people testing soil

Designing great courses will deliver more transformative outcomes

This is a topic that depends on many factors. For example, are you a specialist centre or a generalist project? Where are you based, where is your audience coming from and how easy is it for them to get to you? What are they looking for and what do they need?

Some important points for creating a great learning and activity programme are:


  • Focus on your strengths - of the team you’ve got, of those you are well connected with who can run courses or activities at you project, and the strengths of the place;
  • Make sure your courses and activities are financially viable (or can become so in a reasonable time period), and that the people delivering them are getting paid and treated well, whether they are internal staff or external providers;
  • Link your courses and activities to what you are demonstrating best, of course! That might be demonstrating something physical, like regenerative food growing, green buildings or permaculture design, or something social or economic, like inclusive decision making, cooperative or community ownership models, or activities that contribute to the wellbeing economy. Use these demonstration features for particular learning activities, project-based learning, learning through volunteering or intern programmes, or for creating your own case studies to be used with courses.
  • Some diversity in what you offer is usually good, provided you can make that work economically - for example, you might want a mixture of course topics, or a mixture of courses and other types of activity programmes, such as permaculture courses, offering nature connection, forest schools activity or the John Muir Award (connection with and conservation of nature and wild places), and a range of arts based activities. Having said this, some centres may have a very specific niche, where a mixture of courses are not so relevant;
  • If you’ve got attractive / affordable accommodation or camping offered on site, that makes life much easier in selling a range of courses and activities. If you are providing accommodation make sure it is well looked after. Make sure your venue and team welcoming, and if you have some unusual or interesting features or activities that often makes the experience more memorable;
  • Great food always makes a big difference, even if it’s fairly simple. If you can tell the story of where the food has come from and who has grown it, particularly from local sources or your own gardens / fields, that is normally going to go down really well;
  • Get some quotes and endorsements from happy customers, and make sure you have permission to use them in marketing, your website and so on;
  • Having activities that parents and children can do either together, or running in parallel at the same time can be a great way to get families involved, and attracts bigger groups of people more quickly - and of course you can encourage them to book with their friends too!
  • Gather feedback on your courses and activities, learn from that, and respond by improving your courses and activities, facilities and services in ways that make them even better! If you get tough criticism, breathe and read it again, to look to see if there is something important or useful to learn from;
  • Good marketing and communications is always going to make a difference, with good visuals, and usually reasonably short and accessible words - make it clear and simple, and encourage people to book without being too pushy!
Jo leading foraging session

"Deeper, more challenging courses and experiences will often deliver more transformative, longer lasting and more memorable outcomes for participants." Steve Charter Permaculture Educator 

They can be a way that people really remember you. However, they do need really skilled and experienced people to deliver and hold them well, and the right kind of facilities and set-up, so be careful about diving into such things unless you are sure of your team and who you are working with. 

In terms of the financial model for courses and events, this may not always be possible, but if you can provide some very affordable courses and activities, or accommodation, and some that are at a higher price which bring you a good and reliable income (hosting eco-weddings can be one way to fit this slot, if you have the right team to manage that very important day!) that’s probably going to help keep your finances in good order.

Creating great Learning Pathways for your audiences, and for you and your team

What is a learning pathway?

A learning pathway is the route taken by a learner through a range of learning activities which allows them to develop their competencies progressively (their understanding, knowledge, skills and attitudes). The Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design is a great example of a learning pathway - the many benefits of which are described in this permaculture Diploma learners feedback video. The journey to get to the Diploma is the most critical part of the learning pathway, because it’s the starting point! It might start with a fairly simple online course like Foundations of Permaculture, or a teacher supported online course like Growing Food in Small Spaces or Think Like a Tree.

Learning pathways enable you to develop, strengthen and enrich the competencies (skills, knowledge, experience, attitudes) to do a particular thing well, or a set of things well.

