How to Add Zest to Your Sustainability Education Program

Posted on June 7, 2010 by

How to Add Zest to Your Sustainability Education Program

Building with cob.


Author: Melanie Rios
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #147

I attacked my driveway with a sledgehammer the day after returning home from graduating from a permaculture design course. Soon friends from my community joined in, we rented a jackhammer for a few days, and within a few months, arugula and lettuce were growing where cars had been. My busy mind applied permaculture principles to everything from communicating with my family to improving the ecovillage where I lived to drafting proposals for rewriting our city’s zoning codes. Eventually I began teaching permaculture design courses, and became curious about how I might bring permaculture principles to the art of teaching. Could using permaculture principles in education help create an educational environment that is as full of productivity, beauty, and joy as a permaculture-inspired garden?

Permaculture principles are an evolving set of ideas that can be applied to designing gardens, homes, cities, or any other human-created structure, even those that are invisible, such as economic systems. Some permaculture principles are commonsense ideas that might be said by our grandmothers (e.g., “Work smarter, not harder” or “Mistakes are tools for learning”), while some have a more scientific tone (e.g., “Each element supports many functions, and every important function is supported by many elements”). I will describe here how I have used some of the principles developed by David Holmgren, cofounder of permaculture, to improve my teaching of permaculture design courses at the Camassia Institute in Oregon, where students live and work together for five weeks.

Observe and Interact

The first permaculture principle on almost every permaculturalist’s list is to observe before acting. When designing for someone’s home, for example, we notice such things as where the water flows, the sun lands, the animals travel, the wind blows, and the neighbors are noisy, before proposing where to put gardens, trees, buildings, and walls. How could this principle of observation be applied to teaching?

Towards the beginning of each program, I ask participants to write down what they already know about permaculture, what they’re wanting to learn in the course, and how they best learn. Then I meet with each participant individually over a meal to offer “permaculture career coaching,” listening to their goals and making suggestions for books, mentors, internships, and other resources that might help them take steps towards these goals. I also observe participants while they learn; some are most awake during discussions, but hang back during hands-on sessions, while others appear drowsy through lectures and are fully engaged while working outside. All of this data helps me as I plan future lessons.

Interactions with students become influenced by my observations of them. My goal is to honor each student as they are, while creating a safe, stimulating, and nourishing place for them to become more knowledgeable, self-directed, and empowered. Just as different plants thrive under different conditions depending on their needs, so students respond to different kinds of support.

One time, participants were taking turns standing up in front of the whole class to perform a skit, receiving applause when they were done. One participant said “I pass” when it was her turn to perform. How could I best support this person, who had appeared to be shy and uncomfortable since the course had begun? The other participants nervously watched how I might handle her refusal to participate. I might have verbally encouraged a different participant to stand up and give it a go, but for this girl I began clapping, and the others joined in. “Thank you for being true to yourself, for honoring your right to be ‘at choice’ in this course,” I said. From then on she knew that whatever she chose to offer in class or not was fine, and in that climate of safety she chose to participate in all future activities, even alone in front of the group. Based on observation of her extreme shyness, I had guessed an important nutrient for her growth: the freedom to just watch.

Use and Value Diversity

Just as planting a diversity of crops nurtures healthy and productive plants, so does teaching using a variety of methods create a richer, more effective learning environment. Howard Gardner describes nine different learning styles, including learning through seeing, action, hearing, music and rhythm, immersion in nature, cooperating with others, reflecting alone, thinking logically, and spiritual insight. I rotate through these teaching methods so that everyone has a chance to learn using their preferred modes. For example, here’s how I have facilitated people learning the names and meanings of permaculture principles:

Seeing and hearing: I often introduce a new topic with some kind of presentation involving talk and visuals for 15 minutes or so. Holmgren has created a Powerpoint presentation on his own principles that works for this purpose.

Action and rhythm: In a circle, one person throws a ball to another while saying the name of the first principle, in rhythm. “Observe and interact.” Toss the ball. “Observe and interact.” Toss. This quickly becomes easy, so we add the second principle. “Observe and Interact,” toss, “Catch and Store Energy.” When repeating these two principles becomes easy, we add a third principle. “Observe and Interact,” toss, “Catch and Store Energy,” toss, “Obtain a yield.” If we break the large group into small ones of four to six participants, it takes about half an hour for everyone to memorize the names of all 12 principles. It’s helpful to revisit this game for a few minutes a day for a few days in a row to help participants put the list into their long-term memories.

Music: We sing a song that describes each principle.

Cooperating with others: Small groups create skits that illustrates one of the principles without naming it. The whole group then guesses what principle is being acted out.

Immersion in nature and solitary reflection: Students walk alone in nature looking for examples of permaculture principles in action, and then bring these insights back to the whole group.

The first years I taught in The Camassia Institute, before we began using multiple approaches to teaching, students regularly expressed frustration that after studying for a month, they still couldn’t remember the names of the permaculture principles. Since adopting this approach, participants become fluent in talking about principles within the first week, and making references to them in discussions both in and out of the classroom throughout the duration of the course. Participants return home with a much clearer idea of what permaculture is, and are better able to communicate what they’ve learned to others.

