Enabling social approaches for contextualised learning at primary schools

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Brigid Letty Institute of Natural Resource NPC, South Africa

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Jon McCosh Institute of Natural Resource NPC, South Africa

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Lunga Dlungwana Food Volitions, South Africa

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Mzokhona Mndali Institute of Natural Resource NPC, South Africa

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Through a project undertaken under a programme funded by United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) called Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF), alternative learning approaches associated with the introduction of a form of vertical farming called ‘tower gardens’ at primary schools were explored. Methods that were new to the local education context were used to support the learning process, for example role-playing sketches that allowed learners to share their own knowledge about gardening activities with their peers, teachers and staff from the non-governmental organisation that facilitated the process. This collective sharing and recall were key elements of the social learning process, building into individual and group knowledge. Corroborated memory recall contributed to group learning and also built into the collective storage of knowledge. Learning was firmly embedded in social interaction, in collective symbolism and arts – music specifically. These forms of learning and storing of knowledge resonated with the learners as it was a continuation of life as they know it in their community. It became clear from the project that educators saw the value of introducing concepts from classroom subjects when constructing and managing the tower gardens and were pleasantly surprised by the responses of the learners to this new way of learning, suggesting that creating scope within the curriculum and schoolwork plan is necessary in tandem with building the required capacity to replicate this without external support.

Abstract

Through a project undertaken under a programme funded by United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) called Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF), alternative learning approaches associated with the introduction of a form of vertical farming called ‘tower gardens’ at primary schools were explored. Methods that were new to the local education context were used to support the learning process, for example role-playing sketches that allowed learners to share their own knowledge about gardening activities with their peers, teachers and staff from the non-governmental organisation that facilitated the process. This collective sharing and recall were key elements of the social learning process, building into individual and group knowledge. Corroborated memory recall contributed to group learning and also built into the collective storage of knowledge. Learning was firmly embedded in social interaction, in collective symbolism and arts – music specifically. These forms of learning and storing of knowledge resonated with the learners as it was a continuation of life as they know it in their community. It became clear from the project that educators saw the value of introducing concepts from classroom subjects when constructing and managing the tower gardens and were pleasantly surprised by the responses of the learners to this new way of learning, suggesting that creating scope within the curriculum and schoolwork plan is necessary in tandem with building the required capacity to replicate this without external support.

Key messages

  • Teaching methods that allow for collective learning and recall are effective for allowing the participation of learners that are not academically inclined.

  • School gardens allow for experiential learning but require access to resources and committed, capacitated educators if they are to be effectively utilised.

  • Use of the arts, in particular role playing, visual arts (for example, drawing) and song, allows learners to engage with topics in a way that allows them to contribute actively to the conversation.

The challenges of primary school education in rural KwaZulu, Natal

Rural schools in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, face a number of challenges that are, to some extent, carry-over effects of Apartheid, despite the new political dispensation in 1994 (Mouton et al, 2013). Despite the changeover to a democratic government, the system is in many ways dysfunctional, with teachers at rural schools having less support, both in terms of capacity and infrastructure from the Department of Education than their urban counterparts (Mouton et al, 2013), having to make do with facilities and infrastructure that are in many cases suboptimal – especially sanitation (du Plessis and Mestry, 2019). Learners often come from families with high levels of unemployment and poverty. Parents and grandparents, who historically did not have access to formal education have little capacity or motivation to supervise homework or encourage learners to attend school – such that the lack of proper education is self-replicating resulting in poverty traps. It is suggested that by the age of eight years, the inequalities in education associated with economic status are already entrenched (Spaull, 2015), meaning that after this age, it is difficult to improve skills from education and economic status.

From a language perspective the South African education system requires that learners that speak an African language as their home language (HL), be taught in English, their first additional language (FAL) as the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) from Grade 4 (Wildsmith-Cromarty and Balfour, 2019). However, there is little opportunity for learners to speak English to family members, peers or other community members and the current teaching practices result in many learners battling to learn effectively in their FAL, calling for a need for pedagogical changes (Ntshangase and Bosch, 2020). This is just one example of the learning challenges faced in rural communities.

