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Making hay while the sun shines, context and pedagogy in agriculture - Catherine Lloyd

03 November 2022

By Catherine Lloyd, vice principal at Shuttleworth College, which is part of Bedford College Group, and a Research Further Scholar

There are currently immense changes occurring in the agricultural sector, the effects of which are wide reaching and have the potential to impact all farms in some way. When planning the study, it was considered that this had the potential to be a major factor in the context in which lecturers were working. However, it has become evident that this is only one element of a much larger range of factors which influence pedagogy and the decisions individuals make about what and how to teach.

In basic terms, context can be defined as the circumstance or conditions in which something occurs, or the setting for an event. Lave (1988 p150) describes context as being composed of arenas and settings. The arena is the contextual aspects, which are “physically, economically, politically and socially organised and not directly negotiable by the individual”. The setting is created by the individual during interaction with the arena and with other individuals as they experience it.

Reflecting on the relevant theoretical concepts and their relevance to my study, a college farm can be considered to be the arena in which the learning is taking place, with the land, animals, physical resources and artifacts all key components. In agriculture, teaching takes place in a variety of environments; in fields, livestock barns, machinery workshops and milking parlours. The students interact with these environments, the lecturer and the other learners, participating in activities that contribute to the operation of the farm. The economic, political and social aspects will all be present and influence culture and practice, but there are other factors, too, which I would argue are specific to the subject.

This became apparent when talking to those staff involved in teaching agriculture. The majority of participants in the study taught at colleges which had a working farm on site. There were differences in the types of farming enterprises undertaken, in terms of the variety of crops grown or livestock produced but all were seen as a learning resource for the students.

When asked the question “what influences your decision making when planning teaching activities? the answers given by participants in the study often concerned the weather and what activities were taking place on the farm. One participant explained that “the biggest influence is obviously the weather, which can throw every possible scenario in the mix for us” and this view was commonly expressed. Another participant explained that “for every lesson there always has to be a plan B and sometimes a plan C in case of weather conditions”. Changing or adapting activities on the day in view of the weather conditions mirrors the situation that learners will encounter when they move into the work place.

Seasonality was also a key factor, “we would tend to look at what's going on on the farm and plan around that”. Building on this view another participant explained that when planning teaching activities it was about “having that flexibility to fit in with the seasonality of the job”. It was important therefore that “our schemes of work reflect the curriculum and the farming year”.

Agriculture as a vocation is indelibly linked to the seasons with events on a farm following a similar pattern from year to year and this same pattern will be followed by a college farm. On a day to day basis, both the season and the weather will determine what activities will be undertaken. From the participant quotes, it is evident that when teaching agriculture, the time of year and the weather conditions are key factors contributing to the context.

The curriculum as delivered by the lecturers needs to reflect both the academic year and the farming year. For those teaching agriculture this will seem obvious, intuitively woven into practice, influencing decision making about how to sequence and teach the content. By following the rhythm of the farming year, learning is embedded in authentic situations as they naturally arise on the farm.

The study has prompted me to think more deeply about the role and influence of context within the pedagogic setting. In agriculture, the physical context is more explicit and I would argue exposes elements that may be overlooked in other more commonplace environments such as the general classroom. In the study, the farms are providing an authentic learning environment where teaching activities are linked to real world situations, influenced by the land, the seasons and the weather.

Lucas, Claxton and Spencer (2012 p100) identify that “in making pedagogic choices, the physical settings clearly matter”. Taking the holistic view in considering all the elements that contribute to the pedagogic setting, I agree with Leach and Moon (1999 p269) that “creating settings that engage and motivate students is a complex process” and a whole range of factors will not be under the tutors direct control. This is definitely true when it comes to the weather!

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge University Press.

Lucas, B., Spencer, E., & Claxton, G. (2012). How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy. City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development.

Leach, J. and Moon, B. (1999) Recreating Pedagogy. In (Eds.). Leach, J. and Moon, B. Learners and pedagogy. (pp 265-275). Paul Chapman Publishing.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.