Head Heart and Hands: The Art of Teaching Permaculture

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Dreams from an Ecovillage
Dreams from an Ecovillage

As my time to TA with Jude Hobbs at the upcoming Advanced Permaculture Certificate in Permaculture Teachers Training is approaching, I am preparing myself (physically, cognitively and spiritually/emotionally) to be present there.

I’ve been immerse in the “educational” world for many years: while my first studies dealt with psycho-pedagogy (or “the art of teaching with a deep understanding of psychology), my studies and experience involve more than children and I am currently finalizing my PIDP (Provincial Instructor Diploma Program, lead by VCC and a consortium of other institutions)…a program I highly recommend taking to anybody seriously thinking in teaching adults.

The Permaculture Teachers’ Training is an ambitious week-long course where Jude skilfully condenses what it took me almost a lifetime to learn. Impossible? Quite, but also inspiring…

I will try the same here: to summarize what’s needed for those of you considering teaching Permaculture (or anything that goes that way).

One: Define your purpose/Know yourself:

Why defining your purpose is important: because embedded within your purpose are your philosophy, values and beliefs and they will deeply impact your teaching: from how you organize your curriculum to how you actually teach to who you would accept in your courses.

To define your purpose, you may try the following questions:

  • Why are you teaching Permaculture?


My reasons are many and diverse: I am passionate about building true resilience in people and communities; I feel the deep call to give back to the ecosystems that sustain me; I think Permaculture’s system and ethical approach is probably the only way to navigate through the many predicaments we are facing and I am the best “me” when I am surrounded by permaculturists and their projects.

  • What are your expectations? (for you and for others)

I expect to transition to a life fully centered into Permaculture and use it to generate enough support so I won’t need a regular job or this would be minimized.

Notice that I don’t talk about “income”: if used wisely, through Permaculture I could generate the food, water, shelter and energy I need and even have an ethical exchange with others where both their and my needs are compensated by our mutual cooperation. Although this is a dream, it is the base of my expectations when I set out to “teach” Permaculture.

At a least personal level, I expect those who come and learn with me leave inspired and curious to start their own projects and activate their own changes at whatever level they are called to do so. And I expect to be able to learn from them and with them as much or even more than what they may learn “from” me.

  • Are there any hidden expectations you should address?

We all have them: from the desire of belonging to a particular “group” to things linked to “image”, “profile” and their consequences. Other expectations may be travelling, meeting diverse people, “paying” for something you feel conscious or unconsciously guilty, “fame” and even money.

There is nothing right or wrong with these, but they also shape your teaching philosophy and approach, so you may want to explore yours…

  • What are the strengths you contribute to the Permaculture world?

You may have skills, education (formal or informal), experiences and passions from your pre-Permaculture life: what are those? How do they connect to the different elements of the PDC curriculum or the Permaculture flower?

  • What are your passions, the ideas that move you, and the projects that bring the best on you?

Some may discover that they feel fully alive out in the gardens quietly tending the plants and animals; others may be re-energized when surrounded by people and working in teams while others may get their “rush” from researching or designing or sharing through art.

This one is important because your passions (along with your strengths above) may dictate whether you may do better with guest speakers covering the areas of the PDC you don’t feel as strongly attached to…or they may indicate areas you want to explore further. I, for example, decided to take a formal “Introduction to Sustainable Horticulture” program at a local university because one of my passions is soil: I love touching it, smelling it, playing and working on it and building things with it, but I also want to know its secrets, its history and how to regenerate it and a PDC doesn’t give me those specifics.

  • What are your limitations? What’s holding you back? What are your gaps, needs and fears?

This is another important factor for teachers: we tend to project what we fear, avoid what we don’t feel comfortable with (or we don’t know how to deal with) and become defensive when others touch the areas of our fears and gaps.

Knowing our limitations help us to reach out when we need support instead of trying to be perfect and do it all. It also helps us to “sit with our imperfections” and our discomfort and accept ourselves (and others) as we are: an arrow thrown towards perfection that never reaches home.

