Training on coordinating groups in natural building

I just started my volunteering in Bozevce with GAIA, since maybe one month, when I participated to the training for coordinators in natural building. I didn’t know what to expect to it, except to meet new people and to learn technics of natural building. Actually, I only had a dim idea of what non formal education was, and I thought that it could be relevant to have more knowledges about natural building before to plan to teach it.

Still today, I don’t think to be able to explain, with words, what is non formal education, but I can tell what this collective experience, which was very different of all the learning ways I had known when I was student, looked like.

One of the big differences was that this training gathered participants from dissimilar ages, experiences, and nationalities (there were Serbians, Albanians, Slovakians, Turkish, Croatians, English, Germans, French …) This multicultural mix was a real opportunity to meet people with different backgrounds and stories, and a beautiful way to show that natural building, and collective work is a good way to gather dissimilar people. It made that gathering an experience of intercultural exchanges, which stretched far beyond exchange of knowledges: we learned traditional Turkish dances, Croatian dishes, Slovenian songs … But one of the challenges to achieving this cohesion and this sharing, was to work to build a team, able to live and to work together. To steer us onto this aim, we had two facilitators, Petra, who has lot of experience in nonformal education, and Alex, who facilitated for the first time, and has lot of knowledges in natural building.

This process of team building was precisely regulated by a daily schedule, and every morning started with a time dedicated to it. The aim was first to wake everyone up, but also to know more about others, to spent good time in group and to introduce the topic of the morning. The activities varied a lot: we played to the Arabic phone (when the topic was “carambolage speaking”), we played with cards, with rhythm … One day, Petra askes to all the participants to fit on the same carpet, and to turn it over with none not leaving. It was a way to observe how the team could cooperate and communicate to reach an objective and to introduce the theme of leadership. With Justine, we did not really appreciate the game, because we do not feel comfortable when we huddle people, so we decided to make us out of the play. To do not let us aside, Petra asked to Justine to check if no one poked out the carpet during the game and asked me to take pictures. When the participants succeeded, leading by Ruzica, we sat down again and Petra underlined the importance to include everybody in activities, even if it is necessary to adapt and to find different ways. Each game opened a reflexion based on observation of the behaviour of the team.

Building a team by creating a space where everybody can find his place and feel included is the first step to work with and in a group, but it is not enough by itself. We must not forget that leaving room for individuality is also important. At the beginning of the training, time was dedicated to speaking about needs and expectations of each one. We wrote on little papers what we wished for ourselves, for the place, and for the group and in turn we put them on a poster that we hanged on the wall. We made other posters like this one about what we expected from the training in terms of knowledges, skills, and feelings. More the training processed, more the room was decorated with visuals and drawings. I appreciated to write because I am not comfortable when I speak in English in front of people, and besides, all along the training, we used different ways to express ourselves: acting, playing, art … During the mid-term evaluation, we could evaluate if our expectations were met, and we could address to our facilitators comments and proposals to improve our way of living and working.

Alex and Petra were attentive to our remarks, and we could note that they wanted to adapt their way of working to the needs of this specific group, to improve the experience. During the mid-term evaluation, Justine and I proposed to split the team in small groups during the practical sessions because it was not easy for us to find our place when everybody was working on the same object. For the next natural building activity, Alex separated the participants in three groups to build a little wall with clay slip technic. Max and Alex had prepared a big frame, and each team built one part. In natural building, clay slip is a liquid mixture of clay and sand, in which we steep straw that we put in the wooden frame and that we compress layer after layer. So, there is different posts: one makes the mixt, some soaked straw and one press the straw in the frame with a stick. Small groups permitted to turn and to try every post. When we finished, we noticed that the three parts of the frame did not look like the same, because each slip was more or less diluted in water, and it was interesting to compare these results. Furthermore, Petra and Alex observed our work and compared us to an anthill, because we formed three chains, moving back and forth between the buckets of mixt and the frame, without ever crossing each other. Alex said to Justine and me that he was happy of this experience, and for myself, I also felt more comfortable with this way of working. I think that one of the main aspects of non-formal education, is that the hierarchy between teacher and pupil that we can usually find on the benches of school is erased. Facilitators does not have the exclusive opinion about ways of learning and has to adapt their technics to the need of the group. I think that it is a challenge because plans are de facto living and evolving, but it permits to create a comfortable atmosphere where each one can feel listened and included.

                So, I am not able to give a clear definition of what non-formal education is, but I can affirm that creating a comfortable educative environment in which everybody is able to express himself and find his place, is a really important point because this amount to insure good and durable foundations to build a good working team and good learning and living conditions. More, non-formal education is also a several-ways learning process.

This several-ways learning process is not limited to exchanging knowledges, technics and experiences between facilitators and participants, but also in between participants. During sessions, we were all seating in circle, so much that, from the outside, it was not possible to know who was learning and who was teaching. No one considered that facilitators were the only ones who had something to teach to the others. I think that I learned as much from Alex and Petra than from all the other participants.

