land, and oppression and injustice.

The machine seems like a good metaphor for anyone involved in learning. Are we:

  • Drawing on deep spiritual and philosophical principles and values?
  • Consciously aligning the learning pathways we design in such a way that they can lead to numerous (infinite?) outcomes, and not just the ones we can conceive of?
  • Feeding the soil? Creating really fertile growing spaces in which each ‘bed’ has a highly experimental and nutritious growing medium, to ensure that somewhere within our design there’s a space that everyone can take root in and flourish

At our recent Rhizome gathering we talked in terms of that old horticultural adage – “feed the soil not the plants“. The infinite learning machine offered me a useful insight into how to make that a reality in our work.

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