Permaculture Design as a Pedagogical Resource

November 8, 2017

This article was first written as a proposal for new pedagogy in Norwegian schools. It is updated here in a wider context for regenerative pedagogical design.

Permaculture Design as a Pedagogical Resource: A proposal for the development of new pedagogy through deep ecology and permaculture design principles.

Major societal change in the coming decades necessitates new pedagogical design and sustainable instructional methodology. This proposal makes the case for using a permaculture design model as a resource to create an ecologically regenerative pedagogy for a sustainable future.

The Future of Industrial Societies; A Case for Collapse?

In February 2014 a rather obscure mathematical study published in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics, gained sudden popular notoriety as a prediction of societal collapse within the next decades. The study, with the long title, ‘Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies’ (Motesharrei 2014) was termed ‘a thought experiment’, using a variation of mathematical modeling based on the more common Predator/Prey model and including four variables; commoners, elites, nature, and labor. According to the authors, their model demonstrates that economic stratification or ecological strain can both lead to societal collapse, but that collapse can be avoided ‘if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably. (Motesharrei 2013, 90)

Before the study was even published in Ecological Economics, it was the subject of an article in The Guardian, UK. The Guardian article billed it as ‘partly-sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center’ (Ahmed14.03.2014) which led both to a quick rebuttal by NASA (NASA Press, 20.03.2014) and to a lengthy explanation in a Q and A published by Elsevier (in which the authors of the article specify that although mathematical models can determine inclinations and trends, they are not specifically predictive tools (Van Hensenbergen 2014). In fact not all of the models, or ‘thought experiments’ in the study lead to societal collapse; a model with shared resources leads to a ‘soft landing’, according to the authors. Finally, a model that creates equitable sharing of resources and a depletion of labor (fewer working hours in tandem with a corresponding drop in resource depletion) leads to a sustainable society. (Motesharrei 2014, 100)

Nevertheless, the collapsible cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Whether or not the HANDY four variable model is predicting the collapse of society, as we know it, it creates a clear mathematical case for a correlation between nature and labor variables, the use and depletion of natural resources, and the inclination for societal collapse. This study is not alone. Other studies, most notably one by the UK Government on ‘the perfect storm’ of predictors for societal collapse (Beddington 2009) and a business funded study by KMPG titled ‘Expect the Unexpected’ (KPMG 10.02.2012); also outline trends and inclinations for societal collapse in the coming decades if industrial societies continue ‘business as usual’ and comments, ‘Trend projections prepared without consideration of the entire system of sustainability megaforces no longer provide an adequate basis for strategic business decisions. Systems thinking around sustainability embraces the entire structure of megaforces rather than its individual constituents. It is an important way to assess and manage new risks and uncover risks that were previously unidentified.’ (KPMG 10.02.2012, 4)

Faced with the evidence of what is termed by KMPG as ‘megaforces’ that can and very likely will create huge changes to the structure and the very viability of society in the coming decades, a pedagogical response is naturally ‘What will we teach our children in order to help them to weather and manage change in a highly unpredictable and crisis fraught future? How will we help our children to become highly caring, engaged, conceptually deep and critical thinking individuals who will be able to create the solutions that are needed?

In this context, the development of deep learning with environmental awareness, and problem based educational resources leading to innovative teaching methods teamed with an environmental perspective in education, becomes not just a pleasant way of looking at the world, but an absolute necessity: we will be remiss if we do not change our educational models to adapt to and predicate the world our children will inherit.

Educational Reform

There are two main tenants that have traditionally dictated educational reform; these are first, theories and ideas about what society needs, either in terms of training and skills in the future or in terms of the development of social virtues, societal character, or national religious education, and second, philosophies and theories of child development. Compulsory education was originally based on the needs of society to have an educated workforce (grammar schools in England) or to have a shared cultural standard (compulsory reading education in Norway from as early as 1739). Child based reform movements, on the other hand, most remarkably by Rousseau, Dewey, Montessori, Steiner, and Vygotsky, based educational philosophy on the nature and needs of the child, arguing that children are naturally curious, learn through experiential learning and on their own agency, and have spiritual and personal needs that should be met.