Most of them had lot of experience in natural building, and the facilitators highlighted this. To broach important topics, as safety or conflict management, we worked in small group discussing and sharing personal experiences. For example, during the session about the safety, each group had a subject (as “scale” or “chain saw”) and had to speak about risks and precautions we should take to using it. During the session about conflict management, we talked more about personal experiences of problem during collective work.  We broached several themes by using this way of working: how to plan a workcamp? what are the different steps to build a house? What are the advantages of natural way of building? During each discussion, each group wrote what they thank, debated, and concluded to make a little presentation to other groups, to hang a new poster in the room, but also to keep a written mark of what we talked about. GAIA shared these documents with all the participants after the training to permit us to reuse them if we want to organize a natural building event. I appreciate that facilitators took in account knowledges and experiences of the participants to create a collective work of documenting, and even if I don’t have a lot of experience, I could tell some stories which happened to me.

The most experimented participants leaded also some sessions. Ruzica explained to the group different technics to recognize a soil of clay. First, we can recognize it just by touching it: if the soil (that we found when we dug a bit, to have wet soil) is sticky and does not get our hand dirty when we press it, it means that the soil contains an important proportion of clay. Clay has the characteristic to be really sticky when it is wet but also to be really hard when it is dry. Ruzica had made a ball in clay and had let it dry few days to show us how the clay could be unbending (making it a really good material for building). Another test permits to know in which proportion clay is present in our soil. We just must put a bit of soil in a jar, to fil it with water and to shake it during five minutes. After this, we must wait that the soil lands the bottom of the jar. We could make out different layers: if we already did the first test and concluded that the soil is clay, so, the biggest layer represents clay. Also, other participants taught me a lot, …… gave me a lot of advice to use the mixer when we were making clay slip. Even Justine who does not have a lot of experience in non-formal education, as me, animated with Pajtim, a debate about synergy during the open space. The open space was the occasion for some participants to propose to talk about topic of their choice. To be honest, I did not really understand what synergy was, but Pajtim talked about a very interesting game called “The Six thinking hats” (theory of Edward de Bono), in which players embody one of six hats (the intuitive, the informative, the constructive, the reflective, the creative, the cautious) and have to debate about the resolution of conflict, or to plan a project. Each player must wear each hat turn by turn. The purpose of this game is to lead a group through different ways of thinking.

By giving the opportunity to participants to animate discussion or to take the role of the facilitator, we had the occasion to learn by doing, not only by listening, and this point is also an important characteristic of non-formal education. The training was about how to teach natural building, and some of them (Marco and another Petra) tried the exercise by coordinating the team when we were building a straw bale wall. Building with straw bale permits a good insulation against the cold in winter, and against the warm in summer, it is a durable technic who avoid humidity to seep in the wall because straw disseminates air, it does not need big equipment because it is a really light material. Once the wall is done, we can put clay slip directly on the straw to make a hard wall. Petra gave advice and tried to coordinate a team who were preparing bales of the good size, and Marco took care of the team who were putting these bales in the wooden frame. They had to compress them as much as possible to make the wall compacted. The day after, Petra explained that she did not know that it was so complicated to be listened by everybody in a team, and that it is not easy to deal with someone who does not want to follow instructions. About Marco, he did not realize that some situations could be dangerous, for example when people climbed on wobbly support to put the last straw bales.

If create a trusting environment is a good foundation to work with people, sharing knowledges should seems like the frame of a building, where each beam completes the structure. In fact, if the main pillars are the facilitators who lead and support the training, each participant can bring experience and knowledges to the others and participate to the teaching process. Non-formal education advocates the learning by doing and give the opportunity to the participants to experiment and to lead. I liked one of the sentences that Petra taught to us: “A good leader does not create followers but new leaders”.

                I spoke a lot about learning process and non-formal education, but I forgot to underline that one of the big aspects of this training was the human link we created, and I think that it is the most important, because it also achieves the purpose of GAIA which is to promote peace. I witnessed the birth of a friendship between an Albanian guy and a Serbian one. The latter confided that this kind a of relation is scarce, and that it was the first time that he had the occasion to build a friendly relationship with an Albanian. This might seem like a detail but, for a volunteer in Bozevce as me, where it is not easy to see the impact of our work, it was encouraging. We also dedicated time to present associations or personal projects and worked in group on some projects to plan natural building workcamp which could take place in Bozevce. The purpose was to ensure that each person leaves with contacts and ideas. I could go on and on about these ten days of training, but I think that my article is already quite long. To conclude I could say that non formal education and natural building are closely linked topics. Both want to be distinguishable from common ways of going about things (in school or in construction) to turn to collective and peace. Whether it is with nature, by building with natural material, or more social, by teaching by doing and gathering people around a same project. This human and social aspect makes up the green roof which achieves our building, and on which grows ideas and new horizons.

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