Using Sociocracy to learn and teach Permaculture

01 February 2019, by Andreas Jonsson,  

Facilitating a meeting and facilitating collective group learning is a very similar thing.

I’m here going to give an insight into how I head teach a PDC – Permaculture Design Course.

I have the fantastic opportunity to teach PDCs at Holma folkhögskola (Folk High School), in Sweden. All of Holmas’ Popular Education courses are free of charge. Well, actually there is a registration fee at around 25 EUR for the PDC. But I guess even that would be negotiable if it came to that. Actually, come to think of it… if you are a Swedish national and you apply for student benefits, you can actually get paid taking this PDC course. So the concept is actually: Earn 150 EUR per month, learning Permaculture!

Stacking Functions. Shelter, passive heating and Solar Power is essential in colder climates.
Deciding upon multi-functional roles is essential in collaborative environments.

So this is the layout of the free PDC. It starts in March and ends in October. There are four fully packed weekends, and one four day session in the middle. So that amounts to 16 full days. But since it runs over more than seven months, the major design work and co-learning is done in between course weekends. And that learning process is run by the participants themselves.

Since it is a free course, we usually get more than a hundred applicants for each course. So how do I choose among all these motivated people? Well, here I rely a lot on the two Permaculture Principles:

Obtain a Yield

Power of Responsibilty; Relinquish Power

They tell me that the aim of any successful design is to Harvest in Abundance and to create Succession – a self-managed perpetual system. So a first stepping stone is to look into who has applied, and try to focus on those that seek and/or have collaborative experiences.

During the first weekend we spend a lot of time establishing a stable structure. We learn to listen and observe others attentively using Circle Methods of communication. And we learn how to decide in groups, using Sociocracy. When I teach Permaculture lessons or courses I have a huge initial responsibility to make learners feel at ease, to relax and to feel included and needed. I want to create a course culture where group learning gradually ceases to be my responsibility, and instead becomes the responsibility of the group itself. That, for me, is aiming for self-organization and succession in learning. And I believe this can be achieved by following the essence of the second Principle mentioned above: The teacher should Relinquish Power. In Sociocracy I believe we would say: Don’t delegate power. Distribute it.

One aim in achieving learning succession, is to make everyone see and take responsibility for their individual Learning Cycles. That is; learning to apply Design Thinking to your own learning process. A lot of time for self-observation and reflection is needed initially, and we spend a lot of time on that.

Teaching in a collaborative learning environment, a PDC, is all about reflecting on you own Learning Cycle, and at the same time practicing and rehearsing how to convey that story.

Another aim is to make participants realize how their own learning is related to group co-learning. When we have that, we have synchronized individual needs with group needs, and we can then move into creating roles. Within a course we always have the ambition to become a self-sustained unit while we learn. It doesn’t always happen, but we try. We approach this by talking about the needs of the whole group, and we create and elect Sociocratic Roles to meet those needs. Basic design thinking, really. A few simple roles might be: Who does the cooking for lunch? Who prepares the morning coffee? Who does the evening cleaning? Does anyone have a spare pillow or mattress? But as the course progresses further, we create more complex roles.

At the end of the first weekend, we spend a few hours finding design objects. Who in the group has a place or a situation that needs a design that more people can partake in? Which needs and aims can we find? We have long rounds in the Circle where everyone gets to help form and join a design group. We end up with 3-5 groups at the end of Sunday, and the groups are themselves small co-learning units that will work tightly together for 7 months, in between course weekends. In a sociocratic sense, these design groups are course sub-circles that have their own aims and decisions. Before we leave every weekend, we set dates and Action Plans for all groups to meet. After that, I let go.

Design groups have their own internal aims and roles. Through teaching, they share their learning experience to the whole PDC-course

Every weekend is located at different venues, and that makes a good opportunity to pool resources again. Which type of food ca we find there, and what do we need to bring? Can we travel together? Does anyone have a place to sleep… and so on.

The Second weekend starts with a regular Check-In. And after that, every design group gives their view on how the group is working out, and how the design is coming along. This is the first occasion where the participants themselves hold longer sessions. Usually they do a 30 min session on their group work. They also bring their own work and knowledge into the course through individual sessions, during this weekend. Teaching and learning has now started to be distributed, and merged together. As a course facilitator I slowly start to remove myself from the teaching processes. More and more, I tune into learning mode. The overall framework of the course is still my domain obviously.

The third course session is a four day event with limited facilities. Everyone sleeps in a tent or in a barn, and there is no “Indoors”. Cooking is done outside over a wood stove or fire, and there is only rainwater showers and an outhouse. The overall objective with the chosen place, is to consolidate the group further, and to show by example that Permaculture is all about collaboration and roles. And what better place to do that, than a place where the needs are few, but also very vital and obvious? Who gets firewood, who brings water, who cooks, who does the washing up… This is the weekend we learn a lot about human Core Needs; Listening and Observing, Food Growing, Eco-Building, Energy for Heating, Water Management, Understanding the Functions and Roles of Trees…

The fourth weekend is the most interesting from a collaborative point of view. Here we spend three full days visiting all the designed objects. Except for a Friday intro session, and a Sunday closing session, all activities are distributed to the different design groups. That includes almost all teaching, all facilitation, food, sleeping quarters, traveling and so on. That means that the learners decide on a very complex weekend schedule, in great detail, almost without my involvement. At this weekend I become both teacher and full time learner. And the participants move more and more from learners to co-teachers.

The last weekend is the real deal. This is when it might end, so we spend a lot of time evaluating. We also prepare for what might come, and build a unifying image around that. After evaluating, we also jump-start the second loop of the course Learning Cycle. We start Visioning once again, and we talk about the possibility of a group culture to come. We spend much of the weekend doing an inventory of needs, resources and limits, and set new aims for the group to keep meeting and maintaining itself, after the course is finished. This is when we see what collaborative learning succession is really about. We also work through different strategies and methods of holding Permaculture Introduction Courses.

The most recent PDC course set three dates and venues, and created its own information framework through a popular messaging service, and everyone was included! After they did that by themselves, I was invited to join. I humbly said no (Relinquish Power), and left that learning succession framework to itself, with more loose connections still available of course. Three people from the course are soon to hold an Introduction to Permaculture Weekend – collaboratively of course.

This years upcoming course will feature a few new human elements from the previous courses, and the long term aim is to have a PDC run regeneratively, by itself, with some of the new Permaculture learners taking on responsibilities to make the course strive and grow.

Andreas Jonsson

PDC Teacher, and Principal at Holma folkhögskola in Sweden. A school which is based on the Permaculture Ethics , and is a governed sociocratically.

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