Agroecology Education – The pedagogy and practice

There needs to be a paradigm shift from a linear to cyclical approach to learning. This can happen when students move towards system thinking and build key competencies by engaging in a learning process, which is rather facilitated and not taught.

Students interact with farmers to understand farm situation and farmers perspectives

‘Going to the field is compulsory for our students’ – told a professor, ‘…even I go to field regularly. As you see, the knowledge of the farmers is quite poor, particularly about the latest technologies.’ ‘We go to collect data to understand farmer’s problem’ – chirped a student from behind.

Our agriculture education still sees famer as only an outside stakeholder – we ‘go’ to ‘them’ to understand ‘their problem’ and ‘offer solution’. While uttering this sentence in front of professors and students from an eminent university, explicitly mentioning the quote-unquote, I realised – I failed to convey what I wanted to mean through this sentence. Various such responses came to defend their position vis-à-vis my observation.

We were burning our hands by conducting a certificate course on Agroecology for researchers, activists and practitioners since last 7 years. About 170 students from 15 States of India and 4 other countries attended. Agroecology, as a subject in mainstream education system was fairly new in India that time. Though methods of agroecology have been ‘practiced’ since long – the science of it is quite new, so is the movement. There were farmers’ movement and peasant’s movement in India – but is mostly around economic issues, land right and forest rights. Even the current farmer’s struggle was revolving around market issues only. Agroecology learning still brings out the connotation and expectation of an organic agriculture or sustainable agriculture course. It has been a challenge in initial days of the course to make pupil understand that it deals with open ended questions where the students get to learn through problem solving related to real phenomena rather than pre-fixed prescriptions.

The initial expectations of the pupil were mostly to learn techniques of organic farming. Overfocus on technology had been a modern phenomenon of simplistic way of handling a challenge. As the days go by, the divide between Science and Technology is slowly melting away. The modern-day Science has become quite simplistic and reductionist – like providing a quick prescription – which is also looming in to our education system, particularly agriculture. One pesticide for one pest, is a wonderful example of such reductionism. Even the so-called alternatives to conventional input intensive agriculture are also falling back on a prescriptive mode offering technologies. Beejamrit, Jeevamrit, Mulching, Brahmastra.This is a different domain of discussion though – but overfocus on techno-fixing has also creeped into our agriculture education system conveniently.

What is it all about

However, it took some time for the students to understand that Agroecology is not mere technique replacement in conventional agriculture. They gradually understood that the course was more to provide framework for how to study, design and manage agroecosystems that are both productive and natural resource conserving. As the focus was more on developing agroecologist rather than teaching agroecological theories, students were exposed to real life situation and simulation of real phenomena. Compared to a simplistic view, it also created scope to understand any situation from interaction between various systems like farm system, natural ecosystem, food system, market system, social system and political system.

A paradigm shift from a linear to a cyclical approach to learning was practiced in the course focusing on an active action reflection based pedagogy. The hypotheses considered was – active, social learning having the complex reality as point of departure – with theory in a supporting role – is generally more effective than traditional, theory-based strategies and more suitable when it comes to understanding and handling complex sustainability challenges. Action learning happens in the complex world outside the classroom – so each component of learning started with a real life experience followed by reflection and further theory on the topic. The main task, was to engage with a farm to find out challenges while working in the farm and co-develop options to address those. The learning started in an ideal farm and ends with sharing the experience with larger audience through exhibition.  It followed a cyclical way, where students were first exposed to a real life phenomena or action and learn and acquire knowledge through reflection and move on to next action cycle as described in the figure below.


From exposure to engage

In agriculture education, farmer always remained in the periphery as a knowledge receiver from the extension system – everybody is out there to teach a farmer how to farm! As opposed to just collecting information or technology transformation, farmer and other practitioners played an important role in this course as knowledge centre. The students, throughout the course thus have multiple interaction with the farmers, staying with them to understand their perspective.  At the beginning students are placed in well-established ecological farms to learn from them about farm planning, techniques, practices, interaction with the market etc. The framework of such interaction is free flowing – but also structured where the farmers are already oriented to make the students work in the farm, explain about farm planning, resource flow etc. Learning from that experience, a group of students are then assigned to one farm to assess the challenges through various tools and co-develop solution through rest of the period. The knowledge input and interaction with the experts were all according to the identified challenges. The farmers give their feedback about the students’ performance – like how eager they were to learn, if anyone had any inhibitions in staying and working in the farms, engagement etc. In some cases, students worked with food processors, seed growers as well.

