Is agroecology for you?

Knowledge, skills and attitudes
Agroecologists need a new set of tools to deal with the kind of complexity presented to them. The new tools are a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes, since knowledge on its own does not give the ability to handle a complex issue.

Some selected student responses
“……has been extremely useful for me, in both my academic studies and personal development” (Wendy Hall, 2001)

“I also gained a real curiosity and confidence in examining and tackling “big picture” issues” (Ali English, 2005)

“This type of learning enabled me to grow as a person, made me aware of my own competencies and gave me courage to start using these in my thesis work and now also in my professional life.” (Dorthe Christensen, 2005)

Farming and food systems are ecologically, economically and socially important in all societies. Worldwide there is a need for candidates that can deal with such systems, which are characterised by complexity, multi functionality and rapid change. The MSc programme in Agroecology gives a scientific and holistic basis for describing, analysing, and improving farming and food systems.

The demands placed by contemporary society on the food system range from a concern primarily for quantity and security of supply in many parts of the world to a concern largely for quality and safety of the supplied food in other parts. It is also crucial to maintain an environment where people can live, a natural resource base, viable farms and rural communities. In the increasingly de-localized and globalized food market, intensification of the production system and strong reliance on novel technologies are believed to be capable of addressing the questions of quantity of supply. At the same time, loud calls are being made to reintegrate components of the production system, reduce the gap between the farmer and the consumer, and to produce safer and healthier food in ethically defensible and environmentally benign ways. Holistic approaches and action competencies will be necessary to deal with these challenges.

Agroecology is the academic field that bridges agriculture, ecology and social sciences. It brings applications of systems approaches, comprising system dynamics and analyses, to agriculture. Employers are seeking people who can handle complexity and change and have good communication skills. Ecological agriculture as a component of an alternate food system is a growing field and requires professionals with the appropriate education to support its needs. In response to these challenges and opportunities, the MSc level education in Agroecology has been launched, providing students with experiential education in farming and food systems. The goal is to educate agroecologists who have knowledge of farming and food systems, who can handle complex and changing situations, who are good communicators and facilitators, who are autonomous learners and who can link theory to concrete real life situations.

Pedagogical Basis
The curriculum in agroecology enables the development of knowledge and skills of the students in order for them to deal with complex situations in agricultural development. Ways of “learning to learn” is seen as crucial for learning that is life-long. By adopting experiential learning as the pedagogical basis of the programme, we aim to produce learners who are able to bridge the large gap between knowing and doing.

Running the MSc courses in agroecology have implied a shift in focus in several ways: We question the relevance of information presented only in packages by discipline, and the sequence in which this is provided to students. We also broaden the commonly used, lecture-based paradigm to multiple approaches and activities in education, and shift emphasis from teaching to learning. Further, we demonstrate the importance of education outside the classroom and in the community, and insist on integrating action research and action learning. With experiential learning as the pedagogical foundation, it becomes imperative that real life situations are simply not examples of theories, but become the starting point for the learning process. Teachers and students engage in a joint process to learn about complex real-life situations and in the process will have to integrate different disciplines.

Overall the shift encompasses

  • Shifting of focus from teaching to learning
  • Shifting from teacher oriented to student oriented
  • Shifting from transfer of knowledge to experiential learning
  • Shifting of focus from present situation problems to future wanted situations – from a reactive to a creative approach to the future
  • Changing from narrow questions to systems questions
  • Changing focus from universal principles to site-specific applications
  • Shifting from general truths to context-specific knowledge
  • Integration of methods from Natural Sciences and Social Sciences
  • Moving from introspective focus to challenges that face society
  • Incorporating ethical and moral dimensions to learning
  • Shifting from a culture of fixed answers to a culture of curiosity
  • Expanding the teachers to include a range of professionals
  • Moving education from classroom to the farm and food system
  • Using different ways of knowing and learning

Contact information: Associate Professor Geir Lieblein, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Agroecology Group, P.O. Box 5003, N-1432 Ås, Phone: +47 64 96 56 44, Fax: +47 64 94 78 02, E-mail: [email protected]