«Deborah Duveskog Faculty of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences Department of Urban and Rural Development Uppsala Doctoral Thesis Swedish ...»
Piaget suggests that through the two processes adaptation and equilibrium individuals construct new knowledge. Central to both processes is the way experiences are interpreted. Equilibrium refers to that existing rules for interpretation are balanced in relation to one another, whereas adaptation refers to a balancing of present experiences with the already existing rules for interpretation. Adaptation can take place through either assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation occurs when new experiences are aligned and integrated in individuals’ already existing framework for interpreting the world, i.e. sense making of information. Accommodation on the other hand is the process of reframing ones interpretations of the experiences of external world to fit new experiences (Piaget 1950). For example this can happen in the context of failures; we act on the expectation that the world operates in one way, but then fail and have to reframe our understanding of how the world works. When information in this way does not fit with the interpretative schemata present, this causes a cognitive conflict. To solve this uncomfortable conflict individuals try to restore the equilibrium between activated interpretative schemata and discrepant information. If solving the conflict by transforming the original ways of interpreting this is where learning occurs and what Piaget terms accommodation.
Experiential learning, as a concept, is usually placed within the constructivist paradigm (Percy 2005). It first became popular in adult education to celebrate and legitimate peoples’ own experiences in their knowledge development (Fenwick 2001). In his development of a theory of experiential learning Kolb built on the theories of Dewey, Lewin and Piaget, in order to develop a simplified and harmonised learning model. This model, commonly referred to as the Kolb’s learning cycle, elaborates on the central role that experience plays in the learning process (Kolb 1984). The basic assumption is that learning is always rooted in prior experience and that any attempt to promote new learning must in some way take account of experience (Boud 1994), or as Kolb (1984) expressed it ‘‘the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience (p. 38)’’ To Kolb learning cycle is seen as linking theory and practice through a four-stage cycle; immediate concrete experience (1) is the basis for observation and reflection (2). These observations are assimilated into a theory (3) from which new implications for actions can be deduced (4) (Kolb 1984). This conceptualisation is highly relevant to understanding learning in FFS since all these stages are imbedded in the FFS learning methodology. Each cycle of learning, according to Kolb (1984), leads to new concrete experience that forms the start for a new cycle of learning, thereby increasing the level of complexity and forming a spiral cycle. The cycle represents two major dimensions of cognitive growth and learning; the concrete/
dimensions and the active/reflective dimensions.
Figure 8. Kolb’s learning cycle (adapted from Kolb, 1994)
The process of experiential learning is also seen as a process that links education, work and personal development (Kolb 1984) and can occur in group as well as in individual settings. Of particular importance for experiential learning is the emphasis on here-and-now experiences to validate and test abstract concepts (Kolb 1984). This kind of learning contradicts conventional practice of teaching, such as in the case of much agricultural extension, since the emphasis is on the process of adaptation and learning rather than on a specific content or outcomes. Knowledge is considered a transformational process, being continuously created and recreated, not an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted. van Manen (1977) considers that there are four levels of reflection 1) thinking and acting on an everyday basis; 2) more specific reflection on incidents or events; 3) development of an understanding through interpretations; and 4) reflection on the way we reflect. While past lived experiences may seem true to the person they are in fact often incomplete, inadequate, or distorted and not sufficient for experiential learning to occur. A connection must be made between what one has experienced and what one comes to learn.
Experiential learning is relevant for agricultural extension and FFS, since it provides a means to work with groups to find their own solutions to problems through testing and experimentation of ideas and practices which are closely related to their own everyday farming activities. Referring to van Manen, Malinen (2000) explains that experiential learning, involves ‘‘modification of earlier constructions: re-organization, re-construction, re-defining, re-thinking, re-shaping, re-interpretation and re-formulation, aiming to establish renewed contact with something original’’. This is relevant for study of methods aiming to support farmers’ exploring and reflecting over their practices, since farmers’ knowledge is by nature experiential. Their cultivation has been shaped from generations of trial and error, testing and evaluation.
Based on constructivist thought Bourgeois (2002), points out three basic
sets of conditions that characterise learning as a transitional space:
Ø། Facilitating exploration of novel ways of thinking and acting by teaching methods based on discovery learning, informative feedback rather than control and learning from mistakes. All of this taking place in a social interaction situation.
Ø། Facilitating the capacity to adopt alternative standpoints, i.e. thinking reversibility, on reality by expression of the learners’ own point of view, confrontation of these views with others and providing tools for the learner to benefit from these confrontations with alternative views.
Ø། Facilitating critical and personal thinking beyond reversibility, i.e. create space for the learner to reflect upon the cognitive and affective aspects of the learning process and its implications.
