Improving the Understanding of Food, Farming and Land Management Amongst School-age Children: A Literature Review

Dillon, Justin et al

The UK population depends heavily on the countryside for food, recreation, tourism and many other purposes.  However, there is growing concern that significant proportions of the public have an inadequate understanding of many aspects of rural life.  Public knowledge of environmental issues as they relate to the countryside appears to be poor.  Young people's knowledge of how their food is produced and how it gets to their plate seems limited.  The Policy Commission argues that 'the key objective of public policy should be to reconnect consumers with what they eat and how it is produced' (Policy Commission, 2002, p. 6).  In drawing out key findings, we paid far greater attention to studies that did not show the weaknesses highlighted in Chapter 7 of the main report.

In the light of such arguments, this report looks at what is known about young people's (3-19) views towards, and learning about, food, farming and land management.  It draws together the findings of 190 pieces of research published internationally in English between 1960-2002.  This review was commissioned by the Countryside Agency, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and Farming and Countryside Education (FACE).  The study was carried out between November 2002 and April 2003 by a team from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and King's College London.

Key Findings

In the literature reviewed, a range of major weaknesses was evident including: a lack of recognition of theories of learning or of links to broader conceptual frameworks; a general lack of validity or reliability; a lack of critical reflection and a lack of convincing evidence substantiating claims for better learning or improved attitudes resulting from teaching strategies.

School-age students' knowledge and understanding about various aspects of food and farming appear to be poor.

While young people are concerned about food issues such as genetic engineering, organic/local products, there is also evidence of ambivalence and confusion in students' views, and inconsistencies between attitudes and behaviours.

For food and farming issues in general, some studies suggest that young people see these as less serious than other environmental issues such as ozone depletion and tropical deforestation.

In several studies, levels of concern were found to differ between boys and girls, with girls attaching greater seriousness to issues such as food additives and pesticides, genetic engineering of farm animals, and the importance of organic/local foods.

Young people's perceptions and experiences of the countryside are complex and varied: while some children can have a very positive attitude towards the countryside, others focus on the possibility of boredom and isolation in rural areas.

The research on young people's knowledge and attitudes suggests that there is a strong case for improving teaching and learning about food, farming and land management.

In terms of possible teaching strategies and learning activities, the current evidence highlights the potential of:

  • school visits to farms--which offer a wide range of learning opportunities in the affective and the cognitive domains
  • projects in school gardens and school farms--which can provide positive outcomes for young people, as well as developing a stronger community
  • other out-of-school learning associated with fieldwork, after-school programmes, camps, outdoor centres and supermarket visits
  • classroom-based curriculum strategies--such as teaching about controversial issues, electronic ('virtual') field trips and environmental games.

Any teaching and learning initiatives need to recognise the complexity of young people's views and understandings.

Research that provides insights into the factors that might impede or facilitate young people's learning about food, farming and land management highlights the influence of:

  • young people's emotions and attitudes, which can, for example play an important role in their learning about food production topics such as genetic engineering: affect their enthusiasm for hands on contact with mud and organisms; influence the planning and delivery of field-trip experiences; or present barriers to students being offered the experience of a farm visit
  • the ways in which teachers can help students to make connections between learning beyond the classroom and learning within the classroom
  • the impact of a young person's cultural identity on their learning needs in relation to out-of-school experiences.

The research is rarely able to identify what aspects of a particular programme helped to yield positive impacts.  In other words, while there is some evidence about the impacts of programmes, there is little evidence about programme effectiveness.

Aim of the research

The aim of the review was to identify and appraise the extent and quality of research and statistical evidence relating to:

  • school-age (3-19) children's knowledge of, and attitudes towards, food, farming and the countryside
  • school-age children's learning about food, farming and land management in a range of contexts
  • the impact of such learning on pupils' achievement, progression and other educational/behavioural outcomes (for all pupils and particular groups)
  • how such learning experiences can be delivered most economically and effectively
  • the factors that can impede or facilitate pupil learning about food, farming and land management in a range of contexts.

Background

The role of farms and gardens, whether in school or as a school journey experience, have been debated in this country for more than a century.  Current government initiatives such as 'Growing Schools' and the proposed specialist Rural Schools are a part of this tradition.  'Schools and the Countryside', published by the Ministry of Education (1958), emphasised the importance that farm studies could bring to understanding 'the fundamental position farming occupies in the whole life and economy of even the most industrialised country' (p. 51).  This report also emphasised the need for children to make several farm visits at different stages during their school life as their value was recognized as being cumulative.

The Policy Commission on the Future of Food and Farming, set up by the Prime Minister in August 2001, argued that 'the key objective of public policy should be to reconnect our food and farming industry... to reconnect consumers with what they eat and how it is produced' (2002, p. 6).  This objective has implications for educational provision, both within and beyond schools.