In summary: Knowing yourself well and becoming fully aware of both your goals and biases is important for any good teaching, Permaculture or any other.

Two: The Practical

  • Are there others teaching Permaculture in your area? Where are they? What are their strengths and what are they lacking?

You can explore this by visiting, asking those who studied with them or even taking a PDC with them.

Knowing what’s already out there tells you whether what you are offering would be “more of the same” or not and may give you an idea of “edges” you can explore: not everybody wants (or needs) the same from a PDC and every teacher will teach it differently, with a focus on “design”, “social”, “resilience”, “hands-on” or “philosophy” or even other areas…

  • Is there enough interest for Permaculture in your area?

Interest can be built by offering free introductions or small “pieces”. You can also invite interest by creating designs (or even better: a Permaculture demonstration site) so people get curious about it.

Conversations on Permaculture can start at any point: from food sovereignty and animal rights to social justice, communities’ empowerment, impacts of pollution, climate change or resource depletion…even therapeutic horticulture/gardening, self-reliance, individual wellbeing and survivalism topics may be a good start for a Permaculture conversation

  • What format would you feel comfortable with? Which one would be best for you to manage?

PDCs need to be at least 72 hours long, but most cover 90 or more hours. They started as full-immersion courses where sharing with others in a farm-like location was considered essential to learn all the ropes: while it is true that you’ll have a life-changing experience when attending a full-immersion PDC, this is not realistic (nor desirable) in all the cases, both from the learners’ and the instructor’s points of view: as more and more people from all walks of life approach Permaculture, you’ll find people from cities and suburban areas, working full-time jobs, mothers of small children, retirees, immigrants and people with chronic conditions or disabilities for whom a full-immersion PDC may not be doable.

And this includes your own needs and preferences: some PDC teachers need more space and time to be by themselves and a full 2-3 week course may not be the right model for them.

  • Where are you going to offer your PDC? What type of locations would you need? Do you have easy access to them?

Depending on the format (full-immersion, spread over weekends, once a month or online), you’ll need to think about locations: you would probably need a location with access to a kitchen (preferable) for potlucks; some roof and area to sit for design, discussions and lecture-like time and access to nature for either observation and hands-on activities.

Depending on how hands-on you want your PDC to be, it would be great to have access to land and, when possible, places where your participants can have access to natural building such as cob, etc.

When the PDC is not full-immersion, it is a good idea to think in various locations not only for variety: one of the tricks of PDCs is to get people “out of their boxes” both figuratively and physically.

Some practical considerations include: you may need to pay for renting spaces or figure out agreements where your group does some work in exchange for the experience; you will need to book the places in advance and it would be better if you can visit and make sure they are what you are looking for. In any case, it is a good idea to always have a “backup” in case the location becomes unavailable when your PDC starts.

If you are running a full-immersion PDC, you’ll need to think about sleeping areas, washrooms and access to showers, kitchen and areas to teach, socialize and eat. If you want to give people alternatives, check for opportunities to bring their tents, hostels nearby and other in-site arrangements. You’d need to figure out what works for you and whether or not you want to offer these alternatives to people.

  • What means of transportation would your PDC imply?

How people get to your locations and how they mobilize is also important: if your PDC will take place in remote or difficult to access locations, consider what would happen to people who don’t drive or don’t ride bikes. Is there public transportation available? It is too costly, accessible? What are the options?

Asking all your participants to ride bikes between locations may be fun and “green” but is not inclusive unless you plan to share this as part of your requirements when people register. The same applies to any other assumption about how people travel, where they stay, eat, etc.

  • What are you going to provide, apart from your knowledge and experience?
  • How much money or resources would you need to invest to start?

Three: Content

The content of a PDC was outlined by Bill Mollison and can be found here: http://www.permaculture.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/PDC-Outline.pdf

On the top of that, teachers can add depth on the usual topics or decide to emphasize more certain parts, which will extend the original 72 hours.