Kolb’s theory on experiential learning and his learning cycle was a central concept upon which the FFS approach developed. However, both Piaget’s and Kolb’s work lacks the dimensions of taking into account the learners’ social relationship to the wider world. For this aspect Habermas work is of importance and the FFS approach is generally considered to build mainly on the critical theoretical framework of Habermas (Pontius et al. 2002). In Habermas’s book “Knowledge and Human Interest” (1971) three cognitive interests are presented that all humans share, and that forms the basis for human social existence and thereby also is the basis for human motivation for learning. These are work, interaction with others and power. The work domain relates to the need among humans to control physical and social environments, and to predict and control reality. The interaction domain is related to communicative action and interactions between humans based on norms and consensual agreements. The motive here is connectedness and inclusion and the interest in how knowledge furthers understanding of human actions. The domain of power relates to overcoming internal and environmental factors that inhibit control over ones lives, power and control. It is characterised by emancipation through self-reflective action and critical thinking and relates to consciousness about one self and ones surrounding. Habermas (1971) suggests that learning only in the technical domain (instrumental) may not cause the desired change unless the learner is also freed from constraining factors once assumed to be out of his control and without interactions and consensus with other humans. In his later work “Theory of Communicative Action” (1984) he argues that the three cognitive interests are inherent to communication. Thus a key to emancipation is to be found in communication, and in discourses between individuals in speech situations in which participants are afforded equal opportunities.
Building on Habermas’s thoughts, Bartlett (2005) illustrates a constructivists approach to knowledge generation and development that foster agency and facilitates the process of empowerment (see figure 5). This approach to learning assumes that knowledge, behaviour and social relations cannot be transmitted from one party to another, but must be uniquely created by the human agent as a consequence of critical thinking, experimentation and communicative action, where the core feature is the ownership by the learner, not just of the outcomes, but also of the process (Bartlett 2005). These three domains are interrelated, for example agency can be stimulated through experiential learning in the interaction between knowledge and behaviours, critical analysis connects knowledge and social relationships while communicative action form the interaction between social relationships and behaviours. This means that in a learning approach such as FFS, activities relating to the three domains need to be saliently included in order to enhance the learning experience.
Figure 9. A constructivist approach to learning (adapted from Bartlett 2005) The above discussion shows that experience alone does not teach, learning only happens when there is reflective thinking and processing of experiences by the learner.
Reflection is usually seen as the mean by which experience is turned into learning and is an integral stage in Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. It facilitates a way to make sense out of experiences, a link to previous experience and a means for evaluation (Fenwick 2001). It is this processing of experiences that is central in the learning in agricultural extension and FFS.
The higher levels of reflection (i.e. critical) the more likely it is that transformation, autonomy, emancipation, or empowerment can occur (Percy 2005). This aspect of learning is developed in transformative learning (TL) theory.
6.2.2 Transformative learning theory In seeking to understand the change in the daily lives of FFS participants, particularly how they make sense of their learning experience, TL theory provides a useful lens for analysis of findings in this thesis. The theory of TL was pioneered by Jack Mezirow, with influences from Paulo Freire and Habermas, is one of the most established theories for making sense of the adult learning process (Taylor 2007). While there are multiple dimensions of TL this study draws mainly on Mezirow’s and Freire’s thoughts.
Human beings naturally tend to make meaning of their daily lives and continuously change their perceptions based on new experiences. TL (Mezirow 1991, 1995, 1996, 1997: Cranton 1996) focuses on this process of change in individuals’ interpretation of experience. A central concept in this theoretical approach is frame of reference; i.e. the mental structures by which new experiences are filtered such as values, associations, feelings and conditioned responses. This frame of reference both limits and shapes individuals’ perceptions, filtering the experiences they choose to give meaning to and how they construct that meaning. Individuals often tend to reject ideas that do not fit in the existing frame of reference labelling them as irrelevant or not making sense, within their worldview. A frame of reference is composed of two dimensions: habits of mind and a point of view. Habits of mind are habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting based on the cultural, social, educations, economic, political or psychological standpoints of the learner. Habits of mind become articulated in a specific point of view—the constellation of belief, value judgment, attitude, and feeling that shapes a particular interpretation (Mezirow 1997). The commonly observed gendered roles and responsibilities among FFS participants for example is an example of habit of mind, where a conditioned response is triggered based on deep held cultural beliefs linked to the societal group that the individual belongs to. While points of view are subject to continuing change accessible to awareness and to feedback from others, habits of mind are more durable, since they often are tacit and operate outside the awareness of the individual. They reflect collectively held, unintentionally or assimilated shared cultural values and beliefs.
According to Mezirow (1991) one of the most important areas of learning for adults is that which frees them from their habitual ways of thinking and acting and supports their becoming critically aware of their habitual way of viewing the world. Such learning thus reinforces and elaborates on existing frames of references to construct a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action (Mezirow 1996). TL is about learning that leads to a frame of reference that is more inclusive, reflective, open to the perspectives of others, less defensive and more accepting of new ideas (Mezirow 1991). Robertson (1996) contrasts this to simple learning where the learner’s existing paradigm and way of thinking and doing things is extended, but not fundamentally changed. Mezirow (2000, p.19) refers to this fundamental changed or shifted world view as a “perspective transformation”, a transformation in the learner’s way of viewing the world when taken-for-granted norms and practices are confronted and challenged, and consequently changed (Mezirow 1991). This results in individuals that become more responsive for their actions and more autonomous, and use clearer thinking when making decisions (Franz 2003). The major elements in TL are critical reflection, i.e. questioning of the habit of mind; rational discourse (dialogue) where reflective judgements and alternate solutions are validated; and practice real life experience (Baumgartner 2012). All these elements are apparent in FFS. Through on farm experiments farmers are encouraged to try out new practices in a real life situation while conducting regular system analysis exercises that stimulate objective analysis, through dialogue with peers, rather than making habitually based preconceived assumptions about outcomes.