Thinking about permaculture…

Revisited: the continuing conversation about permaculture education

Permaculture education is not as controversial as it once was among permaculture practitioners. The different opinions are expressed less loudly now. A detente has settled over the issue. Yet, it still comes up now and again, as at the Australasian Permaculture Convergene in Perth, Western Australia, 2–5 October 2016.

It is common at the biennial permaculture convergences for old questions to reappear. That is just what happened at APC13 (the thirteenth Australasian Permaculture Convergence in 2016).

The reappearance of the conversation around what should be taught in design courses, what would make up the core components that all should teach and whether there is only one model that qualifies as the permaculture design course signifies that this remains one of permaculture’s hard-to-solve cases even though not as contested as in the past.

It is not a question for all, though. Many permaculture educators solved that puzzle for themselves by adopting their own course structures and, for the permaculture design course (PDC), have moved away from the model set up decades ago by the Permaculture Institute, a model widely adopted at the time that retains currency among some educators.

Course participants learn to make an organic garden at Randwick Sustainabiity Hub in sydney.

Addressing the question brought APC13 participants together in the big hall at the Swan Valley Adventure Centre where the convergence took place. There, they divided into tables to discuss permaculture introductory and design courses.

Accredited Permaculture Training (APT), the workplace qualification for those planning to use permaculture design in some professional, vocational way, was not considered because it has its own structure managed by Permaculture Australia’s Education Team.

The ongoing conversation around permaculture courses asks a number of questions:

  • should educators use only the structure and curriculum for the PDC set out by the Permaculture Institute?
  • is Bill Mollison’s Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual the only valid curriculum, and its chapters the only valid course structure for teaching the PDC?
  • what other PDC structures are in use?
  • given the diversity of courses available, what should be taught by all educators as core content?
Permaculture educator, Keri Chiveralls, records ideas during the education session at APC13.

A species of many varieties — the introductory permaculture course

Like beans in a permaculture garden, it is no secret that the introductory permaculture courses taught around the country are a species of many varieties. There is no generally-accepted structure for introductory courses although there seems to have evolved an informally-accepted set of core components such as the permaculture ethics, principles and design approaches like landuse zoning. Introductory courses are of variable length.

Many introductory courses focus on the permaculture approach to growing food. They have a home garden orientation. Others take an approach that positions permaculture as a design system with many applications. A course taught in Sydney at the Randwick Sustainability Hub by local government sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell and landscape architect, Steve Batley, for example, includes not only an introductory food gardening component and ideas on how those without gardens can buy their food from social enterprise such as food hubs and food co-operatives, but sessions on collaborative economy, home management and energy and water efficient home renovation.

The introductory permaculture course is a made-up course”, said one of the small group participants at the APC session, suggesting it is the work of individual educators teaching what they see fits an introductory course rather than some set range of topics.

People do not want to become teachers or designers”, said another.

Most want to do something at home”.

People want to learn to garden”, someone added.

Another comment was that we cram too much into what is commonly a two day course (course duration is variable; the permaculture introductory course at Randwick Sustainability Hub runs for seven half-days). Another said that the courses usually include sector identification that looks at the energies coming onto the design site, such as sun and shade patterns, runoff and seasonal winds, as well as the site analysis of conditions on-site. Then there’s the landuse zones, permaculture’s ethics, climate, land, soils, water, food production and collaborative food sharing. Another said that they do not include the principles of permaculture but they do include the ethics, planting, practicals and soil skills such as composting, soil pH assessment and mulching.

The conversation revealed the variability found in permaculture introductory courses and how they reflect individual educators’ ideas on what permaculture is. It is clear that topics can only be skimmed over, only introduced, in introductory courses and the skills participants leave with are limited.

The purpose of introductory courses came up. Comments were varied:

We must educate in designing for relevance and not recruitment to permaculture”.

We can use introductory courses to whet appetites for enrolling in a PDC”.

Building resilient communities and teaching permaculture as an interactive, collaborative design process should be a focus”.

First, though, comes identifying student differences, interests and background by introducing participants at the start,” one of the participants, as establiished and teacher-trained permaculture educator said. I have seen an educator use such a preliminary introductory activity to identify student ‘readiness for learning’ so that she knows how students perceive permaculture, what they already know, what their needs are and, thus, where in the course to place emphasis and the type of language that is applicable.

Unlike the PDC, there has been no preferred course content developed for permaculture introductory courses. It is clear from conversations at the APC session that the courses are variable in length, content and focus.

Documenting the permaculture education session at APC13.