Introduction to the Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures programme and project activities

Given the limitations of rural school education, and the high levels of poverty and unemployment in learner households, two partner organisations the Institute of Natural Resources NPC, in partnership with PSI Molekane implemented a research project that explored ways to further educational development while also kindling a passion for regenerative agriculture. Through the TESF (Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures) programme different mechanisms to enrich learning programmes that potentially allow for the practical application of concepts learnt in the classroom (Williams et al, 2023) and that allow greater inclusion of learners with different abilities (Erkilic and Durak, 2013) were explored at five rural primary schools in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.

The five schools were all located within a 50 km radius of the town of Winterton. The TESF project activities built on the existing programme of PSI Molekane, that was supporting principal development as well as a choir development programme. This programme had established existing relationships, but it should be recognised that the schools selected for TESF were all better resourced than many other rural schools within the area. While they are better resourced, they draw their learners from the same environments and thus deal with many similar challenges. This paper focuses on the introduction of food gardens and associated activities, which was one set of activities introduced through the TESF programme. A novel form of gardens, known as tower gardens, was introduced to Grade 6 learners with the intention of enriching their learning environments while also contributing to local livelihoods. These gardens are a form of raised beds that are an effective technology for year-round household vegetable production (Kuddus et al, 2021). In our case they were constructed from shade cloth stretched around five metal standards that had been inserted into the ground. The structure was filled with a combination of organic matter and soil and a range of vegetable seedlings were planted on the top as well as the sides of the tower garden. There was a core filled with stones and ash down the centre of the tower that allowed for the safe application of grey water. The gardens were novel because the learners were only with familiar with planting directly into the ground and were unfamiliar with the use of grey water for irrigation. Towards understanding how effectively the tower gardens enriched the learning environment, the process of engaging the learners and educators and introducing the gardens was documented at each of the schools and some key lessons are shared here. In addition to introducing the gardens, there was a complementary activity involving creating songs, which was seen as a novel way of supporting learning and dissemination of information about the gardens to other learners, but which proved to have additional benefits, which are elaborated further, later.

Unearthing learners’ own knowledge and perceptions

Prior to introducing the tower gardens, rich pictures were used as a tool to engage with the learners in an accessible manner that allowed them to share their existing understanding of food gardens as well as expressing their perceptions about gardening – drawings have been used in other programmes as a tool that allows learners to share information non-verbally (Bowker and Tearle, 2007). It was clear that there was an existing body of knowledge held by the learners that the school system was seemingly not able to surface. Furthermore, the context in which learners are living – in terms of cultural beliefs and socio-economic status – impacts on their understanding of food gardens (Bowker and Tearle, 2007). This was later further demonstrated by the use of role playing, where learners were encouraged to play or act out the activities that they are involved in at home and the roles played by different family members in activities such as land preparation, planting, weeding and harvesting. It was clear from the process of collectively reflecting on the content of the rich pictures with the learners, that this was a tool for children to be able to effectively express their emotions. For example, one child clearly showed from the face that he drew that he was not excited about going to the garden and that it was just a chore that could not be avoided.

Food gardens as a medium for enriching the learning environment

When the project team introduced the tower gardens, this was clearly a new model with which both learners and educators were unfamiliar. There is a general perception at rural schools that gardening is menial work that involves getting dirty and the tower gardens were found to be a more attractive approach. In another school garden project implemented in three countries including India, a similar situation was documented, where learners in India were exposed to container gardening, which was quite different to the types of farming systems with which they were familiar (Bowker and Tearle, 2007). Through the TESF project, each of the schools received one garden, which was constructed and planted with active participation of the learners, though the process was led by the NGO (non-governmental organisation) team. Later in the process, some of the schools that had performed well were rewarded with a second tower garden. For the second tower gardens, the learners were responsible for bringing small amounts of manure from home to fill the garden, supplementing the material provided through the project. This was an opportunity to create strong links between learners’ home environments and the school garden.

Benefits of school food gardens

Observations by the NGO team and teachers, and through participatory engagements with learners, the following benefits of the school food gardens were identified.

Social consciousness

There was much debate among the learners and educators about how the vegetables harvested from the gardens would be used. At one school, there was some unhappiness among the learners that they had not been consulted by the educators. At another school, the learners decided to contribute the vegetables to the school kitchen, to be added to the meals provided through the school feeding schemes. The gardens also generated discussion among learners and teachers about giving vegetables to needy families, and in the holidays, the vegetables were given to community members or school staff that took care of the gardens. Another example of how the gardens generated opportunities for learners to verbalise their awareness of the needs of others was when one participant explained that the garden would be very helpful for their old grandmother because it would be easier for her to manage than a conventional garden.

