The challenges of sustainable development in the 21st century are multidimensional, dynamic, and related to contested social, political and economic claims; thus, university education should focus on developing competences of students so that they can perform better in a changing environment and stimulate beneficial change. The process of competence development must be grounded in the real world and must aim at transforming broader character elements, such as cognitive, technical, integrative, contextual, relational, affective/moral, and habits of the mind. The development of these character traits will enable them to address current and future challenges in agriculture, food, environment, health, and education.
I am deeply influenced by a learner-centred approach in education. The theoretical underpinnings of the approach are based on ‘experiential learning’. According to this theory, knowledge is created through transformation of experience. In general, learning is a four-stage continuous and iterative process (see Figure 1). The stages proceed in an inductive way from experience through reflection and (re)conceptualization/generalization to action. The education philosophy offers students an opportunity to draw a conclusion based on their experience rather than insight formulated by others (e.g., instructors, trainers, and facilitators) based on experiences with which students may not identify.Experience and learning are integral parts of the experiential learning/education settings. The stage starts when participants are engaged in ‘sharing knowledge’ and ‘doing’ something. As a teacher, I engage students in a range of activities, such as listening to a lecture, engaging with content in the form of a case study, role play, simulations, games, videos, practising a skill, or completing an exercise. I often choose topics/cases that may involve disorientation, surprise, or recognition of ignorance. The cases help students reconsider their existing knowledge and experience (critical thinking). The nature of the issues provokes emotion, interest, controversy, and expression of concern for social justice, democracy, health, and empowerment. The cases/examples are selected based on their link to transformation of local and global issues of agriculture, food, ecosystem, health, poverty, pollution, and food security. In the reflection stage, I encourage students to discuss the activity undertaken during the experience stage. I follow both structured and semi-structured forms of sharing reactions of students with other members of the group. This takes place through individual assignment, discussion in small groups, or in plenary. I try to elicit both intellectual and attitudinal reactions to these activities.
In the generalization stage, students are encouraged to draw conclusions and (re)conceptualize opinions and ideas stimulated during the first two phases. Students are encouraged to think critically to draw conclusions that might apply generally or theoretically in a real-life situation. I help students by clarifying concepts, principles, and steps. I provoke them by asking questions: ‘What are the implications (cultural, social, organizational, economical, and environmental) of the case for sustainable development?’, ‘How would you interpret the case in relation to your personal goals and interests?’, or ‘How could things be organized differently?’
In the action stage, students are encouraged to incorporate what they have learned during previous stages through assignments and other evaluation activities. I follow several techniques, which include reviewing each other’s assignments, formulating ideas for research or further study, sharing assignments with the class, and identifying additional learning needs. Overall, I try to facilitate learning through a continuous feedback (through dialogue and interaction) between thinking and action.