Using Permaculture Principles to become a better teacher

Evelyn Marsh
Tuesday, 21st August 2012

Are you a teacher? Do you help people of any age to learn? Do you want to hone your skills? Evelyn Marsh describes how applying permaculture principles can make you a more able, creative teacher.

Teaching and learning are basic human activities that have been going on since the first toolmaker showed his friends how to bash things with a stone. Sharing knowledge is sustainable and essential to the maintenance of any culture. It does not take institutionalised recognition to make teaching and learning real or relevant. In our efforts to establish permaculture courses as recognised, accredited learning, we are in danger of imposing formats and procedures that relate to political or institutional requirements rather than the real thing.

Permaculture is about finding the best way to do things in your own situation. In teaching, or rather in helping people to learn – which is often a different thing altogether – using permaculture principles can offer efficient ways to approach teaching and learning. And because it is permaculture, most of it is common sense anyway.

Here are a few pointers:

• Teachers need to be learners. Every teacher should be required to learn something outside their comfort zone, to maintain their ability to empathise with learners.

• The whole point of teaching is to make the teacher redundant. The more the learner can do for themselves, the more they learn.

• People learn most when they teach someone else.

• People retain more of what they learn when they are engaged in something real that matters to them.

• Never ask a question you already know the answer to.

• Learning isn't about getting the answers, it's about finding new questions.

• Make it a game. Games help people to relax, to participate, to think, to practice, to achieve.

• Teaching is an art – creative and performance art. The magic is in planning and resourcing the session so that each individual gets something of value out of it.

• Certificates are for administrative purposes only.

• Teaching isn't important: learning is.

Learning to lay a hedge

Observe and interact

Learners are not a different species. In many ways they know more than their teachers. Listen to your students and react accordingly. Don't guess, or think you already know: let them show you what they need. Ask, don't tell. Revise your teaching plans accordingly. Time spent socialising is good learning time. Have group meals where everyone brings food to share (sometimes without prior warning).

Catch and store energy

Look for people who are struggling and match them with the ones who aren't. Use mild competition to spark interest. Use games to encourage people to practice new skills. Look for what people can do, and find ways to utilise those skills. Get the noisy ones to do physical work. Ask for volunteers to do the 'housekeeping' tasks. Don't over-reach yourself: be honest; don't try to pretend to know things you aren't sure of. Direct people to places they can find better answers. Pace yourself.

Obtain a yield

Apple pressingAlways know what you are aiming for. Help people to set realistic targets and find ways to help them recognise and celebrate their achievements. Make sure everyone has something to celebrate. Try to create something useful, with a real 'market' or audience. Make music. Volunteer your group labour. Give away your surplus.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

Provide opportunities for people to reflect on their learning and how they can apply it. Start the session by asking what they remember from last time. Ask for ideas as to how to do things better. What were the main likes and dislikes? What questions were raised? Develop your listening skills. Read between the lines. Don't take offence.

Use and value renewable resources and services

Field work!Don't buy or hire stuff you can borrow. Get people to bring things with them. Use second-hand materials rather than have everything sparkling and new. Visit car boot sales and second-hand shops. Create your own resources – or better still, get learners to help make them. Help learners to prepare and teach some of the sessions.

Produce no waste

In teaching, most waste is wasted time. Avoid having people waiting for you, for the next instruction, the next Powerpoint slide, for the rest of the group. Give information sheets so that people don't use time and paper taking notes – unless they want to. Pare down your inputs to the absolute minimum and let people get on with learning. Use real situations, not invented ones based on reality (like most text books and exam questions). Ask people what their problems are and use those instead. Or share one of your own. A game counts as a real situation. Don't spend time in a session doing things they can do at home. Give homework. Use both sides of the paper.

Design from pattern to detail

Give people tools and let them work out how to use them, rather than specific information (that may not even be relevant to their case). It's not about how much you cram into each session, but it is about what each learner takes away.

Integrate rather than segregate

Make sure what you teach is relevant. Don't just assume it's OK because it's how/what you learned. Keep looking at the 'big picture' rather than getting people lost in examples. Use individual talents to contribute to the group rather than cause friction. Make sure everyone can see/hear your teaching. Record sessions in case someone has to miss one.

Use small and slow solutions

Problem solving togetherDon't rush people to the 'answer'. Avoid having 'right' answers in the first place – look for open questions and examples. Use spaced repetition to reinforce ideas. Use games to facilitate application of new skills. Give people space to think things out for themselves. Stop talking.

Use and value diversity

As above: the group know more than you, they just don't realise it yet. Assume they can do bigger and better things than you ever will. Value each person and help them to discover their talents. Nobody is ordinary. Make space for them to shine. Let them win.

Use edges and value the marginal

Listen to the weird questions and see where they take you. Try different (unexpected, unconventional) ways to get the message across. Be ready to change. Set the example. Explore the 'edges' of the group –their interests and prior learning. Where does the group interface with others? How can they spread the message? Develop networks.

Creatively use and respond to change

Finding a way to make sense...The proof that learning is happening is the changes it produces. Memories, experiences, skills and new knowledge change people. Help them to be prepared to see things differently, and to notice their own changes. Support them in what is a scary process.


The hardest things for a teacher to do are: Ask, don't tell. Pace yourself. Don't take offence. Help learners to prepare and teach some of the sessions. Nobody is ordinary. Pare down your inputs to the absolute minimum. Stop talking. And remember: Certificates are for administrative purposes only.

Justin and Evelyn Marsh steward land and resources and help and encourage others to do so through design work, rural contracting, teaching and personalised tuition. You can find out more about their work at Lakeland Permaculture.


Want to teach permaculture design? We recommend Permaculture Teachers' Guide edited by Andy Goldring. Both for teachers and beginners, this guide covers the practical aspects of teaching permaculture. It includes the central themes to cover, effective sessions to both begin and finish a course with, and looks in detail at permaculture design and practice. The Permaculture Teachers’ Guide seeks to share the skills, insights and techniques of 35 experienced teachers.