In the last several decades, reform has swung back towards standards based, or outcomes based education, to ensure that all members of society have basic skills that can be offered back to society. The drive for outcomes based education is based at least in part on economic needs; as western populations grow older, the percentage of economically active people will shrink and the percentage of economically dependent people will grow. (OECD 2008).

Good educational pedagogy and resource design should both meet the needs and nature of the child and serve to develop a population that can participate productively, in society. In the best sense, good pedagogy should lead to regeneration of society and the wider ecology. In addition, pedagogy can be a tool to advance the development of mentalities, attitudes, and principles deemed important by the society and for the future. A deep learning, ecologically based pedagogy can meet all three of these needs. There has perhaps never been a more important time for this to happen than now, when the changes that society and indeed the natural world, are facing are in such rapid transition as has not been seen in previous generations.

The Need for a Permaculture Pedagogy

Permaculture is often perceived as a design tool for developing land based design, but this is not accurate, or rather, it is just a very small part of the definition and scope of permaculture design. Permaculture is a design protocol, a method for seeing and creating sustainable and regenerative structures and cycles, based on ecological principles. To this end, permaculture principles and design methods are applicable to all structural entities, both natural and social. As a design protocol, permaculture principles are based on those found in nature, and natural solutions are proposed for solving problems in the environment. In a social context, permaculture provides a methodology for creating regenerative social structures. In education, the design protocol is useful in the planning and creation of a sustainable pedagogy and in the planning and delivery of instruction, or teaching methodology.

Up to the present day, most permaculture pedagogy has revolved around either the instruction of permaculture itself or the design of school gardens for children. A handful of projects have looked at using permaculture in the classroom, usually in science classes, to develop ecological understanding. Permaculture has also been used in social and cultural design, from designing small businesses to strategic planning in organizations, initiatives in transition communities, earthquake relief in Haiti, community re-development in New Orleans, and peace initiatives in Palestine. (Macnamara 2012)

The use of permaculture as a design tool serves as a resource for instructional design of curriculum, and deep learning classroom methodology, specifically. There are only a very small number of people currently investigating a pedagogical use of permaculture design, most located in the areas around Portland and Seattle in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and just starting, in Europe. One, the Institute for Permaculture Education in Portland, Oregon, offers teacher training in educational design and curriculum development. The only other investigation in permaculture for educational design known to this researcher is a bachelor level study titled ‘From Alienation to Integration: Using Permaculture to Create a New Ecological Framework for K-12 Education’, by Morgan Wright. (Wright 2014) Wright proposed a ‘manifesto’ and a hypothetical school program based on permaculture principles in her final project for a Bachelor of Arts program in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Although a limited study, it provided a very good overview of how permaculture is useful in designing pedagogy, and it is hoped that Wright will go on to develop many of her ideas in practical environments.

In Europe, The European Permaculture Teachers’ Partnership is beginning to look at the development of permaculture as a comprehensive educational reform such as that of Montessori, or Boeke.

Deep Learning and Permaculture Design

Deep learning is a term used pedagogically to refer to student oriented, inquiry based, and differentiated methodologies that will aim for cooperation with learning partnerships and community, and result in students being innovative problem solvers who can creatively evolve and connect in an increasingly integrated world. Permaculture design is a tool for holistic solutions-based design. Based on natural interactions and processes, the Earth and its cycles, and regenerative ecology , it defines elements and functions in a system, makes connections and creates cooperative, mutually beneficial and productive relationships. The nature of the design process, embedded in natural systems, also puts us in tune with nature itself.

