Common Ground, Not Landscape Design: Improving the Uptake of Permaculture Ideas in Schools by Not Trying to Teach Permaculture

This presentation makes a radical departure from many previous approaches to permaculture education in schools. It does not include gardens or design principles. Instead it considers the main purpose of schools — students learning — and the main factor that influences that purpose: the teacher. Most teachers feel overworked and are reluctant to add anything to what they consider an over-crowded curriculum. Most teachers have low ecological literacy and lack confidence to incorporate sustainability issues into their practice. For them, permaculture is just another multi-syllable, unfamiliar concept. It is the rare teacher who will embrace permaculture and run with it. Good on them!

But for the vast majority of teachers, more nuanced approaches are required for them to want to embrace some of the ideas surrounding permaculture. Those ideas include ethical decision making, applied science, sustainable living, and systems thinking. One strategy is to use permaculture design as the process for engaging teachers and students, not as a desired outcome. This presentation reports on two projects in which holistic, multi-layered approaches to permaculture were used to engage teachers and students in New Zealand Schools.

The first project is a four-year doctoral research study that considers ways in which permaculture can be integrated into junior secondary science classes to promote ecological and scientific literacy in students. Data was collected around the pedagogical approaches employed, student learning and student attitudes toward science and the environment. The permaculture approach in this study included five strands: permaculture design; the transformative nature of permaculture; permaculture techniques; permaculture practitioners; and permaculture properties.

The second project is an informal study of primary and intermediate schools in Whanganui informed by the findings of the study above. The goal of this project was not to teach permaculture, but to improve the teaching and learning of all subject areas in the New Zealand curriculum by approaching the goal as a design challenge and working accordingly. The learning environment of a classroom can be viewed in the same way as a permaculture property. It has sectors and zones, energy flows and resources. In this project, teachers were treated like clients, and allowed to express their needs, interests, challenges and visions. The client briefs were then used to design holistic, relevant, experiential teaching and learning activities.

Keys to this approach are that it is: responsive not prescriptive; based on research; complimentary to the New Zealand curriculum.

What’s next? I am interested in developing a framework that can act as common ground between teachers and permaculturists. Teachers are experts in student learning. Permaculturists are experts in sustainable living and applied science. I seek partners in developing a common ground and common language between the two that will further the cause of both. Won’t you join me?


Presenter: Nelson Lebo sold his 38 acre permaculture farm in New Hampshire, USA to pursue doctoral research at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. He currently lives in the previously-known-as worst house in Whanganui where he uses eco-renovation and organic foodscaping to engage learners of all ages in sustainability education.

Note: A theoretical framework for the doctoral research described above will be available in mid-March for those interested in reading it before the convergence. Contact theecoschool (at)


  1. Certainly an out of the box approach. I like it!
    Interested to hear a fleshed out version of how you see the sectors, zones, energy flows and resources in the classroom.
    My wife is a teacher and has done a PDC and long stints of WOOFing. What does joining you look like and how does it start?

  2. I’m studying a Bachelor of Arts/Education right now, currently in my second year. I am also a recent Permaculture enthusiast. Once I start teaching (high school History and English) I plan to weave environmental awareness into my classes. This year, if I can save enough cash I want to do my PDC. I also want to start my own property using permaculture, probably after 10 years of teaching (so I can afford some land). I’m only 20 anyhow. It’s exciting to see other like minded people!
    This is why I got into education.
    I would love to help in anyway I can.

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