Making learning more tangible

While the objective of introducing the tower gardens was to create awareness about possibilities of supplementing household diets using local resources including grey water, it soon emerged that the gardens could generate a much wider suite of benefits. In the literature, some of the topics that gardens raise include awareness of nature and environmental problems (Christensen and Wistotf, 2019). The most obvious one was that the classroom could be extended into the garden such that aspects of different subjects could be taught in the garden. A study by Williams et al (2023) found that the real-life application of mathematical concepts, which included a school garden context, impacted on mathematical competencies and attitude towards the subject. This was applied through the TESF project: for example, the maths teacher at one school actively involved learners in measuring the size of the tower structure when it was being constructed.

Linking indoor and outdoor teaching effectively

The process of linking subjects to the school gardens, which integrates indoor and outdoor teaching, also requires collaboration between teachers (Christensen and Wistotf, 2019). This integration was not explored in a structured manner through the TESF project since the initial decision taken by school principals was to limit learner involvement in the gardens to break times rather than integrating garden activities into the lesson plan. It became apparent that more support needs to be provided to teachers in terms of the relevance of the garden to their respective teaching subjects since it was clear from our observations that many of the educators found it interesting but did not have the confidence to integrate the garden into their lessons. Previous studies have shown that educators often avoid contexts of teaching approaches with which they are unfamiliar, which was demonstrated at a school in Norway that also introduced food gardens as a teaching tool (Christensen and Wistotf, 2019). Similarly, it has been found that educators with no experience in gardening do not support the introduction of school gardens (Christensen and Wistotf, 2019). The project time frame only allowed for piloting of the concept and would have needed to be accompanied by training guides for educators to be effectively integrated into the curriculum, as recommended by Christensen and Wistotf (2019). Another aspect that would need more attention is the creation of space within the lesson plan not only for educators to make use of the gardens as a learning tool, but also for learners to manage the gardens – weeding, watering, harvesting and then replanting. The ongoing maintenance of the gardens would also have cost implications for the schools, which would need to be included during the school budgeting process.

The role of song and dance in supporting learning

Since the existing initiative on which the TESF project built involved choral support, the decision was taken to integrate song into the garden component of the project. Some of the learners that were involved with the gardens were members of choirs while others were not. A number of studies have explored the impact of music and singing as tools for enhancing learning, often related to learning languages, and personal growth in schools (Uhlig, 2011; Şener and Erkan, 2018; Ward et al, 2018). Some studies have found that music increases the retention of information, especially new vocabulary (Şener and Erkan, 2018). Another study focused on the impact of music and song – especially rap music – on learners from violent and dysfunctional systems. The study demonstrated enhanced self-esteem and cognitive development as a result of programmes that introduced music into the curriculum (Uhlig, 2011). Song has been found to motivate learners to participate in certain subjects (Şener and Erkam, 2018). A more recent article by Ward et al (2018) explored the concept of ‘songwriting to learn’, which included the use of familiar tunes as templates for their songs. It was found that providing space for learners to create songs was an effective way to increase enjoyment of subjects (Ward et al, 2018). According to Ward et al (2018), music and song, in particular modern genres such as hip hop, has the potential to give a voice to learners who had previously been silent (Emdin, 2011). In the current TESF project, the garden group were asked to create their own songs drawing on the knowledge and experience gained from their garden activities – as opposed to the choral group, who were provided with existing songs to sing. The learners associated with the tower gardens were given the space to choose their language as well as their music genre. Educators were largely sceptical about the capacity of the learners to create songs and were pleasantly surprised by the outcomes of the process. In some cases, learners changed the lyrics of songs with which they were familiar; one small group of boys created a song using rap. Many of the groups combined dance and movement with their songs. Two of the schools provided an opportunity for learners to perform their songs to parents and other learners at events such as prize giving. The parents also had an opportunity to see the tower gardens and there was much interest. This shows that the school gardens can play a role of introducing new methods of household food production into the local communities. One of the educators even took the idea home and adapted it based on available materials as she saw the benefit of the technique. The garden allowed learners to think about social issues, such as families in need within the school. They were exposed to new types of vegetables and they learnt how to harvest them.

