Teaching Permaculture

Can you do action learning on action learning?

The result of 10+ yrs of experimentation in permaculture action-learning (with mostly '(over-) developed world', ie. very privileged, often entitled people) was a profound realization of just how much our everyday ways of thinking are both cause and effect of the massive destruction of eco-systems that our civilization is engaged in.

We learned both -

1) how easily we can heal those internal battles, with the simple tools we teach on the People Care module.  

2) and how very difficult it is to make the initial decision to break out of destucto-cultural habits.


The Challenge 

of Teaching/Learning Permaculture

Permaculture is not a series of environmentally friendly technologies and certainly it is not a way of doing agriculture - it is a whole new way of thinking: systemic, holistic and integral. 

So it is a way of thinking that does not 'fit all that well' with most of the rest of what our current culture teaches us, which tends to be atomized, disconnected & linear - and that is mostly the heart of the seemingly intractable, interrelated problems we face, and can't resolve within the same paradigm that created them. 

Ideally permaculture teaches us how to think systemically, a very critical skill in our time in history.    

Ideally it teaches us how to think in terms of the big"We" instead of the individualistic and omnipresent "Me, me, ME" we are heavily trained into, by our infantilizing, at best adolescent, culture.

And ideally it teaches us how to put clear & stated ethics, openly, at the center of our life, and which ethics.

But this is clearly not what we see in practice.  Even after decades of teaching permaculture with ethics, principles and many examples, what we see in reality is that there is much copying and little design, much individualism and little real cooperation, much linear thinking and little global, systemic thinking.

So many permaculture teachers have thought about how to improve the way we teach, and wondered if there was a mistake at the didactic level.   

The book by David Holmgren, re-framing the principles, is one of such re-thinks, and at the level of theory: how the basics are explained, how the principles are organized, etc.  

Additionally, we have seen a very creative trend dedicated to making permaculture courses look as different as possible to 'school' or university, by cutting out lectures by the tutor as much as possible and emphasizing 'experiential learning', group work and enjoyment, rather than only transmitting 'theory' which is then equated with some dry, antiquated & also very oppressive way of transmitting knowledge from the old to the new generations.

In fact there is, let's be honest, also quite a bit of (understandable, if not justifie) questioning of whether the old generations even have anything of value to transmit: after all, look at what state the world is in.

Having studied, lived and also inflicted some of the 'creative teaching' techniques that are still fashionable in some permaculture circles, I came to suspect that this trend is mostly based in an error of perception based on us still labouring under the old models for learning.

But it was especially the results of my 3 year research project that convinced me.  This involved interviewing the most experienced & skilled, truly systemic-thinking permaculture pioneers I could find, primarily with the aim of figuring out what they had in common in terms of how they were taught, and not only permaculture.    

And the simple reality is that most of these great permaculture pioneers had been taught permaculture by little more than their tutor lecturing them at great length, with few brakes or discussion, and a very occasional diagram on a whiteboard.    So much for 'creative teaching', yet very creative, able permaculture pioneers resulted.  How could that happen?

So I came to the conclusion that it is the models (fundamental ideas & thinking) behind our teaching practice, not the methods or techniques, that really count.   This was coupled with years of my own experience as a permaculture practitioner and teacher.

Not that I think that 'theory-only' teaching is sufficient, since it clearly it isn't enough for some, or even most of us: but is only insufficient for those of us lacking the curiosity, confidence or opportunity to go DO what their permaculture course teaches them, straight away, and with some kind of reliable feedback - and not just the feedback of 'Real Life's school of hard knocks', either.   

Because it is definately true that 'practice makes perfect' and that anything is ultimately learned  through whole-body, & own experience - but how do we accelerate that process?   I no longer think it is through trying to re-educate people about learning styles during a permaculture course.   I think it is through creating the kind of long-term learning communities that enable real human relationships to form between experienced and inexperienced permaculture designers, long-term.

And those can't be faked.   No matter how delightful the pseudo-community (honey-moon) phase that all short permaculture courses happen within, if there is no continuity, no well-designed opportunities to truly engage in relationship long-term, we are not so likely to find the 'learning tribe' or permaculture community that  

It is definately NOT by reducing the attention or time we put on transmitting clear, good theory.  Far too often I've seen people stuck in "how do I apply permaculture in my own life?" not because of lack of opportunities or resources, but through a profound lack of imagination mostly due to not having a clear grasp of basic permaculture theory.     

The classic is "I can't do permaculture because I have no land".  If that were true, we're certainly doomed: the vast majority of us have no access to land, at least not in the sense that a conventionally thinking person would understand.

If the tutors are not very skilled in lateral thinking (and let's face it, really good designers of anything are basically very good lateral thinkers..) there is little hope they will be able to transmit - or even value - that skill in their students.     And it is very interesting, in exploring 'different ways of teaching permaculture' to observe that we tend to use the same models as the 'destructo-culture' uses, even as we embellish them with games, 'creative activities' and such like.   Which is why even the most fun modern courses don't actually result in much better designers, even as they do result in happier (better entertained?) 'clients'.

Action Learning about Action Learning

We explored for several years in an innovative action-learning program in Finca Luna, to try teach in another way: giving the whole theory during a Certificate course, but then just leaving a space (a half-hectare farm, all still to be designed) where each person could take on the design any part of the system: starting with the current designs (or non-existent designs).    And with plenty of time to observe, adapt, think.

These were also, simultaneously, experiments in community-living and group-work of course: a very challenging combination.  

