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The role of debate in agriculture - Catherine Lloyd

By Catherine Lloyd, vice principal at Shuttleworth College (part of Bedford College Group) and Research Further Scholar

My recent Research Further project explored the teaching of agriculture in further education colleges in England. The results provided insight into the decisions teachers make about what and how to teach but also the specific nature of the subject area. Preparing young people for a career in the industry requires delivering the technical and vocational skills and knowledge needed in the profession. However, the wider skills that are developed as part of the curriculum are also crucial in preparing them to enter a sector experiencing a period of change and uncertainty.

It would seem that all aspects of farming and food production are up for debate. Topics appear regularly in the press and on social media, with contributors from diverse backgrounds offering different perspectives and opinions. Agriculture encompasses a wide range of complex and often divisive topics with plenty of room for disagreement. The recent drive to adopt more sustainable approaches to farming has also triggered much discussion and interest. These issues are reviewed at all levels, from global summits concerning the future of food and farming down to the local level with farmers deciding what to do on their farms. An industry organisation, LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming, 2023), has produced resources to support farmers in communicating with the public around what they are doing, as well as how to deal with difficult questions, linked to the Open Farm Sunday initiative. It is evident that the ability to communicate effectively with a diverse range of audiences and stakeholders is an essential skill for those working in the agricultural industry.

If this is the environment into which agriculture students leaving FE are entering, how can we prepare them to engage in a positive way with topical issues and give them the skills to communicate effectively? This issue was highlighted by the participants in my study, all of whom were involved in teaching agriculture to FE students. One participant identified that “we need to be able to prepare our students in agriculture for dealing with that” referring to the questions they might get about their farming practices. They went on to say that “I think that teaching students how to handle conflict in a responsible way and a constructive way is important, how to present their arguments.” This need to handle potential conflict is a key point as Davis et al (2016, p.3, emphasis in original) explains “having an argument is different from making an argument”.

One way to develop these skills is through the use of debate in the classroom, referred to as “a structured process of discussing a variety of viewpoints” (Dy-Boarman, Nisley and Costello 2018, p.10). Using debates as a teaching tool is not a new concept however much of the current research looks at the use of debates from an undergraduate perspective. As many young people will enter employment in agriculture straight from completing a course at a college, I suggest more attention could be given to this pedagogical approach in a FE setting.

Using debate to cover sustainability issues with business undergraduates, Georgallis and Bruijn (2022) found that it supported the development of reflexivity as students actively engaged with opposing viewpoints on a given issue. Dy-Boarman, Nisley and Costello (2018) writing about the use of debates in the pharmacy curriculum, identify that despite their benefits they are an underutilised teaching tool but require careful planning to ensure they provide a meaningful experience.

Debates usually consist of presenting supporting and opposing viewpoints on a topic, which are then responded to. They are beneficial in that they can develop students understanding of the different viewpoints on a particular issue. With planning and support, students can be actively engaged in the process, contributing knowledge, ideas and differing perspectives on the topic, increasing both self-confidence and open mindedness (Roucan-Kane, Wolfskill and Beverly 2013). It can also improve communication skills, critical thinking and subject knowledge (Dy-Boarman, Nisley and Costello 2018).

Students are often enthusiastic about participating in debates and they can increase their engagement with the topics and participation in active learning (Kennedy 2007). This was the case in my research with participants reporting that “I find that students absolutely love a good debate and they always get full participation in the class” and another stating that “they [students] definitely have opinions and they are definitely not afraid to share them”. However, for debates to be effective Davis et al (2016, p.2) explains that “students must be taught the tools both to share their knowledge effectively and to evaluate the knowledge presented by others, because both are precursors to effective communication and interaction”. One participant explained how they had students who were working in very different farming systems and encouraged them to discuss their experiences, they explained that “it was showing the depth of understanding that they had, in asking each other questions and you know challenging each other”. These students were near the end of their study and the teacher was facilitating engagement in constructive dialogue.

For debate to be effective, students have to understand the topic and then engage with differing views, even if they already have their own strong opinions on the topic, some of which may be firmly held and influenced by their experiences in farming and the views of their employers or family members. Debates allow them to practice communicating with others who have a differing opinion (Dy-Boarman, Nisley and Costello 2018) in the “safe space” of the classroom where there is a teacher present. This need for boundaries and safety is evident in the participants comments: “there’s quite a lot of topics that we can debate, so it’s a case of making sure that the students know where the boundaries are in the classroom and to respect each other’s opinions”. Another participant explained that “through professional discussions you can change opinions and change misconceptions through open debate that is structured and safe”.

Agriculture encompasses a wide range of complex issues and debate can provide a platform for students to explore diverse perspectives. For example; rewilding is a topical issue which impacts farmland and there are a number of contributors on this subject with differing viewpoints. Students could be asked to consider rewilding generally or to focus on a specific example within the local area. Prior to the debate, students can gather information from a range of sources which could include news stories, blogs, videos, podcasts and journal articles, to develop their knowledge and understanding.

Students can draw from these to help structure their argument either for or against rewilding, with support from the teacher where required. Preparing for and participating in a debate on a topic such as rewilding can expose the students to topical issues, industry trends and policy decisions as well as helping them identify key stakeholders and their views.

This can stimulate students understanding of complex and controversial matters (Georgallis and Bruijn 2022), and help them realise that many issues debated in agriculture will not have a universally agreed answer. With practice, debates can help them learn to articulate their thoughts clearly, support their claims with evidence and engage in respectful discussion, essential if they are required to explain their actions and handle potential areas of conflict.

Debating agricultural topics prepares students for the real-world challenges they may encounter, as interest in farming and food production is unlikely to decline. I suggest that further research is needed to explore how teachers introduce and structure the use of debates with students on FE courses to help them develop the skills required for constructive and meaningful participation.

This could include a review of the effectiveness of different approaches and the benefits and limitations of these. There are many resources available and organisations such as the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs provide opportunities for their members to get involved in debating and public speaking. Roucan-Kane, Wolfskill and Beverly (2013) suggest using instructional videos to demonstrate effective debating principles and techniques. It would also be useful to obtain feedback from students on their experiences of engaging in debates to inform pedagogic practice. Whatever approach is used, it seems clear that developing these skills will be beneficial to them during their future careers.

References

Davis, K. A., Zorwick, M. L. W., Roland, J., and Wade, M. M. (Eds) (2016) An introduction to classroom debate: A tool for educating minds and hearts. Using debate in the classroom: encouraging critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. New York: Routledge.

Dy-Boarman, E. A., Nisly, S. A., and Costello, T. J. (2018) It's no debate, debates are great. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, 10(1), 10-13.

Georgallis, P., and Bruijn, K. (2022) Sustainability teaching using case-based debates. Journal of International Education in Business, 15(1), 147-163.

Kennedy, R. (2007) In-class debates: Fertile ground for active learning and the cultivation of critical thinking and oral communication skills. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 19(2), 183-190.

Linking Environment and Farming (2023) Available at: LEAF Speak Out: Difficult Questions - Open Farm Sunday (Accessed: 16 August 2023)

Roucan-Kane, M., Wolfskill, L. A., and Beverly, M. M. (2013) Debates as a pedagogical tool in agribusiness and animal science courses: various perspectives at the undergraduate and graduate levels. NACTA Journal, 57(4), 18-23.

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