Learning through experience!

Doris Zuur
6 min readJul 7, 2017


I believe in education that is hands-on and real: ‘Living it’!

I have been pondering over educational models for adults. I have worked in the New Zealand education sector as a principal for twenty years and have had many individual conversations with school leavers and university graduates. I have become acutely aware of the questions and pressures during this transition phase into independent adulthood. Many seem to yearn to learn practical skills, for community and individual freedom (at the same time ), and for a space to embrace and ponder over some of life’s questions . The current classical tertiary model has its place but does not really respond to that yearning and appetite for learning which hopefully lasts a life time.

I imagine and wish for education to be

1. an individual life-long learning journey that is supported by an inter-generational community or network which fosters a sense of connectedness;

2. a community of practice where one learns useful skills that empower and lead to meaningful work and contribution;

3. a place of support, creativity and inspiration for life’s core questions, providing a scaffolding for anyone in a phase of transition, who might be living with the question of ‘What’s next?’ and more importantly ‘What matters to me?’ and ‘What is my task?’

With two like-minded friends and colleagues, I recently established the Toru Education Trust to transform some of these imaginations into reality. Toru’s mission is:

To provide experiential education opportunities that nurture people, planet and spirit, and to encourage the self organized creation of such opportunities.

Founding Toru Trustees signing the trust deed

The name ‘toru’ (Māori for three) is inspired by the phenomena of threefold views, for example:

- the permaculture ethics (people care, earth care and fair share of resources),

- an imagined society deeply embracing ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ (derived from the French Revolution ideals)

- viewing the human being as a sacred being of ‘body, soul and spirit’,

- a teaching style engaging ‘hands, heart and head’ (as practiced in Waldorf Schools).

The intention of Toru is to create an educational platform that is independent and warmly welcomes all who align with our core values of

- people care

- earth care

- fair share of resources

These three values reflect the open intention of the permaculture ethics and principles. These principles are derived from many cultures and are a key design tool, originally applied in regenerative agriculture. They have now found applications in many realms of life, including the social one. I consider them a healthy and flexible scaffolding of support for personal and professional decision making.

Where did the inspiration for Toru come from?

In my searching towards articulating the openness in Toru Education, I have been deeply inspired by Paul Hawken and his book Blessed Unrest (2007) where he shows an intentional lack of definition and categorisation. He describes the phenomena of grassroots movements, “how the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming,” and calls it an unnamed movement with three basic roots:

- environmental activism,

- social justice initiatives and

- indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization.

In his words: “It represents the rejection of one big idea being the answer and instead describing thousands of practical and useful options and ideas. This unnamed movement is humanity’s immune response to resist and heal the effects of political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation, whether they are the result of free-market, religious or political ideologies.”

I resonated with this deeply hopeful book and it seemed to point into the same direction as we were looking for with Toru.

Additionally, Toru Education has a direct link to Orientation Aotearoa , which in 2015 created an experiential education year for 18–25 year old New Zealanders — a year of living, working and learning together. As an ‘OA inspired seed’, Toru Education Trust carries on the values of OA as an experiential education initiative but has widened its scope and format, with the intention to make it accessible for all ages, creating an inter-generational community of practice.

So, what IS Toru Education?

Is this a permaculture university? Is this searching for a new form of tertiary education? Is this a values based network and/or a movement? Well, maybe a little bit of all of the above. It is likely to shy away from any rigid definition to begin with.

Natural Building workhop in Otaki, March 2017

The identity of Toru will be shaped, formed and continuously re-formed through its activities and the stories of the people it attracts. At its simplest current form today it is the legal container for a variety of practical hands-on courses, taking place in Horowhenua/Kapiti Coast, see www.toru.nz

A Community of Practice as a possible future vision

Beyond this simplest and most practical form of delivering life skills courses stands an imagination for a community of practice; a caring community of self-responsible lifelong learners who consider life experiences and challenges to be the curriculum and who are grounded in the geographical and cultural setting of Aotearoa where they cultivate locally connected clusters of learners and tutors.

I hope individual learning journeys become a key thread of Toru, where life long learners develop a self-designed educational trail, based on his/her own interests and skills. Such learning journeys may include courses, internships, working, wwoofing, self-study projects, pilgrimage, intentional travelling, and more. There is no limit. Individuals may choose to work alongside practicing masters and experts in their chosen fields. Some might help each other to be accountable at individually appropriate and challenging levels. Others may simply utilize some of the resources and networks that Toru Education has compiled but otherwise be completely independent.

Toru Education Trust could facilitate the creation of sacred spaces and times for gatherings to share each other’s stories, support challenges and celebrate milestones. The Trust would continue to provide practical courses and would also warmly invite and encourage self-organised courses and workshops like an ongoing ‘Open Space’ network. The roles could be shared and exchanged, not only the roles of teachers and learners but also the role of the organiser/coordinator. Through such interactions it would be easy to find role models and your tribe of like-minded colleagues.

Permaculture Design Course Otaki 2016

Looking further afield on the international horizon, examples of similar ideas that I find deeply inspiring are:

organisations like Open Masters (www.openmasters.org); Classroom Alive (www.classroomalive.com); Swaraj University (www.swarajuniversity.org); Gaia University www.gaiauniversity.org); and Schumacher College (www.schumachercollege.org.uk);

networks like the ‘Walkouts Network’ (www.berkana.org);

events like the annual Bioneer Conferences (www.bioneers.org); and Initiative Forum (www.yip.se).

All of these strive to find practical and visionary solutions to pressing environmental and social challenges of our time.

My wish is that Toru Education may eventually take on a residential form to give the Community of Practice a concrete base. We continue to receive requests for courses connected to the topics of urban farming, food systems and food production. How about a small model farm as a first step?

Imagineering is fun!! I find it easy to imagine an economically sound and socially healthy experiential ‘University of Life’ that is nimble and responsive to the people’s interests!! Living it!!

In the meantime, I am preparing my little garden in Paekakariki as a ‘classroom’ for the next gardening course, to role model that everyone can grow their own food, no matter how small their place, and, no matter how big your ideas, they tend to begin with one small first step. Interested? I am always open to chats over cups of coffee!

Doris Zuur (doris.zuur@gmail.com)

Toru Education Trustee

Doris’ home garden in Paekakariki



Doris Zuur

“Living it!” Permaculture, supporting authentic personal development, practical life skills and service. Taking time for what matters. www.toru.nz