Some other resources where to find content are:

Four: Teaching/Learning Philosophy/Approach

Heads, Hearts and Hands:

No matter your teaching philosophy and approach, there are some truths about learning you need to know:

  • Learning is change and transformation of “something”: it may be cognitive (i.e. the acquisition of new concepts, processes, ways to see, represent and relate to the world that were not there before); it may be emotional/spiritual (a change of attitude, a new insight, the embracing of a new paradigm, etc) or it may be physical (learning a new skill such as recognizing soil texture for planting or cobing, using a composting toilet, learning First Aid techniques for CPR, etc.)
  • There is no such a thing as “learning styles” (as in “visual, auditory, kinesthetic”): the reality is that learners come in different shapes and forms, with different backgrounds, needs, expectations and experiences from education, nature, etc.
  • Learning and change happen when people are challenged or when there is imbalance, a feeling that “something is lacking”: in other words: when the pain or discomfort of the current situation are bigger than the anticipated pain or discomfort of “changing”
  • You can teach and have nobody learning from you and you can have people learning without being intentionally taught. Why? Because learning happens within the individual and it is somewhat independent of teaching.
  • People learn at different paces and rhythms: you may support them in initiating a process but the “aha” moment and the true learning may take a lifetime or never happen.
  • You can initiate learning or change by leveraging in any “weak” point: by initiating a change in behaviour, you change emotional/spiritual and cognitive/mental and vice versa.
  • Not all learning is social: some people learn from the interaction with others, some from internal reflection, most from both
  • People learn better when they formulate the questions and/or work towards the answers.
  • People may also learn from other people’s questions as long as they come at the right moment, from the right person and carry the right meaning for them
  • People learn much better in an environment of trust where they feel supported and cared for, if not also loved and acknowledged for their gifts

Some implications from the above:

  • Teach through questions and encourage questions and conversations
  • If you give people “homework” and questions to ponder, establish some mechanism to follow up on this. Otherwise people may procrastinate or withdraw
  • Acknowledge people at the level they are at. But expect more from them and let them know this
  • Expose people to different activities: from hands-on to guided observations, to questioning, to group projects, to individual projects, to journaling to peer-mentoring. In any case, allow them opting out. Remember the need for “heads, hearts and hands” to be involved for change and learning to happen
  • Don’t be afraid of challenging people within a caring, nurturing and supporting environment and once you have established trust. Challenging makes people grow
  • Teach by role-modeling but don’t expect everybody will follow you. You are just one of infinite possibilities
  • Provide them with diverse and multiple opportunities for expressing their knowledge and changes: from art to more action-based projects, as long as the processes, concepts and products are there, it doesn’t matter how the transformation is expressed
  • Celebrate their diversity and their many gifts: you may find yourself more inclined to one or another, but all have something to contribute

Five: Curricula and Lesson Plans

Curriculum is nothing more than organizing your expectations (outcomes/objectives) for the course and the participants. It also takes care of the details about what, how, when and why. You don’t need to be formal here, but it would help if you can “translate” the content you want to teach into outcomes so you know what topics you’ll be teaching and how you expect to assess them.

Lesson Plans are usually based on one single lesson: for example, “trees” or “design methods” or “principles”.

A lesson plan contains: the topic and its objectives or sub-topics, the time you have to teach each one, the materials you will need and the activities you are planning for achieving your objectives.

The lesson plan allows you to have some control over the time and activities so you don’t miss important topics.

When you are creating your lesson plan, allow enough time for questions and comments

Also allow time for physiological needs such as eating, washroom visits, rest and exercise

Six: Teaching Strategies and Activities

The important thing about teaching strategies is: remember that people learn through their MINDS/HEADS, HEARTS/FEELINGS and HANDS/ACTIONS or BEHAVIOURS.

This means, don’t be boring!

You talking all the time (i.e. lecturing) is tiring for you and extremely tiring on others unless they are in love with you and you are a queen/king of the speech and a wonder to stare to during all day.

Forcing everybody to constantly move, dig, carry and switch things around is tiring for the body and doesn’t allow for reflection and emotional time.

Group work may not be for everybody and you’ll lose the shy or more reflective ones.

The solution?

Mix! Be creative!