From knowledge to key competencies

The course focused on developing agroecologists, rather than teaching agroecology – so it is imperative to focus on the students rather than the content only. How we learn to see the world influences what we do in future. Consequently, if we are aiming to bring in more sustainability in our future action, there is an urgent need to re-think education and shift the overall focus in education from theoretical knowledge alone to the competences which is coming out from their experience. The next generation of professionals in the field of agriculture need to acquire and practice certain key competences that will be essential through their academic and field studies, and subsequent activities in future professional positions. This means that students must observe and participate in the practices, dialogue with the stakeholders and use experiences from participation and observation to generate knowledge about farming and food systems through reflective activities.

From teaching to facilitation

Currently acquisition of knowledge through a system where the teacher is the ‘owner’ and ‘giver’ of knowledge, who fills in the students’ empty brain. Knowledge flows from the teacher to the students and never the other way round or between learners. It is considered most appropriate to fill in the minds of the students with knowledge, than leave it to the uncertainty of ‘knowledge would evolve’. A role reversal of teacher to facilitator is thus now not accepted yet. In the course, the teachers were requested switch over to facilitation – however had not been easy in many cases, especially for the professors. Facilitation is a higher level task where a teacher now has to design task, assign task, set expectations, create and provide scaffolding tools and review the progress.

To facilitate a smooth transition, we created scope for Collaborative Learning, Cooperative Learning, Discussions, Group Projects, Peer Tutoring, Experiential Learning, Problem Based Learning, Games, creative expressions, etc, so that the students can exchange ideas, form opinions and construct knowledge even in the absence of a facilitator. Rather than monologues, we used Case Studies, Simulations, Presentations, Projects, Debates, Dialogue etc. The idea is to support student’s ability to become an independent/self-reliant and lifelong learner by using a variety of interactive methods.

Towards system thinking

Teachers often feel the urge to tell the answer rather than allowing students to ponder on critical questions. This refers back again to the know-it-all simplistic solution oriented agriculture since teaching paradigm. In the course we tried to bring this by not providing theories first, but starting with a phenomena/challenge and letting students find many different options themselves.

Understanding environmental, economic, political, and social challenges require transdisciplinary, systems thinking and facilitation of informed action in an era of uncertainty and rapid change. Yet, our formal education is still largely based on the transmission of neatly packed disciplinary bodies of knowledge, presented as unambiguous truths. Reductionist, linear, disciplinary thinking is very effective in simple situations but insufficient or even inappropriate when confronting complex ones such as complex problems of farming and food system. System thinking was core of the course where multiperspective understanding of a situation was practiced through as an insider – and not as an outside researcher. This was not an easy approach to build the capacity of the students to deal with the whole of a situation, and not just the parts – otherwise it remains like the story of few blind men trying to understand an elephant by touching different parts of it.


Such paradigm transition is not smooth. The process demands time to explore, make mistakes, revisit findings and come to conclusions with support from the teachers – students often get impatient. On the other hand, to facilitate that process, the classroom space is to be redefined.A typical Indian classroom is always designed in a way where the entire class literally looks upto the teacher, who is on a raised platform, without any scope to interact with each other. The scope was limited inside the university – but diversifying learning arena and taking it to farm, market and factories – we could break the boundaries. Such diversification brings is new challenges to tune various types of resource persons to a same level of facilitation skill.

Covid, in last two years bought some challenges – while learning to adapt to it, we also realised that online also created certain opportunities in terms of getting in students and teachers from various countries, adding onto diversity. Inspite of all these challenges, we enjoyed a lot – we are now part of a big network of agroecology practitioners spread over 5 countries.

Anshuman Das is working with small farmers for over two decades. Is currently associated with Welthungerhilfe. He was part of global research consortium developing pedagogy for future professional in food and farm system. To know about the pedagogy, visit

Anshuman Das

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