Research Summary

Cultivating Attitudes and Trellising Learning: A Permaculture Approach to Science and Sustainability Education

Applying a Permaculture Design Framework to Environmental Education to Cultivate Engaged Science Learning

Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Permaculture and environmental education both originated in the 1970s and, although they have grown along different paths, they continue to have parallel, complementary goals and philosophies. Permaculture is defined, generally, as a systems approach that looks at a subject or area and attempts to maximize beneficial relationships while minimizing harmful ones. Originally, permaculture applied specifically to food cultivation, but since its inception, the notion has informed designs for many other systems, such as those in finance, law, business, and education.

In general, permaculture takes a bottom-up approach, cultivating fertile grounds to support vigorous growth and biodiversity. This means identifying—and addressing— deficiencies in existing foundational systems. After addressing inadequacies in the “soil,” or the foundational elements of systems, a permaculture approach supports beneficial connections and positive feedback loops while providing gentle guidance and support for the growing system.

In this study, the authors used a permaculture approach to science education with a class of 18 secondary school students (all 14 years of age) in New Zealand. The students participated in a curriculum that included three units: Environmental Chemistry, Ecological Principles, and Plants as Food. The units moved from a big-picture focus to a local focus, with an overall goal of improving environmental literacy and understanding the role of food production systems. In the final unit, students took field trips to two local permaculture sites: a diversified orchard and an eco-accommodation that used permaculture practices to increase its sustainability.

The authors assessed the impact of this curriculum using a mixed-methods approach. They used formal and informal interviews with the teachers; for students, the authors used questionnaires before the curriculum was implemented, as well as focus groups after the curriculum had been implemented to gather a range of qualitative and quantitative data. Additionally, one of the authors worked closely with the class throughout the curriculum as a “participant observer.” This allowed for a long-term, more holistic view of the curriculum’s impacts on the students.

Although quantitative data for this study were not statistically significant because of the small sample size, the data did suggest some overall trends. The authors found that the focus on food provided students with a sense of relevance, which in turn related to higher levels of engagement and interest. All students reported enjoying the experiential aspect of the field trips. Themes of enjoyment and the ability to participate in real, applied activities were prevalent in student responses. The enjoyment of these activities, however, did not necessarily translate to increased interest in science and science learning. In particular, students who expressed disinterest in science in the pre-implementation questionnaires did not show increased interest after the curriculum had been implemented, even if they enjoyed the experiential learning. Also, the ability to link key words to make sustainability statements increased only for some students. After completing their participation in the curricular unit, many students felt more positivity toward science and science education, yet few demonstrated increased pro-environmental attitudes.

The authors emphasized the importance of the curriculum’s ability to engage students, even briefly, in science and sustainability topics by providing experiential learning opportunities using a permaculture approach. They note that the more locally and personally relevant the context is, the more nourishing the program will be for students. The authors also offer trellising as an alternative to the familiar concept of scaffolding; they draw a contrast between the imagery evoked by each term. The authors propose that scaffolding suggests knowledge that is built by outside forces that construct understanding within rigid constraints and according to a precise plan. By contrast, trellising indicates knowledge that grows more organically, driven primarily by the learner with gentle guidance and support from others. Trellised learners, therefore, have the freedom to explore their own interests, make broader connections, and grow at their own pace.

The Bottom Line

A permaculture approach to education can cultivate healthy attitudes toward learning, which, in turn, promote growth. A permaculture approach identifies and amends deficiencies and enhances existing positive relationships and feedback loops (such as the feedback loop between relevance and engagement). This approach also gives students freedom to explore their own interests, grow knowledge organically, and find intrinsic motivations within a soft supporting framework, or trellis, rather than a rigid scaffold that may lead to more limited and less self-motivated learning. Environmental educators can use this approach to increase relevance and interest among students.