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APC13: Convergence revisits permaculture courses

APC13: Convergence revisits permaculture courses

A report from Australasian Permaculture Convergence 13 (APC13), Perth, Western Australia. 2-5 October 2016.

IT IS COMMON at convergences for old questions to reappear, and that is just what happened at APC13. The reappearance of the conversation around the structure of permaculture courses and whether there is only one model that qualifies as the permaculture design course signifies that this remains one of permaculture’s hard-to-solve cases.

It is not a question for all, though. Many permaculture educators have solved that puzzle for themselves by adopting their own course structures and, for the permaculture design course (PDC), have moved away from the model set up decades ago by the Permaculture Institute, a model widely adopted at the time that retains some currency among educators.

Participants deliberate permaculture course structure and content.
Participants deliberate permaculture course structure and content.

Rethinking permaculture education

Addressing the question brought APC13 participants together in the big hall at the Swan Valley Adventure Centre where the convergence took place. There, they divided into tables to discuss permaculture introductory and design courses in a collegial manner.

Accredited Permaculture Training (APT), the qualification for those planning to use permaculture design in some professional, vocational way, was not considered because it has its own structure managed by Permaculture Australia’s APT team.

The ongoing conversation around permaculture courses commonly asks a number of questions:

  • should educators use only the structure and curriculum for the PDC set out decades ago by the Permaculture Institute?
  • is Bill Mollison’s Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual the only valid curriculum, and its chapters the only valid course structure for teaching the PDC?
  • what other PDC structures are in use?
  • given the diversity of courses available, what should be taught by all educators as core content?


Victoria-based permaculture practitioner, Phil Gall, announces his small group's findings.
Victoria-based permaculture practitioner, Phil Gall, announces his small group’s findings.

A species of many varieties — the introductory permaculture course

Like beans in a permaculture garden, it is no secret that the introductory permaculture courses taught around the country are a species of many varieties. There is no generally-accepted structure to the courses although there seems to have evolved an informally-accepted set of core components such as the permaculture ethics, principles and design approaches like landuse zoning. Introductory courses are of quite variable length.

…The introductory permaculture course is a made-up course…

Many introductory courses focus on the permaculture approach to growing food. They have a home garden orientation. Others taken an approach that positions permaculture as a design system with many applications. A course taught in Sydney, for example, includes not only an introductory food gardening component and ideas on how those without gardens can buy their food from social enterprise such as food hubs and food co-operatives, but sessions on collaborative economy, home management and energy and water efficient home renovation.

“The introductory permaculture course is a made-up course”, said one of the small group participants at the APC session.

“People do not want to become teachers or designers”, said another.

“Most want to do something at home”. People want to learn to garden, someone added.

Another comment was that we cram too much into what is commonly a two day course. Another said that the courses commonly include sector identification that looks at the energies coming onto the design site, such as sun and shade patterns, runoff and seasonal winds. Then there’s the landuse zones, permaculture’s ethics, climate, land, soils, water, food production and collaborative food sharing. Another said that they do not include the principles of permaculture but they do include the ethics, planting, practicals and soil skills such as composting, pH and mulching.

…Unlike the PDC, there has been no preferred course content developed for permaculture introductory courses…


The purpose of introductory courses came up. We must educate in designing for relevance and not recruitment to permaculture; we can use introductory courses to whet appetites for enrolling in a PDC; building resilient communities and teaching permaculture as an interactive, collaborative design process should be a focus. These were some of the comments.

First, though, comes identifying student differences, interests and background by introducing participants at the start, one of the participants said. I have seen an educator use such a preliminary introductory activity to identify student ‘readiness for learning’ so that she knows how students perceive permaculture, what they already know, what their needs are and, thus, where in the course to place emphasis and the type of language that is applicable.

Unlike the PDC, there has been no preferred course content developed for permaculture introductory courses. It is clear from conversations at the APC session that the courses are variable in length, content and focus.

