What is a Workshop? What is a Course?

By Dan Hemenway

OK, I've written my last email explaining the difference between a workshop and a course. Hopefully. Here it is for everyone who needs clarification to do be so clarified.

First of all, we are talking here about basic English meanings, not my personal preference for word meanings.


A course is a prescribed path of travel. If you have a race, you begin at some point, travel a specified path, and finish at some prescribed destination. Shortcuts are cheating.

In education therefore, we start at a specified level of understanding, or work a bit to establish one, and then cover a prescribed set of topics in a prescribed sequence, to achieve some sort of defined finish. Successful completion arrives at the intended destination of knowledge, understanding, skill, or some combination thereof. Shortcuts are cheating. Unlike a race, everyone can 'win' an educational course, if s/he meets the requirements at the finish line. Success in our online course is acknowledged by the award of a certificate. In our course, anyone who skips part of the journey is not certified, period.

A related term is progress, in the older sense, as a monarch would undertake a progress through the countryside, visiting a prescribed number of towns in a prescribed order. Hence the jest in the graveyard scene of Hamlet, regarding a king making a progress through the guts of a beggar.


A workshop is a place where people undertake projects. It is a shop for doing work. I'd think that was obvious if I hadn't been beset by countless misunderstandings. How the project is completed is not prescribed. Whatever works is fine. The object is the result, not the means of achieving the result.

In our programs, workshops undertake a design project, with all participants contributing to the design. We all work to make the design as fine as possible in the available time. The participants choose their methodology, their sequence of actions, etc. Nobody gets a certificate, diploma, etc., because each person will have taken a different set of activities to contribute to the result.


Within our permaculture design course, we have a practicum that in ways resembles a workshop. The student, or a team of students, undertake to produce a professional quality permaculture design as part of the progress through the course. We specify requirements of the practicum in detail, especially the final design report, but, like a workshop, we also allow a lot of options for how the student meets these requirements. As a stand-alone, the practicum would be a workshop. So it can be regarded as somewhat of a workshop within a course.


We teach only one permaculture design course, the certificate course. We have variously formatted workshops from a weekend to two weeks in duration. We even have a one-day program that is a hybrid between a lecture and a workshop…kind of.

NB: We reserve the right to cancel any workshop without refund of deposit if the host persists in calling it a course. We teach only one course, the full Permaculture Design Course for certification, and we will not be party for misuse of language that could result in people expecting certification from a workshop.


This is like asking which is better, the color of the sky at noon on a clear day in Nebraska, or the teats of a lactating mouse. The programs serve different functions. The course is the first step to prepare one to practice permaculture for the benefit of others. There needs be standards and oversight for this. The workshops serve dual functions to provide a design for the workshop site, and to provide people with guided experience of the design process. From there they can go home and do much better than they had been doing to move toward sustainability.

The two-week and 10-day workshops can support the course as preparation, or as additional design experience after certification, and they equally serve the homeowner who just wants to design his/her place. Because the programs serve different functions, we can combine them to achieve a whole benefit greater than the sum of the parts separately.

Back to Permaculture TRAINING page.