Permaculture design is deeply integrated with the elements it is working with, so that it is naturally individualized, specific, and in tune with the needs and potential yields, or outcomes, of the design. As a highly specific and differential tool, it creates tailored solutions to specific situations. In a school and learning context, permaculture thinking and design tools will serve to create individualized, specific and integrated solutions for the contexts in which it is applied. It gives the educator the ability to use one set of principles and tools, but create myriad ‘out of the box’ solutions, and at the same time, to layer and ‘stack’ solutions so that they impact several elements and functions, and have a wide ‘ripple effect’ through a population of learning communities, from students to groups of students, teachers, parents, and the wider community.

Applied to curriculum design, permaculture principles ensure the interaction between elements (subject matter, age groups, teacher-student or student-student or school community), and creates individual solutions tailored to specific students and aimed at sustainability and regenerative solutions. It develops an inquiry based, hands on and solution orientation, the development of integrated, critical thinking mentalities in children, a focus on productivity, and a methodology for the expansion and interactions in a wave or ripple effect, to knowledge connects across subjects and interactively across social groups.

Permaculture Ethics

Permaculture design rests on three ethics and a set of design principles. Understanding the ethics and principles, as well as design thinking and tools, will allow us to create learning environments that are natural and effective, that take into account the child as a natural element in his or her environment, not apart from, and not assailed by nature, but a unique and integral part of it. Including the child in the natural environment or rather, recognizing the inclusion that already exists, will bring about the environmental attitudes, senses and feelings that will lead to accountability and the motivation to contribute to the sustainable development of society.

The three permaculture ethics are Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. When these ethics are incorporated into a pedagogy, they will provide immense support for the development of a sustainable society. The principles, likewise, will provide structure at an instructional level for pedagogues working with deep learning in learning communities.

Patterns and Cycles

Permaculture design goes well beyond the ethics, delving into energy flow, resource creation, depletion, and regeneration, abundance and diversity, economy and forms of capital, and the intersections of natural and social structures. The study of natural patterns and erosion and growth cycles provide insight into the ways that structures evolve or devolve and the ways that elements and people interact. All of these elements can provide areas of research into the development of deep learning pedagogy. The influence and interaction of natural patterns and cycles takes place at several levels, informing theories of child development, influencing teacher training, affecting the development of instructional resources, and bundling resources and solutions into curricular and pedagogical design. Mirroring nature, the use of a permaculture design protocol leads to solid, effective, and sustainable design.

Permaculture Principles

Design through permaculture is often aided by a set of design principles that mimic and reflect natural and ecological processes. For this paper, a brief discussion of the principles, and their application to deep learning methodologies, pedagogical theory and resource design, is provided below:

Principle 1. Observe and Interact.

This first principle is meant to include the actor in the action, as an integral part of the nature of an element or design. It also aims at creating long and slow design; there is no quick fix in working with plants, or with children and young people. A pedagogue needs to recognize that a child has a nature or his or her own, and is a unique actor in his or her own natural environment. In this context, there is no justification for creating curriculum in a back room, away from interaction with children; curriculum becomes a direct result of observing and interacting with children in their environment. A related idea is this: that a child cannot actually be made to learn, just as, metaphorically, a plant cannot be made to grow. Instead, the gardener, and we as pedagogues, work with the surrounding environment to make it as amenable to growth as possible. In teaching, we create learning engagements and developmental constructs and provide knowledge or instruction, but it is the child him or herself who learns and grows. This seems a simple construct yet it is profound in the design process.

Through this principle, we will explore ways to interact and observe child behavior with an aim to creating curricular resources and a new pedagogy. This will include using pre-assessment tools to understand the child’s knowledge level or notional thinking, and planning for differentiation based on each child’s stage of knowledge and understanding.

Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy

In the learning community, this principle of Catch and Store Energy refers to motivational energy as well as physical stamina for work and productivity. What energy is available in the children themselves, through raw physical energy, motivation, inspiration, and the desire to act and affect their environment? What energy is available in the teachers (who are also learners) or in the wider community? How do time cycles and intervals affect the energy in the learning community? What factors in the learning community dissipate energy? What types of energy are more negative or more positive in the community, or in the child himself, or herself, and how can negative energy be transferred to positive energy? How can physical mental, or psychic energy be stored and made available for use? How can positive energy move from one actor (child or pedagogue) to another? These are some of the questions that a deep learning permaculture pedagogy will ask, in order to create design protocols that will help pedagogues answer them in their own learning environments.