A more vexed question — the PDC

The PDC is recognised worldwide by permaculture people but has no formal recognition by education authorities. That was the summation of one of the permaculture educators at a table. It is also a reason why Accredited Permaculture Training was invented and adopted in Australia. The certificates and diploma comprising APT are officially recognised nationally as both school-level and as workplace education.

…You cannot cover Designers’ Manual or handbook with practicals in two weeks…

The structure, curriculum and length of the PDC is an ongoing conversation in countries where it is taught. It is an unresolved question and is set to remain so. Two schools of practice have emerged around it:

  • those who adhere to the Permaculture Institute’s model of the PDC as consisting of a curriculum that follows the contents of the book, Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual, its chapters as the subjects and a course length of 72 hours; it is not a PDC if it varies from this model (the Permaculture Institute was set up by Bill Mollison and colleagues in permaculture’s early days; the 72 hour course length was based on the university semester duration)
  • a more liberal interpretation that teaches what is regarded as core subjects then adds modules relevant to student needs, bioregion and other factors; these courses are of variable length.

Veteran Western Australian permaculture educator, Ross Mars, put the question in perspective when he said, “You cannot cover Designers’ Manual or handbook with practicals in rwo weeks”.

Thinking, discussing, negotiating — a small group thinks through questions around permaculture education.
Thinking, discussing, negotiating — a small group thinks through questions around permaculture education.

“Models go from laizze faire to fixed course structure, said a Sydney permaculture educator. Following this strand of thought someone made the observation that, “Some PDCs have no practical content”. That refers to PDCs delivered in the academic tradition as a 72 hour course of lectures.

“Immersion in permaculture is important”, said another. “There is no point teaching a fixed curriculum. Teach how to problem solve and think”, came another suggestion. ‘Radical pedagogy’ in which curriculum not the thing or where there is no curriculum, was mentioned.

And what about the content, the topics taught in a PDC?

“Generation Z is not interested in the home scale”, someone said. “They want to change the world”. That was a reference to futurist, Annie Macbeth’s keynote address that opened the convergence in which she discussed research into the priorities and practices of the different generations we find in permaculture.

“Some of Bill’s 1985 handbook not relevant today,” someone offered. The handbook was a guide to PDC curricula that has long ago gone out of circulation and was replaced by Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual by educators adhering to the original teaching model.

But what to exclude from the PDC? That of course comes down to a decision by individual educators. Suggestions included:

  • religion and spirituality
  • broadacre design
  • keyline (a water management system invented by Australian, PA Yoemans)
  • other cultures
  • Holistic Resource Management (a rural landuse planning system developed by South African, Alan Savory)
  • anything not a design process
  • climatic zones
  • forestry
  • detail on alternative technology.

And, on teaching approaches:

  • the ‘chalk and talk’ approach to education
  • long lectures.

So… he we are

As the permaculture design system in Australia has no unified leadership, no central authority, no head office, no legal stipulations about PDC structure and content, practitioners and educators have been free to develop their own approach. The result is the diversity of courses we find today. That’s something of a natural evolution in the circumstances.

What we seem to agree on is that within this diversity, this modularity of PDCs, we need a set of core topics that all educators agree to teach. Commonly mentioned are permaculture’s ethics, principles (there are two main sets of principles, those developed by Bill Mollison and the set later developed by permaculture co-inventor, David Holmgren; they are compatible and it is in combination, in my opinion, that they are most useful; educators have sometimes added their own principles), characteristics of permaculture systems, the landuse zoning system based on frequency of visitation to different parts.

…The session was a good revisit to the ongoing questions around permaculture courses…

Most of all, though — and here I add my own thoughts — is that permaculture is a design system and it follows that design thinking should be a core component. This was hinted at by a participant in the table sessions when he said we should teach problem solving and thinking. Perhaps design thinking could be more than a topic. Would it be possible to make it the course structure and embed permaculture as its application as the form of the PDC?