The Policy Commission suggested a number of remedial strategies including better use of the media, labelling, the Internet, advertising, demonstration farms and exposure to schools.  The need for schools to develop stronger links with farms was made explicit.  The Government responded that it recognised the importance of young people experiencing the 'outdoor classroom' and noted that 'children benefit from hands-on experiences of plants and animals, within school grounds, through visits to farms, woodlands or field study centres' (England. Parliament. HoC, 2002, p. 47).

Methodology

This study was designed to provide a comprehensive review of the main issues and barriers to improving the understanding of food, farming and land management amongst school-age (3-19) children by undertaking a systematic review of research on children's views towards, and learning about, food, farming and land management in a range of contexts.  It involved critical analysis of research evidence published internationally between 1960-2002.  The onus was on establishing not only what is known about these various issues, but also what is not known and how such gaps in knowledge might be addressed by future research and investigation.  We were most interested in evidence relating to pupils' learning and thinking about the production of food, the origins of food and the links between producers and consumers through the food chain.

The scope of this review was determined by a series of search parameters. Empirical research and statistical evidence on school-age pupils' learning about food, farming and land management in a range of contexts, published (in English) from 1960-2002 was reviewed.  Published articles, books and monographs, research thesis, statistical evidence, and government/ international publications covering early years, primary and secondary schools formed the basis of most of the review.

Relevant research literature was identified using a number of complementary search methods including: electronic bibliographic database searches; hand searches of journals and other documents; and email requests for information to students and researchers working in the field.  Of 270 potentially relevant studies identified by the searches, 190 studies were eventually identified as being directly relevant.

Other Findings: Weaknesses and Gaps in the Evidence Base

In the literature reviewed, a range of major weaknesses was evident, for example:

  • few studies took account of what is known about learning
  • studies of students' awareness were not integrated into any wider conceptual framework, such as the food chain
  • too few studies paid attention to issues of validity or reliability and many of the case studies and small-scale studies offered little more than descriptions of events
  • research tended to report findings without identifying the implications for teaching and learning (although there were some exceptions to this finding).

There are also some critical gaps in the literature including:

  • studies of young people's understanding of the connections between food, farming and land management in terms of the food chain
  • students' perceptions of the countryside as a context for food production and land management
  • changes in children's thinking about food, farming and the countryside over a period of several years resulting from one or more learning activities in a range of contexts such as farms and botanical gardens
  • the sources of, and the factors that can influence and shape, young people's knowledge, attitudes and concerns about food, farming and the countryside
  • teachers' aims for work in and visits to farms and school gardens
  • students' learning experiences of farm visits and other food and farming-related learning activities.


Conclusions: Addressing the Weaknesses and Gaps in the Evidence Base

In order to address the weaknesses and gaps in the literature base, we suggest the following studies should be undertaken:

  • research into where children learn about food, farming and land management, what they learn and what the key drivers are for maximising their learning
  • what does learning and teaching about food, farming and land management look like in schools: who teaches it, how and why?  There is a need for comparative international studies of curriculum organisation and implementation
  • in-depth, mixed method studies of students' learning in terms of processes and outcomes from particular learning activities such as farm visits, ICT-based programmes and fieldwork
  • investigations of the cost-effectiveness of particular teaching strategies, as well as research into what measures could be used to explore economic effectiveness in this context
  • investigations into ways of reducing and removing the barriers to learning about food, farming and land management (at different levels: LEAs, schools, departments and in non-school contexts)
  • an investigation into what progression might look like in terms of understanding food, farming and land management issues.


Complete Research Report at http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR422b.pdf

References

ENGLAND. PARLIAMENT. HOUSE OF COMMONS (2002). Response to the Report of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food by HM Government (Cm. 5709). London: The Stationery Office.
MINISTRY OF EDUCATION (1958). Schools and the Countryside (Pamphlet No. 35). London: HMSO.

POLICY COMMISSION ON THE FUTURE OF FARMING AND FOOD (2002). Farming & Food: a Sustainable Future [online]. Available: http://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/farming/index/CommissionReport.htm [25 March, 2003].

Copies of the full report (RR422) - priced 4.95 [British pounds] - are available by writing to DfES Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 0DJ.

Cheques should be made payable to "DfES Priced Publications".

Copies of this Research Brief (RB422) are available free of charge from the above address (tel: 0845 60 222 60).  Research Briefs and Research Reports can also be accessed at http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/

Further information about this research can be obtained from Simon Tanner, Area 6S, DfES, Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT.  

Pedagogical Area
  • agricultural/ food education
  • education for sustainability
Subject Area
  • agriculture, plant and soil science, food systems
Participant Area
  • student
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
  • middle school (12-14 years old)
  • high school (14-18 years old)