Principle 3: Obtain a Yield.

The main meaning of this principal is that there must be an outcome, and productivity must take place. All too often students seem to be in school just to pass the time- this principle encourages pedagogues to ensure that individuals and communities are productive, that they create their own meaning, that they are purposeful, and that their inquiry is based in real world problem solving and leads to satisfactory conclusions.

In the realm of pedagogy, this principle leads us to question the yield we are looking for in children, or even in the society itself. Is it only knowledge or traditional skills? What deeper understandings will be the outcome of this course of study? What are the yields, or outcomes for children’s development that will be the most important in the decades to come? What should our priorities be? What are the yields in attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that we want to see in children and in professionals working with them? What permaculture design tools can be used in the learning community to obtain those yields?

Principle 4: Apply Self Regulation and Accept feedback.

This principle will guide the designers in creating feedback loops in both the design and function of curriculum development. Working with projects in schools, we are encouraged to identify what is working and what is not working, and to ensure that systems are working well. In the classroom, a teacher is encouraged to use self regulation and evaluation and at the same time children can be encouraged to create their own self regulation measures. Here our permaculture design tools will be used to help us assess and identify weaknesses in the system or our design, reach out to our partners and participants for feedback, and make changes as needed.

Principle 5: Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services.

At the pedagogical level, this principle has deeper nuance, and can be interpreted as an advisory to use those elements of existing pedagogy, services and personal that already exist. It can be further interpreted to remind us that a main tenant of a permaculture pedagogy should result in a reduction of consumptive behavior and a reduction of our dependence on non-renewable resources. Finally, it can be refer to multi-function solutions, thus ‘recycling’ an element into many different functions.

In other cases it may be a teaching resource that is renewable, and usable in many new contexts. Many resources come out of the natural interactions in the classroom: A simple event in the classroom, a conflict and apology and resolution, or a lost and found loved object, or a sudden problem solving, might become a resource for instruction, story making, letter writing, or ongoing action.

Technology use is a prime example of a physical resource that is renewable and multi-functional: a laptop or pc is one element that provides a myriad of functions in the learning community, for research, practice, communication, a reading platform, an organizational tool, or a video viewer. As we develop the pedagogy and accompanying curriculum, this principle will guide us in making sure that these resources are evident in instruction and in practice.

Principle 6: Produce No Waste.

The concept that we can value and make use of all the resources available to us will help us we develop a wider deep learning pedagogy. At the same time, nothing in terms of planning, time, or personal resources should go to waste in the design of these methodologies. This principle will guide the design in terms of making do with what we have to work with, looking toward the reuse of familiar resources in new ways, and making sure not to waste those resources we have in the development of curriculum and pedagogy. Finally, in view of working within the learning community, this principle guides us to use all the resources of the classroom or learning space, all the talents of students, the talents and resources in the wider community, all the ideas generated, and all the energy on hand.

In the classroom, this principle means more than recycling paper or food waste. It can lead to the design of instruction that makes use of all available human and material resources, and interpreted as an admonition not to waste the talent, energy, skills, knowledge or other resources provided by students, colleagues, or the community. As a planning tool at this level, the principle will engage teachers and curriculum planners in taking stock of resources and developing new uses for them, thus also recycling human, intellectual, and material capital in the design process. The permaculture maxim that each element in a design can lead to several functions also supports this design principle.

Principle 7: Design from Patterns to Details.

