The Importance of Active Learning

By Vimbai Ruvengo

In an ever-changing environment, we live, farm and carry on with our business. Nothing is stagnant; laws, markets, the natural environment (soil and climate) and business platforms are always dynamic. Through space and time, agriculture has developed and has adapted to a changing and intrinsic linkage of human society and the environment. The causes of change, can be either involuntary (unintentional or unplanned) such as the present times of the COVID-19 pandemic or voluntary (intentional, conventional for an alternative) such as changing a farming system from conventional to organic. In the face of involuntary adaptive changes for survival, to remain relevant there is the inevitable need for active and continuous learning. This is termed co-evolution which is moving with the times, adjusting to this and adapting farming systems to the new wider environment.

Learning is characterised as the acquisition of new knowledge, behaviour, skills, values, and preferences. The knowledge inputs for learning can be derived from local knowledge (gained through farmers’ experiences), scientific knowledge (obtained through research, specialization, and academia), or a combination of the two.

Organisational Performance and Loop Learning

(S=Situation). Illustration by Ison

Situations can be transformed through concerted action by farmers which can lead to changed understanding (i.e. knowledge in action) and practices.

Learning is a process (as demonstrated above), not an outcome. The acquisition of new knowledge is the first step in decision-making, leading to changes in any system, transitions or transformation of situations. Change is an act of doing something differently while transition is defined as the adjustment to a situation(s).  Changes and transitions in an agricultural system function as the main drivers in the development of a farming system or method.

Each situation cycle or loop is known as the Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. It is typically represented by a four-stage learning cycle;

  1. Experience (Concrete Experience) – a new experience or situation is encountered.
  2.  Review (Reflective Observation of the New Experience) -during or after a concrete experience a farmer reflects on what went well and what did not go well.
  3.  Conclude (Abstract Conceptualization) reflection gives rise to a new idea(s), or a modification of an existing farming system from what the farmer has learnt from their experiences.
  4.  Adapting (Active Experimentation) – the farmer applies their new idea(s) and tests their implications and validity on the farming system.

This cyclical process of learning helps farmers draw new conclusions and adapt to new situations.

The 160 Hydro Farm

Mukarati’s hydroponic system

The concept of learning demonstrated above fits well with farmers with no background experience in farming but through passion, they engage in on different platforms of knowledge acquisition and social learning interactions. In summary, their innovation comes through practices and gaining more understanding through social learning and experience.  They modify their situations in both practices and understanding (S1) for a better and improved situation (S2). A great example is Venensia Mukarati’s development of her 160 Hydroponic Farm. She is a qualified accountant who has always had a passion for farming but with no major farming experience or land space except for her backyard. Through web research, Venensia researched on hydroponic farming. With this newly acquired knowledge and acting on advice, she invested in a low-cost hydroponics system and set it up in a 44m² greenhouse. Through learning and mistakes, determination and loop learning, she is now a successful farmer working towards quadrupling her original production capacity and shares this knowledge through training days and an online course.

Ceteris imparibus stresses that new systems and contexts continue to emerge. Only systems that find a balance between adjustment to changing contexts and/or maintenance of their own context are sustainable. Only systems that are prepared to change will survive (Schiere et al, 2004).

Illustration adapted from Ison, R. 2008. Understanding and practices for a complex, coevolutionary systems approach. In: Proc. International Symposium: Selected topics on complex system engineering applied to sustainable animal production, 29-31 Oct. 2008, Instituto Tecnolo del Valle de Morelia, in Morelia Michoac Mexico.

Images provided by Vanensia Mukarati and Melissa Katunga.

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