In the 1990s the Bachelor of Agricultural Science course I studied had one lecture on organic farming and a tour of a permaculture property. For one subject I delivered a presentation on biodynamics, for which I received an award for ‘bravery’. Sustainable agriculture at that time was presented as little more than the stubble retention and direct drilling technologies of conservation farming. Disheartened by this lack of consideration of ecology-based systems my path strayed from ‘conventional’ Agriculture. That was until I decided to undertake formal teaching qualifications after working as a biodynamic gardener at a Steiner school. I was disappointed to find that little had changed in terms of representing ‘alternative’ systems (organic, biodynamic, permaculture, agroforestry, etc.) in mainstream education. There are no explicit references to any of these systems in any of the syllabi that cover agricultural education in NSW high schools.
In theory it is possible for a student to complete HSC Agriculture without ever learning about these systems despite ‘sustainability’ being a core objective. Again disheartened and not wishing to teach a conventional system heavy syllabus I decided to cement my previous independent studies and experience in alternative agriculture with a Master of Sustainable Agriculture through Charles Sturt University. Fortunately Universities are catching up with the need to provide a more holistic view of agriculture with many offering single subjects through to whole degrees and postgraduate courses. My dissertation research topic had been decided before I’d even started. I wanted to know to what extent teachers were using examples from alternative agriculture in their teaching and what influenced the determination of curriculum content.
Download the full dissertation here (1.8mb PDF)
Agricultural education is at a critically important stage given the potential impacts of an unpredictable and changing climate on our ability to produce sufficient food for a burgeoning world population. In Australia, demand for agricultural university graduates is double that of the supply. Enrolments continue to decline, few students continue to postgraduate research, and many academics are reaching retirement age. Once world leaders in agricultural research and development, Australia could be risking our future food security through neglecting the continued development of a sector that was once the backbone of the country.
So how do we address this problem?
Very little research has been conducted on agricultural education at primary and secondary levels in Australia. Fortunately research into curriculum development in sustainable agriculture in the United States was available to inform my research. Shortly into my research I realised that there were more imminent threats to the subject of agriculture itself, let alone the representation of alternative systems in its delivery. Agriculture suffers from image problems, often viewed as an inferior and non-academic subject as well as being influenced by the negative perceptions of agriculture in the wider community. The research then became two-fold, examining the use of examples from alternative agriculture through a survey of teachers, and investigating the role of agriculture in high schools in meeting the future needs of the industry through interviews with stakeholders from primary through to tertiary education.
With the assistance of the NSW Association of Agriculture Teachers, an online survey was promoted to their members. Questions concerned the use of examples from organic, biodynamic, ecological/biological, permaculture, agroforestry, aquaponics and natural sequence farming systems in the different teaching stages (Years 7-8, 9-10 and 11-12) as well as questions regarding recent changes in the HSC syllabus and perceived professional development needs. Results from the 38 respondents indicate that, overall, alternative systems are ‘sometimes’ referred to in their teaching and they perceive that they need ‘a little’ professional development in these systems. Organic agriculture was reported to be most often referred to whereas natural sequence farming and aquaponics the least. Perceived professional development needs reflected this with the most training required in natural sequence farming, aquaponics and biodynamics and least in organic farming. Comments were invited to conclude the survey with one teacher commenting that they would not like to see alternative systems ‘take over’ the teaching of agriculture, another citing financial restraints and lack of access to examples of alternative agriculture, and another suggesting that sustainability and environmental issues already embedded in the syllabus have reduced the time available to teach the interactions and science of agriculture. Another teacher commented that the school farm has an aquaponics unit as a student research enterprise, uses organic farm practices and propagates native plants to sell for local regeneration projects. These results indicate that whilst not explicit in the content requirements of the agriculture syllabi, alternative systems are represented, although much of this depends on the experience and motivations of the teachers delivering the curriculum.
Interviews with stakeholders in agricultural education identified a number of concerns: community perceptions and the role of the media, the need for industry, government and university action, agriculture as a cross-curricular theme, the place of agriculture and primary industries in high schools, teacher competency and professional development, and alternative agriculture in curriculum development. Community perceptions of agriculture and the media’s role in perpetuating the stereotypes of farmers as ‘ignorant’ with ‘wheat between the teeth’, doing it tough’, or the ‘poor farmer who can’t look after themselves if things go wrong’ are a far cry from the reality of agriculture as an industry. Agriculture is diverse, innovative, resilient, and much more than farming alone.
With the world’s most urbanised population this issue widens the gap in knowledge between the majority of the population and their food source. Stakeholders all agreed that there is a need to present positive stories and images that represent the diversity of agricultural careers in the media. All stakeholders agreed that the responsibility of promoting agriculture as a viable career option lies with the industry, universities and government. The perception that agriculture is simply farming and therefore low-income manual labour needs to be dispelled and 2012 being the Year of the Farmer presents a perfect opportunity to do so. Universities and industry need to foster connections with schools, educate careers advisors and develop educational resources after consulting teachers, not simply produce another poster for which there is no space on the classroom wall. Governments need to fund the upgrading of school agriculture facilities, and appreciate the need to invest in agricultural research and return it to a position of ‘serving the public good’ rather than corporate interests. The good news is that these needs are being recognised and realised with the formation of the Primary Industries Education Foundation (PIEF).
The inclusion of agriculture as a cross-curricular theme was considered beneficial by most stakeholders, although a few expressed concern that it would be overlooked by teachers who bypass cross-curricular themes and concentrate on syllabus content. Permaculture as a ‘thinking tool’ rather than a farming system is perhaps the best placed of the alternative agricultural systems to be applied across a range of key learning areas and therefore used as a cross-curricular theme. The kitchen garden movement in primary schools was considered as a beneficial step in addressing the disconnection from nature and food supplies in urban environments, however, funding, support for teachers, and the pressure on schools to achieve literacy and numeracy objectives were given as barriers to wider adoption. Stakeholders agreed that continuing the important work of food growing experiences in the primary years into secondary schooling was a challenge that needs addressing.
All stakeholders agree that agriculture and primary industries need to maintain their place as separate specialist subjects in high school, however, low student numbers often result in only one of the subjects being offered. Teacher competency was raised as a concern by several stakeholders with examples of retraining unsuitable candidates as agriculture teachers ‘just to put someone in front of a class’. On-going professional development opportunities are needed to ensure that teachers have contemporary knowledge and experience with the latest technologies. The dynamic and contextual nature of agriculture further complicates the development of suitable syllabi. Unlike other subjects agriculture is written and examined without reference to particulars since different agricultural systems will be studied at different schools. Many stakeholders suggested that alternative systems be explicitly mentioned in the syllabus but more importantly, a balanced view of the industry needs to be presented.
This research was conducted at a pertinent time in Australian education as the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) are in the early stages of developing the Australian Curriculum for Technologies. The position of agriculture within this curriculum will be very important for meeting the needs of the industry. The PIEF and NSW Farmers Association have already advocated need to include sustainable food and fibre production as part of the sustainability cross-curriculum priority in submissions to ACARA. No doubt they will also be active in promoting agricultural education through the technologies curriculum. The questions remain, will the ecological systems of agriculture have a presence in the curriculum and who will be the voice for these systems?
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