With a learning pathway, rather than a fixed course of learning, the control of choice moves to the learner, and away from the tutor. The learning pathway represents the steps that are taken from the initial ideas of the desire to learn, through which they develop their theoretical understanding and practical experience over time. Whilst this may sound very linear, in the fields of learning we are considering here, a ‘messy’ learning pathway , with various loops and changes of course, is often more likely - and is increasingly recognised as being likely to embed the learning more deeply, and be more of a transformative and deeper experience for the learner. 

Messy Learning

A transformative learning pathway is a route taken by a learner that generally leads to a fundamental shift in their perspective, sense of self and greater confidence or clarity about their purpose and direction. In this sense, often a learning pathway is as much about your inner development as it is about developing any specific practical skills or expert knowledge.

Messy learning can be compared to a jumbled-up tangled string which meets itself several times at different angles. When you are forced to look at something at different angles, your perception is strengthened. Each angle reinforces your understanding of it.  Messy learning is relevant for both those people who are active members of a learning and demonstration centre team, and for those who participate in learning programmes offered by those centres, particularly the more extended or in depth learning experiences. 

Problem-based learning / Project-based learning (PBL) revolves around the practice of reflection, is common in many fields, and can be seen as having 3 defining characteristics (Dickson and Barr, 2019): 

  1. presenting learners with (large) authentic projects i.e. community climate action projects, or a physical project such as building an outdoor learning structure
  2. enabling them to independently learn necessary concepts, practices or ‘realities from the field’
  3. enabling them to learn while working in groups  i.e. as they implement their community climate action or structure building projects together as a group.

Three aspects of the character and value of project-based learning are:

  1. learners are presented with real-world situations and genuine needs for which a solution is required, which obviously carries different responsibilities to theoretical or academic learning situations
  2. the projects enable them to explore, design and plan for optimising the potential (of people, places) that can arise from those projects
  3. the projects enable them to learn in groups about how to optimise their own potential as well as the potential of the projects 

Why do we need a learning pathway?

Learning pathways help people to develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes, values and experience that will enable them to deliver their centre’s learning programmes, core activities and vital demonstration features. For learning and demonstration centres they will be more likely to achieve their goals and thrive if they identify and offer attractive learning pathways for:

  • Their visitors, learners, volunteers and other participants in what they offer;
  • Their team, staff, management, trustees / board and organisational stakeholders

It is important to understand that it is skills, knowledge, attitudes, values and experience (the competencies) of your team that will support and enable people, communities or organisations to activate community transformation, for example by identifying appropriate carbon reduction and community resilience goals and having the skills, knowledge, confidence and expertise to achieve them. The centre can then work with that community to develop the competencies that will achieve those goals over time, whilst also providing access to spaces, activities and networks that support mental and physical health and wellbeing - as hubs for a sane, humane, ecological future.

How do we create and pursue our learning pathways?

A simple model for understanding different stages of a learning pathway is to recognise that there are often three key stages to a learning pathway. The initial entry stage is most likely to involve a relatively short taught course or training that introduces the ‘Why? What? And How?’ of the field in question, such as that of a transformative educator. The core stage is the central training that sets participants up to initiate their journey to develop skills, expertise and experience in that field. The deepening stage is likely to involve more self-directed learning, with significant project-based learning and practice-based learning. In this way learning arises from the action or practice that the ‘learner’ / ‘practitioner’ is involved in, over an extended period of time. 

Learning stages

Sometimes there will also need to ‘bridging’ opportunities to create smoother links between these stages. For example, in the permaculture movement many are now looking at developing and offering a 2 design Foundation Diploma (or Certificate in Applied Permaculture Design) to bridge the significant leap from the PDC (core level) to the 10 design Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design (extended learning journey).

Case Studies

Inspiring examples of permaculture places


Regenerative Knowledge Commons

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iACT and Land Centres Handbook


Next Steps

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'iACT iwas co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme. Proj. ref.: 2020-1-UK01-KA204-079285. The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.