Teaching strategies include:

  • Lecturing
  • Guest speakers
  • Short documentaries
  • Field trips
  • Mini hands-on projects
  • Guided research
  • Group discussions
  • Case studies or ethical dilemmas
  • Journaling / reflecting
  • Guided design

For a more detailed list, you can check here

Some tips for planning activities:

  • Start with something fresh and invigorating to create “momentum”.
  • After lunch, allow time for people to use the restroom and even to take a short nap if needed; you can also invite the group for a light hike while they do landscape-reading and you ask questions to guide the observation. For example: “what principle can we see represented here?”; “how does this structure speak to that landscape?”; “what functions, products and needs do you see represented here?” and so on…
  • Rotate quiet activities with more hands-on ones so people don’t get stuck in one “mode”
  • Clarify expectations and when needed, ask the group to remember “rules” so you don’t have some “hijacking” the stage
  • After asking a question, keep silent and allow time for people to react
  • Learn to “take the group’s temperature” as you may need to switch to a different activity from what you have planned (be flexible and respond to feedback and change)

Seven: Materials and Supplies

  • Whenever possible, be consistent with Permaculture ethics and principles and use renewable materials/supplies that may have multiple functions or can be up-cycled
  • Give people the option of opting out from printed hand-outs and send them in electronic format instead
  • Everything and everybody is a resource: you may find that most of what you need is already around you

Eight: Assessment and Feedback

Most PDCs have no formal evaluation and no explicit assessments. I think this happens because most permaculturists try to run far away from the “formal” educational model where people are judged, compared, forced to compete and “graded” as if learning had a starting and ending point and any letter (or number) attached to it.

Assessment, however (not evaluation) is important as a learning and teaching tool: if nobody assess what’s happening, you don’t really know whether change is being produced, if you are being effective and worse: some participants may feel lost, not having any parameters to measure whether they have truly learned something.

So, how do you asses?

Think on the relationship that is established between mentor and mentee, or coach and (coachee?): the mentor or coach doesn’t necessarily know “more” nor has any power or authority over the mentee: but they take time to observe, assess and guide the mentee through questions and, if required, action steps within an “action plan”.

Most PDCs only require participants to create a design towards the end of the course and present it to the group. Some of these designs are teamwork efforts, some are individual. There is no need to implement the design and there is no rubric or checklist towards which to measure (or compare) these outcomes.

And this is OK as long as you and your students are OK with it.

But it would be nice if you can offer mentoring and assessment (i.e. feedback and short meetings to discuss concepts, insights, etc) to those who want to take it from you or from their peers.

Remember: assessment IS NOT the same as evaluating and does not involve any judgement. You can assess through “ethical dilemmas”, “head, heart, hands”, etc.

Here are two examples:

Ethical dilemmas: ask your participants to reflect about an ethical situation (one where they may have to make a difficult or quick decision). They can answer anonymously, or they may share with the class. If anonymously, you can share the results during the next class, for example: “the majority chose option A as opposed to option B”. You can also ask them to think about ethical dilemmas and questions around them and discuss them in groups or with the full class.

Some examples of ethical dilemmas:

  • When the only materials available to build a garden are used tires, would you use them? Why yes or why not? How would you use them?
  • A family who wants to change their lifestyle are consulting with you about their decision making to have a more resilient life. During the first interview, you learn that the main breadwinner works for an oil company and the house is full of plastics and stuff. What are your first thoughts and how would you approach this couple? Why?
  • A very wealthy person in your community offers to pay you big money for you to consult and design their business garden, water and energy systems. Would you accept? Why or why not?
  • You join a Permaculture group in your region and find that one person is making all the decisions and keeping all the records for potential projects to herself. How would you approach this? What would you do?

“Heads, hearts, hands”: this activity can be used as a closing activity after a full day, a module or c course. You simply ask participants to share what’s in their heads, hearts and hands after that activity, module or learning experience. They can share anonymously through paper notes, may share in small groups or with the entire group.

Here are the questions:

Head: “what’s in your head? What new concepts, processes or ideas stay with you or you would like to explore further?”