Design from Patterns to Detail

Permaculture is a huge topic; the 72-hour standard permaculture design course is supposed to cover the content of a 600-page textbook written by the cofounder of permaculture, Bill Mollison. Since this book was written over 20 years ago, it is tempting for permaculture teachers to share even more information that has been discovered in the meantime. Permaculture is also a systems approach to perceiving the world, and doesn’t lend itself well to linear outlines. How can we organize this vast material to alleviate a sense of overwhelm on the part of participants who are exposed to so much information? The permaculture principle “Design from Patterns to Detail” comes to the rescue. Applied to an educational program, it tells us to teach the main ideas first, working our way later to covering details.

I use mind-maps to show how the concepts we are learning connect to each other. (See sidebar for an example.) At the center of the web-like drawing I put a circle with the name of the day’s topic in the center. Let’s say we’re studying water. Around the central circle that says “water” I draw several more circles with lines connecting these circles to the center. In each of these circles I write words that describe goals we might have for managing water in a permaculture design, such as water storage, or water purification. On an outer ring, connecting to these goal circles, would be other circles that describe strategies for accomplishing these goals, such as storing water in rainwater barrels, ponds, or soil. As we move out in ever-expanding circles, more details on how to accomplish these strategies are added. Some of the strategies accomplish more than one goal, and so connecting lines can go from an outside circle to more than one inner circle. Mulching, for example, enhances both water storage and water purification. Books and other resources that describe more details can be referenced on the mind-map, so participants can learn more on their own.

The aim of an introductory permaculture design course is to help participants see the central goals and strategies of permaculture, not to master every detail. Mind-maps can help participants distinguish central ideas from the details, guiding them to focus on core material during the course, while giving them pointers to what they can study after they’ve graduated from the course and are working in the world. Mind-maps also serve to help participants understand why they might feel overwhelmed learning permaculture—there’s so much knowledge available to us. No one person can learn it all! As we fill in detailed understanding of topics over time, we can use the maps to suggest new places to explore at our own chosen pace.

Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

This is my favorite permaculture principle, for it addresses the overconsumption of resources that is stressing our planet. An example of applying this principle in a home is installing the electric meter in a prominent location at the entrance of a house rather than in some outside corner behind a bush. Residents will notice how fast the meter is moving, and be more likely to look for ways to decrease their electricity usage.

In an educational setting, this principle encourages us to ask our students for feedback on the course, and to respond to their answers. If participants say their bodies are sore and their minds are numb from sitting and listening to lectures too long, then it’s time to change the format. Research has shown that people remember five percent of what they hear, 50 percent of what they discuss, 70 percent of what they do, and 90 percent of what they teach. [Study at the Bethel Training Lab referred to by Priscilla Logan at her website] No wonder instructors love to lecture—by being actively engaged in teaching they are probably learning more than their students.

Here’s a trick for responding to students who say they’re feeling exhausted: schedule a nap-time. Towards the end of the afternoon, put on some baroque music that is played at 60 beats per minute, and have students lie down with their eyes closed. Then slowly, in a monotone, summarize the information that has been imparted that day. According to proponents of accelerated learning techniques, this will help students remember what they’ve learned, moving information from short-term to long-term memory. I don’t know if this is true statistically, but from my own experience and the testimony of some students, I believe it works. As one of my students said after one nap-time: “Why can’t all schools be like this!”

Produce No Waste

Though people learn more by teaching than by listening to lectures, it wouldn’t work to have all the students in a classroom talking to each other simultaneously in order to try to maximize learning—chaos would ensue. So here’s a principle that guided me to another approach to having students teach each other: “produce no waste.” In a home situation this principle refers to using outputs from one part of the system as inputs for another part. Vegetable scraps are fed to the chickens who produce manure that is used for compost to grow more vegetables. The goal is to have nothing go off-site into the waste stream.

How many times as a child did you produce homework that ended up in the trashcan? Learning doesn’t have to be this wasteful and demoralizing. Put participants to work creating learning materials for each other, establishing a Montessori-influenced permaculture classroom. Whatever the topic, participants can create learning games, books, or other materials for the other students to use. Let’s say the topic is useful plants to grow in a temperate food forest. Ask small groups to research different plants, and then collectively create a book that describes each plant. This would be available to future course participants, who might then be responsible for researching plants appropriate for a tropical food forest. Or you and some assistants could work with different groups to prepare different herbal infusions, tinctures, or salves. The small groups would then explain to the whole group how their medicine was made and what it is used for, perhaps giving samples to each other. In this way, participants produce something that not only reinforces their learning, but also is of real value to others.

So those are five permaculture principles that can help us design environments that make learning come alive. I look forward to exploring how other permaculture principles might enrich my teaching. If you think of an idea, let me know, and I’ll try it in my program.

2 Replies to “How to Add Zest to Your Sustainability Education Program”


Hi Tim,

I’m based in Eugene, Oregon. You can reach me at melanie at


hi there thanks for the interesting article can i ask where you are based? id love to contact you for more information on your permacultre course. my email is timmeextreme at gmail.

cheers tim

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