Towards Ecological Literacy: A Permaculture Approach for Junior Secondary Science

by Nelson Lebo, Centre for Science and Technology Education Research, University of Waikato, New Zealand


The profound lack of sustainable systems on our planet is of great concern to environmentalists, some of who are environmental educators and some of who are permaculturists. It can be argued that many of the problems facing the Earth and its inhabitants are caused by a lack of ecological literacy among much of the human population. Ecological literacy includes an understanding of the scientific principles of ecology, including the recognition of limits and possibilities. It also includes an attitude of care toward the environment and a commitment to act. Finally, it includes the ability to recognize interconnectedness; what some people call systems thinking.

Unfortunately, ecological literacy is not nurtured in most schools, and at the same time, many science courses are taught in ways that turn a significant number of students off science. Students complain that science is too hard, boring, and has no relevance to their lives. These complaints accompany a worldwide trend of attrition in science classes beyond the compulsory years. While this trend concerns the scientific community, it should also concern the environmental community because scientific literacy is a prerequisite for ecological literacy, especially regarding concepts such as carrying capacity, dynamic equilibrium, nutrient cycling, and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

It may be assumed that science teachers have a high degree of scientific literacy. However, it cannot be assumed that they have a high degree of ecological literacy. Additionally, evidence would suggest that many science teachers are teaching in ways that do not engage all of their students. Considering the above, there appears to be an opportunity to explore new approaches to the teaching and learning of science that could potentially engage more students in science learning and simultaneously develop their ecological literacy.

Enter Permaculture

Those who identify themselves as permaculturists are likely to have high levels of ecological literacy. For the most part these are individuals who apply their science knowledge to growing food sustainably and building energy-efficient dwellings. These are individuals who care about the health of the planet and act accordingly. And finally, permaculturists tend to exhibit good systems thinking skills when examining systems ranging from the global economy to a worm farm. Permaculturists are often people who can connect the dots and ascribe to the precautionary principle. They also tend to be eager about sharing their ideas and enthusiasm with others.

Practicing permaculturists – those that have applied permaculture design to their homes and properties – can be described as citizen scientists. They use both their understanding of scientific concepts and scientific thinking to do things such as growing food without the use of chemicals or high inputs of fossil fuel. At times these citizen scientists conduct their own research, which can be as simple as applying a compost tea as a foliar feed to one of two plants in a garden bed and watching what happens. This is science in action. It is local, hands-on, relevant and solution oriented; many of the characteristics that the international literature on science education promote.

Mutually Beneficial

There are high school science classrooms all over the world. There are also – after nearly 40 years as a movement – permaculture practitioners all over the world. Science teachers are professionals at teaching science, but they may not know very much about sustainability or ecological design. Permaculturists know a lot about sustainability and ecological design but are not professional educators. On the surface, this may appear to be a perfect complimentary relationship, but it is not as easy as that. Common ground must be identified and a common purpose must be agreed. I submit that they are one and the same: improving students’ science learning and their attitudes toward learning science in school.

While the science teacher’s benefit from these ought to be clear from a utilitarian perspective, the permaculturists’ benefit may be more ethically based. In other words, as a system of science and ethics, permaculture asks of its practitioners to care for the Earth, care for people and share excess resources. For many permaculturists, knowledge and enthusiasm are resources they hold in abundance, which they are ethically bound to share. Additionally, many permaculturists recognize the need to invest their efforts in helping move their communities toward sustainability, not just their personal properties. Schools are a natural component of any community for permaculturists to engage in such efforts.

Talking the Walk

After establishing common ground and purpose, a common language is essential for such a partnership to succeed. I suggest that language be one easily accessible to the science teacher, one that may not even include the word permaculture, except in its identification as one of any number of approaches to ecological design. In order to get the most possible science teachers on board, permaculturists should learn to communicate in terms of science vocabulary, science skills and student learning.

Biology, chemistry and physics can all be explored through a permaculture lens and in a permaculture context. Any permaculture property can provide rich learning experiences outside of the classroom if designed and managed properly. The important thing is not to try to teach permaculture! The key is to teach science, but in a permaculture way. This requires considering student learning as a design challenge and applying the principles of permaculture to it. Like any permaculture design, it should start with a sector analysis of the available resources and energy flows for a given science class. These would include the teacher’s knowledge base and energy level, but also factors such as the school’s educational philosophy, the national curriculum, the location of the school, the availability of funding or transportation, effective communication, and access to resources designed to help permaculturists work with science teachers. It is only after a sector analysis for student learning has been completed that a high quality, local, hands on, relevant, solution oriented science learning experience can be designed and delivered.

This is part of what I have been researching for the last three years in pursuit of finding effective ways to integrate environmental education into secondary schools and improve students’ scientific and ecological literacy. I will be presenting preliminary results at the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education conference in January, 2012, and at pre-conference workshops of the Australasian Permaculture Convergence in April, 2012. Both events are in the Central North Island region of New Zealand.

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  1. Hi Nelson,

    Thanks for your great article. I’m very interested to learn more about your research. Have you plans to publish this?

    I’m a Permaculturist and a Science Teacher so I’ve definitely considered ways of getting the ‘big picture’ across and developing students’ systems thinking. I have noticed that the ‘ecology unit’ generates groans of reluctance from fellow teachers not as well versed or passionate about ecology as a ‘science’. To me it’s the most interesting science because it is more ‘real’ than topics such as atomic structure in chemistry and physics. It seems like there is a real need to put together some teacher professional development workshops on ecological literacy with input from Permaculturists.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Joanne.
    My thesis is now 12 months from submission. In the meantime, I’ll let Craig know if I write any journal articles.
    You are absolutely right on all of your comments. Teacher PD is crucially important, but that is also the toughest row to hoe. I’m inclined to design bridges between permies and teachers based on the common language of science and student learning as described above. This approach serves multiple functions in that it is providing teacher PD simultaneously with high quality student science learning and exposure to eco-design through local initiatives. Wins all around. But this bridge requires a good foundation and a sturdy platform. I believe that would be most immediately useful to build cooperative relationships and get permaculture into high schools right now.

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