A more vexed question — the PDC

The PDC is recognised worldwide by permaculture people but has no formal recognition by education authorities. That was the summation of one of the permaculture educators at a table. It is also a reason why Accredited Permaculture Training was invented and adopted in Australia. The certificates and diploma offered through APT are nationally recognised as workplace education.

The structure, curriculum and length of the PDC is an ongoing conversation in countries where it is taught. It is an unresolved question and is set to remain so.

Two schools of practice have emerged around it:

  • those who adhere to the Permaculture Institute’s model of the PDC as consisting of a curriculum that follows the contents of the book, Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual, its chapters as the subjects and a course length of 72 hours; (the Permaculture Institute was set up by Bill Mollison and colleagues in permaculture’s early days; the 72 hour residential course, over ten or so days, was based on the lecturing duration of a university semester)
  • a more liberal interpretation teaches what is regarded as core subjects then adds modules relevant to student needs, bioregion and other contextual factors; these courses are of variable length.

Veteran Western Australian permaculture educator, Ross Mars, put the question of course length into perspective when he said, “You cannot cover the Designers’ Manual or handbook with practicals in two weeks”.

Following this strand of thought someone made the observation that, “Some PDCs have no practical content”. They were referring to PDCs delivered in the academic tradition as a 72 hour course of lectures, the model adopted by Bill Mollison, assisted by the Permaculture Research Institute’s Geoff Lawton, late in Bill’s teaching career when the two offered courses at a Melbourne university.

Immersion in permaculture is important”, someone commented. “There is no point teaching a fixed curriculum. Teach how to problem-solve and think”, came another suggestion. ‘Radical pedagogy’ in which curriculum is not the thing or where there is no curriculum, was mentioned.

Notes at the APC13 permaculture education table discussions.

What about the content, the topics taught in a PDC?

Generation Z is not interested in the home scale”, came the comment. “They want to change the world”.

That was a reference to futurist, Annie Macbeth’s keynote address that opened the convergence. She discussed research into the priorities and practices of the different generations we find in permaculture.

Some of Bill’s 1985 handbook is not relevant today,” someone offered. The handbook was a guide to PDC curricula that has long ago gone out of circulation and was replaced by Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual.

What to exclude from the PDC? That comes down to a decision by individual educators. Suggestions included:

  • religion and spirituality
  • broadacre design
  • Keyline (a water management system invented by Australian, PA Yoemans)
  • other cultures
  • Holistic Resource Management (a rural landuse planning system developed by South African, Alan Savory)
  • anything not a design process
  • climatic zones
  • forestry
  • detail on alternative technology.

And, on teaching approaches to avoid:

  • the ‘chalk and talk’ approach to education
  • long lectures.
Futurist, Annie Macbeth, was a keynote speaker at APC13 where she presented on the behaviours of different generations and how permaculture could adapt to it.

Agreement on core topics is needed

As the permaculture design system in Australia has no unified leadership, no central authority, no head office, no legal stipulations about PDC structure and content, practitioners and educators have been free to develop their own approach. The result is the diversity of courses we find today.

What we seem to agree on is that within this diversity, this modularity of the PDC, we need a set of core topics that all educators agree to teach. Commonly mentioned are:

  • permaculture’s ethics
  • principles of permaculture (there are two main sets of principles, those developed by Bill Mollison and the set later developed by permaculture co-inventor, David Holmgren; they are compatible and it is in combination, in my opinion, that they are most useful)
  • characteristics of permaculture systems
  • the landuse zoning system based on frequency of visitation.

Needed: design thinking

Most of all, though — and here I add my own ideas — is that permaculture is a design system and it follows that design thinking should be a core component. This was hinted at by a participant at the table sessions when he said we should teach problem solving and thinking. Perhaps design thinking could be more than a topic. Would it be possible to make it the course structure and embed permaculture as its application in the PDC?

The session was a good revisit to the ongoing questions around permaculture courses, and while it came to no agreed conclusion it was well worth discussing the topic again. Doing this not only updates us on how our colleagues are thinking, but it clarifies the questions as well.

Permaculture is following its own evolutionary journey. Hatched on the winding strip of asphalt known as Strickland Avenue in the convoluted foothills of Hobart’s Kunanyi-Mt Wellington, and unleashed 40 years ago with the publication of the book, Permaculture One, the design system now offers a diversity of approaches to permaculture education.

This diversity is our reality. Let’s embrace and use it to take our design system to people who might have use of it in meeting their basic needs. And let’s use it to achieve a modest prosperity that should be one of the goals of all resilient cultures.

First published at



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.