The session was a good revisit to the ongoing questions around permaculture courses, and while it came to no agreed conclusion it was well worth discussing it again. Doing this not only updates us on how our colleagues are thinking, but it clarifies the questions as well.

Like the prickly pear down the road and the insects that buzz around its bright yellow flowers, permaculture is following its own evolution. Hatched on the winding strip of asphalt known as Strickland Avenue, in the convoluted foothills of Hobart’s Kunanyi-Mt Wellington, and unleashed nearly 40 years ago with the publication of the book, Permaculture One — the design system has made available a diversity of approaches to permaculture education.

This diversity of our reality. Let’s embrace and use it to take our design system to people who might have use of it in meeting their basic needs. And let’s use it to assist people develop themselves and their communities and to achieve that modest prosperity that should be one of the goals of resilient cultures.


Comments (3)

  • Drew
    October 16, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    This is indeed a vexed question. Standardize the curricula,, bureaucratize it with learning outcomes and assessment portfolio rubrics and Bill M will, literally, turn in his grave. Let a thousand flowers bloom and permaculture will evolve, degenerate, morph and change.

    My suggestion, establish an accreditation group to whom courses can apply for accreditation. A sensible group of people could provide sufficient rigor to ensure the courses maintain a strong alignment with the values and principles articulated by the co-founders. They could also allow permaculture education to evolve and adapt and continue to provide a path forward.

    A sensible group of people could balance these competing and conflicting goals if it were diverse and had the right skill mix. They will not it right all the time, they may accredit courses that are not great, they may resist innovation, for a while. But in time their initial errors will be corrected as permaculture education unfolds slowly over time.

    The group should have some educators, some elders, some young guns some passion and some circumspection and respect for the past and an interest in the future and embrace the idea of an ecology of wisdom.

    But for Gods sake get on with it. There is no perfect solution, we cannot anticipate all the possibilities, but we can fix it up as we go. Educational accreditation has many successful precedents and is not rocket science.

    But Bill M would be turning in his grave if we turned Permaculture into a mainstream form, I hear you say. And its true, Bill railed against the strictures of the ‘system’ but also had 7 degrees and spent decades as a part of the formal ‘system’. But, to quote

    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    —Walt Whitman

    Let’s round up 12 people, develop a set of curriculum docs under AQF and get something out there for people to shoot at. That way the next APC can report some progress and perhaps reflect less on the recurring nature of the debate. It may be recurring because we fail to distinguish between talk and action ?

  • Milton Dixon
    October 21, 2016 at 11:46 am

    As a PDC instructor myself I think it worthwhile to use a little design thinking on this subject. What is the goal of all this in the first place?

    I’m trying to do two things, increase awareness and give tools for better decision making process (design). The curriculum outlined by Mollison doesn’t necessarily create that change but can and does for some people.

    So not every style of course is right for every person. Some “value added” topics might be critical while other required ones might have less importance for various people.

    If your goal is to get a fixed list into people’s heads, then sick only with the curriculum. I want to make change in the world do I’m starting with the curriculum but am not afraid to make changes to achieve my goal.

  • Graeme George
    December 19, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    There are already initiatives at 3 levels to look at the PDC curriculum. We don’t need to set up another group.

    (1) Based in Victoria, but focussed on the south-eastern Australia bio-region, the Permaculture Educators Guild continues to develop its extended PDC Syllabus for SE Australia. This has a focus on the design methodology of David Jacke and detailed examples of PC applications appropriate to the bio-region. PEG was launched at APC 12 in Tasmania in 2015 and an update given to APC 13 in Perth this year.

    (2) Permaculture Australia has a PDC Framework working group charged with the development of a standard core curriculum to which PEG will be contributing. This W/G was set up at the Tasmanian convergence.

    (3) The International Permaculture Educators Network (IPEN), established at the International UK Convergence in 2015, similarly will be supporting international collaboration on the teaching of permaculture design.

    PA’s APT w/g continues to develop the accredited Pc training package. A sub-group of PEG is liaising with the PA w/g on this.

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