And it seems that it is simply very difficult to get out of this pattern: not only for the 'teachers' *, but mainly because at the 'student' * level it is that we have all been used for decades in our educational system and what we expect.    We are even willing to fight for our right to be treated as customers.     We are institutionalized creatures, and somehow we want to stay with the familiar, even though we talk of wanting other things. 

 * (In action learning there generally are no static teachers and students, for this reason the terms are in quotes) 

Yet the permaculture principle 'the problem is the solution' is also manifested here: fortunately, it is in EXACTLY this gap between intention and real life, where people evolve. 

At Finca Luna try to create an environment in which to jump (without falling) this gap - between our ideals and practice. 

Specifically it is about changing paradigms, so we can resolve what in the old ways of thinking show up as contradictions.

For eg.  
  • We  want to learn to design, but want someone to tell us exactly how to do things. 
  • We want to live in community but we want to keep doing whatever we feel like doing and being individualistic. 
  • We want to be more sustainable but do not want to leave any of our addictions. 
  • We want to live in contact with nature, but not follow its rhythms, nor its 'inconvenient' ways. 
  • We want others to accept us as we are but we do not want to accept others in the same way. 
  • We want experts to give us their time to teach us many things but we do not want to give our time in exchange to give  something useful to them. 
  • We want everything to be as cheap as possible but we also want to have everything we think we need, materially. 
  • We want to be independent but we want others to look after us and keep us as well. 
  • We want to learn new things but we want to continue acting and being exactly the same people as before. 
  • We want to be creative but do not want to do the constant & disciplined work that is an essential part of any creation. 
  • We want to travel a lot and we also want to feel connected to the earth, or a community. 
  • We want to do practical things and be active, to create structures that will endure over time, but we do not wish to  sweat or do physical work more than two consecutive hours, or take the time to do all the details properly. 
  • We want passionate lives and to feel in touch with the Universe, but we do everything to avoid feeling and expressing our feelings fully. 
  • We want to feel closeness and connection with others but we focus mainly on our differences. 
  • We want to be part of the solution but we keep causing problems in our own lives and those of others. 
  • We want to be treated as equals (especially with the leaders), but we don't really want to take any real responsibility. 
  • We want to feel free but we blame someone or something else, if there is no structure that discipline us. 

All these contradictions actually do resolve themselves, once we leave old ways of thinking. 

& it is a fantastic and exciting journey ... although we do not always appreciate the opportunities offered, when there are waves  :)

The very encouraging results were that where people decided to actually APPLY what they learned in their PDC (especially the harder parts of Module 1: People Care, the tools of self-transformation & community-building), they invariably made great jumps in both personal development and also in design skills.

This is because both revolve around an ability to see things in original ways, do our own thinking, to not be limited by habit or prejudice, to question everything, but especially by a fundamentally radical decision to embrace change.   In particular the people who made good use of the transformative opportunity had in common a strong ethic of personal honesty.  

We came to really understand very powerfully & in practice, how the interior & exterior worlds are completely inter-connected.   Living in a more rational system (one which does not indulge our addictions for comfort) quickly brings to the surface our darkest sides, and these have to be confronted and transformed if we are to advance - both as individuals and as a society.     In turn, it is only when we are free of the destructive patterns of thinking that we can really hope to design anything more rational and sustainable 'out there'.    And so the inner & outer are actually one.

The very discouraging results were that very few of the people however made that brave decision.    Most (about 90%) decided to fall back into the old & very standard destructo-cultural habits of complaining, blaming others, victimizing themselves, and not questioning their own thinking.     

Some notable successes even 'discovered their dark side' for the very first time, and instead of blaming it on others, took full responsibility for processing what they were faced with, using the models supplied by the course.

Those who chose to not take responsibility sometimes even proceeded to do use their leadership & organizational skills to launch attacks on permaculture colleagues, and to try to persuade others to take on their hateful world-views and perceptions.  

Some managed to organize mass-mutinies instead of using their intelligence to improve the system (and actually design something useful).

The system we designed to be a microcosm of society as much as possible, ended up showing the patterns we do, indeed, see in wider society.  The small but vicious wars we play out amongst ourselves are a very accurate reflection of the wars nations engage in.   
& much more interesting, it proved to us that they can be transformed.

These wars are not going to end by superimposing platitudes & 'positive thinking' on top of the seething mass of 'shadow material' we all carry (quite understandably, given we're all products of a profoundly oppressive & violent system), but by liberating that great energy that we are convinced into trapping into self-harm, by the current dominant culture.

We have the models & very good tools to do that (everything we include in Module1) - it is only a question of applying them.   

They are often quite uncomfortable to use (they do challenge us to re-design our interiors quite drastically), but the results are well worth it - and essential for anyone who pretends to re-design anything 'out there' to be something that won't just reproduce the same destructo-patterns we have so well internalized, in everything we do.

Articles by Stella Strega-Scoz
Coordinator Integral Permaculture Academy
March 2011

"Tell people something they know already

and they will thank you for it.


Tell them something new

and they will hate you for it."

(George Monbiot)

Decolonizing Permaculture

An article we wrote in 2015 for an issue of Permaculture Design magazine dedicated to 'Decolonizing Permaculture' touches on some of the issues raised in this article - about the difficulties of teaching permaculture.  


There's a dialogue related to this page in the Integral Permaculture FB group (click icon to go there)

There's a dialogue in our FB group about this subject (click icon to go there)