This principle encourages us to step back and design generally before specifically. It means that we should start with the end pedagogy in mind, rather than simply designing a series of ‘activities’ within the existing curriculum. It also advises us to step back and look for patterns in the existing society and the existing educational framework that can form the backbone for new design. We can ask questions such as ‘What are the patterns in the educational system that can support a deep learning curriculum?’ and ‘How can we design a pedagogical framework to support deep learning’ At the curricular level, this principle encourages us to make use of a backwards design model as advocated by Wiggins and McTighe:

‘One starts with the end — the desired results (goals or standards) — and then derives the curriculum from the evidence of learning (performances) called for by the standard and the teaching needed to equip students to perform’ Wiggins and McTighe, 2000, 8)

This is referred to as ‘backcasting’ in permaculture pedagogy. Backcasting is a valuable design tool to ensure that elements in the curriculum or actions in the classroom are intended to reach a desired end.

At the classroom or learning space level, this principle also encourages the teacher to work and plan from whole to part. In planning activities for a group of learners, we are advised by this principle to step back and look for patterns in the ways that individuals act, in groupings, in patterns of behavior, even movement patterns in a classroom or space, and in social interactions that will help in designing a particular activity. Additionally, classroom activities, as mentioned above, do not stand alone as pleasant ways to pass the time or single investigations of an element of knowledge or skill, but tie into the larger scope of intended outcomes. The teacher needs to plan for deep understanding first, then design the learning engagements that observation and interaction with the child has shown will help advance the child to that stage of understanding.

Principle 8: Integrate rather than Segregate.

In nature companion plants and stacking structures are common examples of this principle. Plants do not do well in isolation and neither do children.

At the level of the learning engagements, this principle reminds the pedagogue to create activities that are integrated by subject, or skills, or interests. Math is not studied or learned alone; it is embedded in problem solving, which is embedded in a deeper conceptual inquiry. In the context of that inquiry, math may integrate with history, science, or reading. Likewise, we it is necessary to integrate the learning community, whether by age or background or experience or language and cultural background. There are very exciting implications here for the design of activities and learning engagements that integrate the child with his or her home elements, children from various age groups, pensioners and children, others from the community, those with diverse cultural backgrounds, and people with varied experience, for just a few examples.

Principle 9: Use Small and Slow Solutions.

Just when we get excited about all the things we might do, this principle reminds us to start small and build slowly, taking the time to create systems and design programs that make use of few resources, using local resources first, and taking the time, as per principles 1 and 4, to observe and interact, accept feedback and self-regulate the growth and direction of the project.

In the design of curriculum, this principle reminds us to take it slowly and design small and slow systems, not to ‘bite off more than one can chew’. It will be wise to start designing permaculture pedagogy with small solutions for resources at an instructional level, taking time to measure and review the effectiveness of these resources in action in classrooms and with varied groups of learners. The most effective resources can then be ‘stacked’ and bundled into curricular solutions.

At the classroom or learning community level the same principle applies to taking time with activities and learning engagements, making time to find out what is happening, to inquiry into why and how, to not rush learners, allow for ‘slow learning’ rather than creating activities, pedagogy or curriculum that requires rushing through huge amounts of learning material.

Principle 10: Use and Value Diversity.

In nature, diversity in a garden reduces a variety of threats and allows for an abundance of yield. Diversity is the basis of regenerative design. In this project, the principle can be interpreted to mean we should create and allow for a diversity of opportunities and offerings in the curriculum. Student based deep learning means that the student will bring his or her own diversity, own unique perspective and interests, to a project. Many students, each with a valuable perspective, interest, or expertise, lend diversity and richness and depth to learning. The various ‘pillars’ of each students expertise work to create a basis for critical comparison that leads to the formation of generalizations and then to deep understandings. (Erikson) A model that uses student interest and diversity in this way can create deep learning even in young children.

Although the design should be small and slow, it should also make use of diverse resources and diverse solutions. In non- linear design, one initiative leads to another: a student’s question or observation leads to another student posing a question, to a generalization and then a new set of questions or a new line of inquiry.

In permaculture pedagogy, diversity of offerings, activities, methods and approaches all allow for an abundance of yield within the learning community. It is important to value the diversity of learners and of their experiences, interests, and inclinations as well. It is important to realize that diversity in society and in the learning environment brings strength to the whole, and to encourage and make use of that diversity.

Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal.

Edges in growing spaces and in gardens, along hedgerows and paths, around ponds or river edges, are often the places where there is the most diversity and where the interface between systems create abundant yields. This principle is an advisory to think beyond the conventional in designing and planning, to look for solutions at the edges of what is normal. In the classroom it guides us to make use of the ideas of the child who is the ‘outsider’ or ‘outlier’, to value the marginal ideas, the ones that at first seem ‘outside the box’, to look beyond the conventional. Many times, it is the child with the less ordinary background, or mental construct, or temperament, who offers the most diverse solutions and therefore the road to more divergent and deeper thinking in a classroom. In a faculty, it might be the outlying idea which has the richest value.

Principle 12: Creatively Use and Respond to Change.

The final principle takes us back to our first thesis, that the rate and amount of change we can expect in the next decades, due to climate change, food and water scarcity, migrant populations, and many other factors, will be greater than we have seen before. This principle encourages us to creatively use and respond to that change, as change is inevitable. In nature it is change that produces diversity and evolution. Societal change demands a concomitant change in pedagogy that will help to foster a well-balanced, ecologically minded, flexible, creative, critical thinking and problem solving population that can respond to and deal with that change.

Permaculture Pedagogy and Child Development

Thus far, we have looked at the ways that teachers and pedagogues can make use of permaculture design principles to create resources, learning experiences, and curricular solutions for deep learning in schools and for students. The use of permaculture principles to design learning engagements for children will necessarily lead to experiential learning, as they are the direct result of ‘observation and interaction’ with the child, and of an investigation into and use of the child’s environment. Resources developed will thus be hands on, problem and inquiry based, and lead to critical thinking.

However, another dimension exists in teaching permaculture design principles directly to children. As students begin to understand the principles at work in the design of the projects and investigations they are working on, they will be able to use the design principles for themselves as well. Thus, students will be able to develop their own self efficacy, to reflect for instance, on how they best catch and store energy for the tasks they engage in, to become responsible and proactive in their productivity (obtaining a yield), and to apply self-regulation and receive feedback in order to set goals for themselves. They will learn to integrate with others as well as to integrate diverse ideas, and to value diversity. They will develop a resilience that will allow them to design their own learning, responding to and making use of change, taking risks with edges and margins while making use of slow solutions and valuing the resources they find in themselves, in others, and in their environment. In this way, the use of permaculture principles will also serve as the foundation for character development and resilience. Children raised in a permaculture pedagogy will be self-aware, self-acting, productive, growth minded, goal oriented and ecologically sensitive.

The Design Cycle

This paper provides only an introduction to the use of permaculture tools for regenerative design in schools. In order to fully implement permaculture design principles in school settings, we should work with a complete design cycle. This is a larger task that includes site design and the use of regenerative design models to map out nested wholes, find and work with patterns, zones, yields, and guilds, and investigate potential in place. A start to this work is taking place through The Small Earth Institute in Norway; the reader is invited to visit the website for more information.

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http://www.smallearthinstitute.com: deep ecology, permaculture and regenerative design


Teaser photo credit: By original: Johann Dréo (talk · contribs)translation: Pro bug catcher (talk · contribs) – Own workInspired from Developpement durable.jpgTranslated from Developpement durable.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1587372

Katharine Burke

Katharine Burke, an educator for over 30 years, is a passionate advocate for students, teachers, and teaching as well as for deep ecology, permaculture and the green shift.  She has taught English and literature to all ages from 6 years old to college students. She has a Permaculture Design Certificate and recently completed the Regenerative Design Practitioner course with the Regenesis Group. Katharine is passionate about bringing deep ecology, regenerative design and permaculture principles into schools and in training teachers in deep ecology and regenerative design. To this end, she started The Small Earth Institute (Skoppum, Norway) to offer deep ecology and regenerative design initiatives.

Tags: building resilient education systems, building resilient societies, permaculture design