Heart: “what’s in your heart? What insights, ideas, interactions or projects have challenged or inspired you? What attitudes, values and beliefs do you feel have been or anticipate will be impacted”

Hands: “what’s in your hands? What projects and actions are you planning to start change or continue after this activity or learning? What behaviours have been impacted or you anticipated will be impacted?

Nine: Communication and Follow Up

Ask yourself and clarify for your participants ahead of time:

  • How would you communicate with your class and individuals between classes, during breaks or after the PDC is over (frequency, medium, depth)? This will avoid any misunderstanding, overlaps or abuse of communication (for example, you may need to relax and rest after a long day of teaching during a full-immersion PDC, but some people may be able or even want to go on all evening)
  • What is your preferred channel for communication and follow up? (you may prefer email, phone, in person, etc.)
  • To what extent you are available and for what?

Ten: Your PDC “Rules”

This is in direct relationship with your expectations, needs, philosophy and approach and that is why the first part of this document refers to “knowing yourself” very well.

In some PDCs, you may find people who are highly judgemental of others: they may not accept people who drive or may criticize what others bring, eat, wear, etc. Some may not like the way decisions are made and some may have very different expectations of you, the group or Permaculture itself.

The best way to avoid misunderstandings and conflict once your PDC has started is to be clear about what you offer and how and what your approach is.

You may also want to explore the potential participants a bit to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all when the PDC starts.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Post your bio and teaching philosophy in a website, blog or flyer so everybody can access it
  • Ask potential participants to write a mini bio and a letter of intention to you so you know their expectations and why they are attracted to your PDC. You can do this with questions or keep it open and informal. Just be aware that the lest you ask, the least you’ll know about them
  • Clarify any bias you may have. For example, my bias is that Permaculture is NOT an elite design certificate for earning money doing superficial changes, but a powerful tool for individual and communal transformation. Any individual whose goal is to learn light design and charge lots of money will probably run away from me and my PDC, but I would be open to accept him/her as long as she/he are clear with my bias and tolerate it
  • Clarify “rules” either by stating them or by consulting them and asking for consent from the group (not necessarily consensus). Some “rules” may include use of cell phones, expressions of judgement, attendance and punctuality and general expectations. Better if you can convey these in positive instead of negative language. Example: “Be punctual so we can make good use of everybody’s time” instead of: “Don’t be late”
  • Ask the participants to write anonymously or share (however works for you) what’s really important for them to “create space”. For example, somebody may say it is important for them that nobody smokes, or that they rather don’t participate in dancing or singing activities, etc (be prepared to hear all kind of things, including things you may not like)

Final Considerations:

As in any course you prepare, make sure you have all your materials, lesson plans, participants’ contact info and anything else you need well organized.

I use binders and boxed that I can carry with me anywhere. Use whatever works for you, but remember that if you are committing to this, you have a responsibility towards your participants: you need to figure out how to protect their personal information and always provide high quality for the time and money or resources they have invested.

Participants in any course would appreciate to know in advance:

  • Dates, locations and times
  • Your expectations, so they can make informed decisions
  • Other expenses not included in the PDC cost
  • The topics you’ll be covering
  • Any books or extra materials you need them to buy, borrow, etc
  • What your qualifications are and what is your approach, philosophy and biases towards PDCs
  • Whether their certificate would be “recognized”, by whom and whether they would be able to register as PDC holders
  • Exact cost and ways they can pay or exchange goods or services with you
  • Your “policies” for withdrawal, missing classes, etc
  • What is accepted and what’s not (your “rules”)
  • Any pre-requisites, including level of fitness, etc that may challenge their participation level or engagement?

Sounds overwhelming?

If you are like most permaculturists, someone who can read the land and design Paradise out of it, you can do this and much more: now go and teach!

3 Comments on “Head Heart and Hands: The Art of Teaching Permaculture

  1. Good luck with your course…. Would love to teach permaculture myself, though in the meantime seeing a list like this gives me new perspectives on teaching what I do already 🙂


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