George Lucas Educational Foundation
Environmental Education

The Permaculture Classroom: A Systems-Based Approach

Permaculture is ideal for teaching ecology and increases productivity within your school’s existing standards and framework.

April 19, 2016
Photo credit: Edutopia

Every fall, teachers all over the country get ready for their first day back to work. When they arrive, they hear about all the new things they get to do for the year. Rarely do we hear about the list of things that we don't have to do any more. With Common Core looming, the complexity and volume of the content is rapidly increasing at a rate not commensurate to the number of hours in a school day.

As teachers, we have to get better at turning over some of the responsibility to our students in a structured manner that increases their connection to content and offers contextual meaning in their world. After taking a permaculture design course 13 years ago, I saw those design methodologies as the tool to accomplish that task.

Permaculture as Pedagogy

Permaculture is a design system for developing sustainable human settlement, while increasing biodiversity, resilience, and local economy. For the last ten years -- through the Food and Conservation Science Program (FACS) -- my students at Hood River Middle School and I have been designing, building, and operating a permaculture-inspired system that allows the depth, complexity, and ownership required to move from a linear pedagogy to a systems-based approach offering the variables and relevance that my students devour.

Permaculture is not a new curriculum. There are no new standards or content materials. The permaculture design principles are the tools to increase productivity within the standards and framework that your school already employs. By looking together at the world through a permaculture lens, teachers and students can increase efficiency, stack functions, and accelerate basic skills, while also offering connectivity between subjects that allows students to find relevance and commitment to their work.

Permaculture empowers students to make connections: Permaculture students study a design methodology -- a systematic approach to understanding the connections between all the parts of the system. By immersing them into a multi-disciplinary study, I enable my students to discover key connections, like seeing that culture is a function of ecology, or that operating on a solar budget is more complicated than putting solar panels on the roof.

The permaculture design principles are a filter for developing more strategic outcomes that contain rich academic rigor and an increased understanding of students' tremendous potential as change makers in their communities.

Permaculture fosters empathy: One of the more unique aspects to permaculture design is its ethical base as a platform for all further decision-making. The ethics are:

  1. Care of Earth and its systems to continue life
  2. Care of people
  3. An intelligent redistribution of surplus to meet the needs of the first two ethics, driven by questions such as:
  • Is our decision-making process focused on both short- and long-term outcomes
  • Can we continue to make these choices sustainably over a long time period?

Amid the daily news of hostile takeovers, greedy dictators, famous celebrities acting foolishly, and reports of planetary decay, students find a system of ethical decisions welcome and productive. Permaculture is a positivistic design process, focusing on what we can do today in this place to make things begin moving in the right direction.

Permaculture inspires advocacy: Many of the failures associated with the early environmental movements stem from the idea that people would spring to action if only they understood all the terrible problems out there. This idea of awareness fell short. Students often had no association with the faraway places where pandas lived or whales swam, and the increased guilt made many turn their attention elsewhere to feel better, instead of inspiring them to take action.

Permaculture begins with an assessment of the here and now, and it begins at all scales to move forward in a more action-oriented process. Students very quickly see jobs that they can take on and successfully develop solutions. Small success leads to increased confidence and a can-do attitude that increases with each new element in the design. When we understand the complexities required to fix a problem in our own backyard, we develop more understanding of the monumental task ahead of us at the global level. Many years ago, my students told me that they wanted to be engineers so that they'd make a lot of money. Now they tell me they that want to be engineers so that they can redesign systems to make communities more productive and less wasteful!

Permaculture Design Principles in the Classroom

To get started, here are the four most important permaculture design principles to incorporate into your classroom:

1. Start small: Small is inexpensive, quickly productive, and usually develops decision making at the right scale. Early mistakes are common, but small mistakes are easier to clean up. Our first gardens were five-gallon buckets in a row outside the window of my room. Those gardens generated huge student interest and parent support for future projects at almost no cost. Ten years later, this is what our sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade FACS students are doing.

2. Stack functions: School gardens are often small, and we run out of space quickly. How many functions can one element in the system accomplish? Something that only does one job is usually expensive and wasteful. Our aquaculture system grows fish, provides high-nitrogen fertilizer, grows food year round, acts as a heat sink to balance greenhouse temperatures, and is where most of our rooting propagation occurs. It is some very productive real estate in the greenhouse.

3. Obtain a yield: Get really creative with your idea of what a yield can be: excited parents, a newspaper story, jazzed kids, pumpkins. Plant seeds to get a quick return. Kids can eat sprouted seeds in five days, and baby salad greens in three weeks.

4. Use biological systems: What natural, ecological function solves a problem that we generally address by putting a plug in the wall? Grapes along the south wall of the greenhouse limit summer sun, but let in winter light when their leaves have fallen. Worms compost our lunch waste to create perfect potting soil, and we can feed surplus to the fish and chickens, or sell them at our school's Farmers' Market.

Permaculture allows for an easy entrance that can become increasingly complex over time as understanding, budgets, and attitudes move in the direction that we want. A designer begins to see the world through permaculture glasses, and the layers of complexity and connectivity are an endless source for rigorous student endeavors.

School Snapshot

Hood River Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Hood River, OR
540 | Public, Rural
Per Pupil Expenditures
$11280 District$10515 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
66% White
29% Hispanic
2% Asian
1% Black
Data is from the 2014-2015 academic year.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Hood River Middle School.

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