Digging into Pedagogy and Learning for Agroecology

Processes of learning are a critical piece to advancing broad transformation for justice and sustainability. So what are the proven techniques, the approaches, and processes that can make education truly transformative? What can we learn from the pioneering work of radical grassroots educators and social movements who have innovated their own models of transformative pedagogy? How can a transformative approach to learning be integrated into formal education systems that were not designed with transformation in mind?
A stream of research in the Agroecology and Livelihood Collaborative’s Community of Practice focuses on the methodologies and processes that underpin transformative pedagogy as applied to agroecological scaling. We study the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in higher education as well as the informal processes of learning within non-academic communities and social movements.

This scholarship is based on a reflective action research approach and stimulated by our team’s commitment to  honing their own pedagogical practices by sharing learnings, mistakes and innovations to inform others.

Agroecology and Teaching at UVM

We have a diverse range of pedagogical programs at UVM, including working with undergraduate students, graduate students and community-members both inside and outside of a formal classroom setting. In our Advanced Agroecology course (PSS212), for example, we work with undergraduate students and strive to transcend the limitations of traditional university courses. This journal article, led by Katie Horner, critically analyses this course, and highlights the impact and potential of transformative agroecology education in the U.S. It demonstrates how the teaching team has focused specifically on deconstructing the student-professor hierarchy and integrating multiple types of knowledge in course content and assignments. Long-term partnerships with local farms are a key component of the course and enable students to contextualize in-class learning via on-farm experience and relationships with farmers and peers.
To complement undergraduate education in agroecology, the ALC coordinates two undergraduate research fellowship programs, the ALC Undergraduate Research Fellows and the AX Fellowship. The ALC Undergraduate Research Fellows program engages students in a year-long inquiry into agroecology through their participation in a participatory action research project, while serving as peer leaders in the Advanced Agroecology course mentioned above. A formative approach to this program’s early development resulted in this article, led by Karen Nordstrom. The AX Fellowship is a 10-week summer exploration of university extension research and outreach projects through the lens of agroecology. AX program leadership involves ALC members Karen Nordstrom, Scott Lewins, and Vic Izzo.
Undergraduate students and instructor Vic Izzo confer as part of the AX Fellowship program at the University of Vermont.
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In addition to undergraduate course offerings, the ALC offers a low-residency, 15-credit Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology (CGSA) which includes five courses that can be taken as stand-alone courses. This coursework leads participants through an examination of potential pathways towards the transformation of food systems by integrating economic, social, and ecological perspectives. A micro-certificate (9 credits) and à la carte options are also available.

Pedagogy in movements for agroecology and food sovereignty

Social movements, peasant organizations and radical educators have been deeply engaged in education for food system transformation, which opens the door to social transformation. Our scholarly work includes examining how processes of education and learning are being deployed in movements for agroecology and food sovereignty, largely outside of the sphere of formal education.

This work focuses on learning as a social movement strategy, and is based on participatory action research (PAR) and on close collaboration and solidarity with our partners and grassroots educations in organizations and communities.

Farmers, researchers and activists from around the world enjoying learning through participatory Image Theatre at the Schola Campesina School in Italy.
Transformative agroecology framework involves a pedagogical approach that always has practice as a central component, but also relies on four pillars (orange segments) to provide the ‘connective tissue’ to the political project of food sovereignty (yellow circle). Source: Anderson et al. 2018.
Transformative agroecology framework involves a pedagogical approach that always has practice as a central component, but also relies on four pillars (orange segments) to provide the ‘connective tissue’ to the political project of food sovereignty (yellow circle). Source: Anderson et al. 2018.

In this sub-area of our work, Nils McCune has long-standing work on learning processes with social movements in Latin America and North America (see publications here). For example, in his co-authored article on “teaching the territory”, Nils examines peasant-to-peasant learning in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, calling for educational theory and practice to move beyond the focus on the individual towards a focus on the concept of the territory as a collective learning process.

In addition, Colin Anderson has carried out action research with partners in social movements and transformative learning in Europe, in which they propose four pillars of transformative agroecological learning, published in a special issue on learning in food movements.