Field Lessons from: Will Valley, SAEA Vice Chair

Embracing Uncertainty in Sustainable Agriculture
and Food Systems Education

We are becoming increasingly aware that contemporary sustainability issues are characterized by complexity and accelerating change. Our students, future professionals within the food system, are inheriting this context of uncertainty, in which they will be expected to deal with challenges that are categorically different than those of previous generations. If we recognize that the nature of these issues has changed, then we must reconsider how we educate future professionals to be able to embrace uncertainty and effectively address complex sustainability issues.

I believe that courses and programs in sustainable agriculture and food systems education (SAFSE) are at the forefront of developing curricula and educational experiences that create conditions in which students can learn to embrace uncertainty. A group of instructors from four SAFSE programs (University of Minnesota, UC Davis, University of Montana, and the University of British Columbia) conducted an analysis of SAFSE literature and the learning outcomes of their programs to better articulate key themes across the curricula1. The themes were then further analyzed through a signature pedagogy learning theory framework. A signature pedagogy is a common form of instruction and learning through which students develop competencies related to professional performance in a particular field or domain. There are three levels within the signature pedagogy framework: surface, deep, and implicit. The surface level describes the contexts in which students learn and the activities they perform. The deep level identifies the knowledge and know-how of the field; and the implicit level categorizes professional values and dispositions. The figure below illustrates the key elements of an emerging SASFE signature pedagogy; elements that are common across the four programs as well as programs described in the literature. 

What I consider significant about SAFSE programs is the way in which their design incorporates high levels of complexity into the learning process as compared to a traditional “lecture hall and lab” educational design. Students are embedded in multiple learning environments and are required to work on collective action projects with diverse stakeholders. Systems thinking competencies are developed to deal with the inherent messiness involved with food-related issues, where balance must be maintained (or restored) amongst interdependent and often competing components. Further, through critical reflection, students develop the ability to recognize the taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs that shape their worldview and the worldview of others, as well as historical and contemporary systems of inequities that permeate current food systems.

In short, SAFSE programs are ambitious, and perhaps excessively so! Yet if we truly believe that better food systems are possible – systems that are ecologically regenerative, economically viable, and socially just – we need to embrace the challenge of inviting complexity into our educational programs. We need to continue to assess, refine, and innovate our curricula and learning approaches to ensure our graduates are capable of dealing with uncertainty and addressing complexity in the food system. From developments reported in the literature and from experiences reported by individuals involved in SAEA, I’m confident that we are making positive gains in our educational programs, which I believe will contribute to positive gains in our food systems.