What has the TESF project demonstrated?

What is clear from the intervention is that school gardens are not just about growing food. They showed themselves to be an effective way of enriching the learning process at the school. Learners who were generally quiet and unconfident displayed more engaged behaviour in the garden where they had the opportunity to make a contribution that drew on their personal implicit knowledge from home or on their experience from the garden. Educators were exposed to different ways of engaging with learners – such as the use of rich pictures to obtain an understanding of local contexts and perceptions. There were opportunities for collective learning and sharing of information, where the learners could collectively explain to visitors the process that they had followed in the establishment of the gardens. The experience from the project substantiated the value of collective learning as an approach that allows for collective knowledge creation and exchanging of views and thoughts (Castelijns et al, 2013). Group storytelling, where collective reconstruction of stories occurs is a well-known tool for supporting recall (Carminatti et al, 2005), and this project also allowed for this.

A report by Passy et al (2010) documented the impact of school gardening on learning, focusing on a programme implemented in the UK. The authors consider four different learning domains, namely cognitive (knowledge acquisition), affective (such as values and beliefs), behavioural/physical and interpersonal/social (including communication skills). The study concluded that school gardens teach life skills and enrich the curriculum, especially mathematical concepts, but recognised that educators themselves need training. One of the cognitive outcomes that was documented was the way in which ‘conversation just flows’ in the garden, with learners losing the inhibitions that they have indoors. In terms of affective learning, they documented enhanced self-esteem, while in terms of physical learning there were opportunities for fine-tuning motor skills through actions such as transplanting seedlings. The role that gardens play in developing life skills such as moral education, responsibility and relationships was documented by Montessori (1964) in her approach to education. Bowker and Tearle (2007) highlighted that the benefits of integrating gardens into schools included attitudinal change as well as enhanced self-confidence and self-esteem, shown by a level of pride and excitement associated with the gardens.

Beyond the project towards mainstreaming food gardens as a learning tool

While the project generated a number of interesting results, the integration of these new approaches to learning require systemic changes, at least at the level of the school, and probably higher up along the education value chain. They require that educators collaborate around the garden to find ways to integrate it into their lesson plans. The school would need to allocate funds to maintain the gardens. The timetable should also accommodate activities related to the garden to be incorporated into classes so that it is not seen as an ‘add on’ activity that must happen during break time or after school. Both the garden component and the song component were familiar spaces for learners; an extension of life as they know it in the community, which made it accessible. It meant that many learners were able to contribute to the activities and to the collective creation and sharing of knowledge building on their experience from home. The gardens also allow for experiential learning, which supports the findings of multiple studies (Block et al, 2012; Williams and Dixon, 2013; Holloway et al, 2023). While many learners might struggle to recall what they learnt in class during 2023, there is a high likelihood that as a group they will be able to piece together a story about the gardens from the start to the finish, and will be able to perform the songs that they created, despite the project having finished some months ago. Of course, this needs to be tested to confirm the value of the approaches. It would also be useful to meet again with the educators to reflect on whether there have been opportunities to make use of any of the techniques introduced through the project, or whether there have been times when they recalled something that they observed during the project.

A number of studies have found that the usefulness of gardens as a tool for enriching the learning environment depends on the buy-in of knowledgeable staff with access to necessary resources, as well as attention to curriculum development to support the integration of classroom and outdoor learning processes (Williams and Dixon, 2013; Holloway et al, 2023). The TESF project has initiated very useful discussion and exchange of ideas between NGO staff and educators about the benefits of food gardens and alternative teaching methods and provides a sound basis for future work of this nature.

