Collaborative Learning among Farmers as an Approach to Alternative Agricultural Education
Alternative agricultural enterprises hold promise for small family farmers attempting to remain viable in today’s agricultural economy. However, current educational efforts often fall short of generating the knowledge and information required to successfully implement an alternative farming enterprise.
In response to this need, an educational program that utilizes a combination of two types of teaching and learning has been initiated, and its effects among participating farmers are currently being studied. This educational program enables farmers to construct knowledge about alternative farming opportunities in their area, and involves farmers in dialogue about specific issues pertinent to their individual farming operations.
Predominant strategies in alternative agriculture education consist mostly of what Peters and Armstrong (1998) term Type I teaching and learning. This educational method consists of lecture style presentations by one or more speakers or experts, with little opportunity for farmers to participate in the learning process. Transmission of knowledge is uni-directional, and learning by farmers is attained by absorption of presented material. Another type of teaching and learning, Type III, holds promise for alternative agriculture education. Type III is a collaborative learning approach, where the speaker or expert becomes an equal member of the group, all farmers’ knowledge is valued, and there is an emphasis on new knowledge construction by the action of the group members working together as a whole.
The success of some grassroots learning groups provides evidence that Type III approaches can be an effective method of education; however, Type I approaches are also effective in terms of their efficiency in disseminating information to farmers. In an effort to devise a more comprehensive educational system for alternative agriculture that will better serve the needs of family farmers, we have proposed an educational strategy that takes advantage of the benefits of both Type I and Type III teaching and learning. This is being accomplished by hosting monthly educational forums in which practitioners of alternative agriculture are invited as guest speakers to briefly share information about their alternative enterprise (Type I), then join the group of participating local farmers in dialogue around their presented ideas (Type III).
The goal of this study is to determine whether the combination of Type I (presentation-style) and Type III (collaborative learning) teaching and learning is as effective as solely Type I teaching and learning. This determination will be made by examining how farmers perceive the kind and quality of knowledge generated. The following questions guide this investigation:
1.How does the kind and quality of knowledge about alternative agricultural
practices differ, in terms of combined Type I and Type III teaching and learning vs. Type I teaching and learning only?
2.What is the process by which farmers jointly create knowledge in a combined Type I and Type III teaching and learning environment?
The results will be discussed with respect to how the two approaches to teaching and learning (Type I and III combined and Type I alone) compare in terms of knowledge constructed and the process of knowledge construction.
As detailed in the research proposal, monthly forum sessions were initiated in April 2002, and have taken place on an average of one forum per month. Our final forum will be held in April 2003, upon which data collection by interviews and other cited methods will begin. In concurrence with our proposed timetable, we are on schedule to complete the interview process by August 2003. Data will be compiled throughout the Fall, and the completed final report should be ready for submission in December 2003.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Since this project is still in the data collection stage, any assumptions about our forums as successful educational strategy would be speculative at best. However, preliminary research, as well as personal communications with many of the participating farmers, suggests positive results.
Type I teaching and learning has long been used as a successful method of presenting specific agricultural information. However, in the field of agricultural education there seems to be a contradiction in the type of knowledge needed by farmers investigating alternative agriculture and the method by which it is distributed. Currently, the majority of educational events in the Southern Region pertaining to alternative agriculture focus upon the presentation of new ideas to farmers. The intent of such events is that ideas will be taken back to the farm by participating farmers and adopted into current farming operations. However, ideas, by their nature, are fundamentally different from specific information – they are context-based and conceptual. For example, shifting from tobacco production to blueberry production is a conceptual idea, whereas how to grow blueberries is specific information. In addition, the decision of a farmer to shift from tobacco to blueberry production carries with it financial, social, and emotional consequences; however, the freedom to discuss these complex issues is rarely present in most agricultural education events.
Presentation of specific information remains an important part of agricultural education. However, the nature of alternative agricultural education suggests that conceptual information is equally as important as specific knowledge. By continuing to only utilize Type I approach for sharing concepts and ideas, educators are implementing an educational strategy towards a purpose for which it is not adequate. Type III teaching and learning, however, considers the needs of farmers to ask questions, dialogue, and build knowledge about ideas – a construction of knowledge which is necessary prior to adopting a new farming practice. Thus, the combination of the two types of teaching and learning being implemented in this study potentially suggests a more comprehensive educational strategy for assisting farmers in the Southern Region investigate alternative agriculture options.
Graduate Student Project Assistant
University of Tennessee
Office Phone: 8659741963