Funding

This work was funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through the Economic and Social Research Council Network Plus scheme (Grant Ref: ES/T002646/1),

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bowker, R. and Tearle, P. (2007) Gardening as a learning environment: a study of children’s perceptions and understanding of school gardens as part of an international project, Learning Environments Research, 10(2): 83100. doi: 10.1007/s10984-007-9025-0

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carminatti, N., Borges, M.R.S. and Gomes, J.O. (2005) Collective knowledge recall: benefits and drawbacks, in H. Fukś, S. Lukosch and A.C. Salgado (eds) Groupware: Design, Implementation, and Use, Proceedings of the 11th International Workshop, CRIWG 2005, Porto de Galinhas, Brazil, September 25–29, 2005, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Vol. 3706, Berlin: Springer, pp 22631. doi: 10.1007/11560296_17

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Castelijns, J., Vermeulen, M. and Kools, Q. (2013) Collective learning in primary schools and teacher education institutes, Journal of Educational Change, 14(3): 373402. doi: 10.1007/s10833-013-9209-6

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Christensen, J.H. and Wistotf, K. (2019) Investigating the effectiveness of subject-integrated school garden teaching, Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 22(3): 23751. doi: 10.1007/s42322-019-00043-5

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • du Plessis, P. and Mestry, R. (2019) Teachers for rural schools – a challenge for South Africa, South African Journal of Education, 39(S1): art 1774. doi: 10.15700/saje.v39ns1a1774

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Emdin, C. (2011) Dimensions of communication in urban science education: interactions and transactions, Science Education, 95(1): 120. doi: 10.1002/sce.20411

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Erkilic, M. and Durak, S. (2013) Tolerable and inclusive learning spaces: an evaluation of policies and specifications for physical environments that promote inclusion in Turkish primary schools, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17(5): 46279. doi: 10.1080/13603116.2012.685333

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holloway, T.P., Jayasinghe, S., Dalton, L., Kilpatrick, M.L., Hughes, R., Patterson, K.A.E., et al (2023) Enhancing food literacy and food security through school gardening in rural and regional communities, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(18): art 6794. doi: 10.3390/ijerph20186794

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kuddus, M.A., Alam, M.J., Datta, G.C., Miah, M.A., Sarker, A.K. and Sunny, M.A.R. (2021) Climate residence technology for year round vegetable production in northeastern Bangladesh, International Journal of Agricultural Research Innovation and Technology, 11(1): 2936. doi: 10.3329/ijarit.v11i1.54464

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Montessori, M. (1964) The Montessori Method, New York, NY: Schocken.

  • Mouton, N., Louw, G.P. and Strydom, G. (2013) Critical challenges of the South African school system, International Business and Economics Research Journal, 12(1): 3144. doi: 10.19030/iber.v12i1.7510

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ntshangase, S.Z.N. and Bosch, S. (2020) Dual language education: improving the academic learning experiences of isiZulu-speaking learners in KwaZulu-Natal, South African Journal of African Languages, 40(3): 31725. doi: 10.1080/02572117.2020.1855725

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Passy, R., Morris, M. and Reed, F. (2010) Impact of School Gardening on Learning: Final Report Submitted to the Royal Horticultural Society, Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research, https://www.vsgp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Impact-of-School-Gardening-on-Learning.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Şener, S. and Erkan, D. (2018) The effect of songs on primary school students’ motivation, International Online Journal of Education and Teaching, 5(4): 86775. http://iojet.org/index.php/IOJET/article/view/454/298.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spaull, N. (2015) Schooling in South Africa: how low-quality education becomes a poverty trap, South African Child Gauge 2015, Part 2: Youth and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty, Cape Town: Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, pp 3441, https://ci.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/content_migration/health_uct_ac_za/533/files/Child_Gauge_2015-Schooling.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Uhlig, S. (2011) Rap and singing for the emotional and cognitive development of at-risk children: development of a method, in F. Baker and S. Uhlig (eds) Voicework in Music Therapy: Research and Practice, London: Jessica Kingsley, pp 6382.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ward, S.J., Price, R.M., Davis, K. and Crowther, G.J. (2018) Songwriting to learn: how high school science fair participants use music to communicate personally relevant scientific concepts, International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, 8(4): 30724. doi: 10.1080/21548455.2018.1492758

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Wildsmith-Cromarty, R. and Balfour, R.J. (2019) Language learning and teaching in South African primary schools, Language Teaching, 52(3): 296317. doi: 10.1017/s0261444819000181

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Brigid Letty Institute of Natural Resource NPC, South Africa

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Jon McCosh Institute of Natural Resource NPC, South Africa

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Lunga Dlungwana Food Volitions, South Africa

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Mzokhona Mndali Institute of Natural Resource NPC, South Africa

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