A tower garden in production (photo by Mpumelelo Nketsa, 2022)

Agriculture, arts and livelihoods: investigating integrated school learning approaches for improved educational and livelihood outcomes

Rural schools in South Africa face multiple challenges in providing learners with the diverse skills required to advance effectively in modern society. Learners come from communities that are characterised by poverty, food insecurity, unemployment and most do not have the benefit of growing up in households that provide comfort, stimulation and which effectively support learning.

This project explored the opportunities that food gardens (tower gardens in particular) and choir provide to enrich the learning environment at rural schools in KwaZulu-Natal. Besides looking at gardens and song in isolation, the project also explored how these two elements could be combined to support the knowledge development process and to change perceptions about agriculture and the environment.

The tower gardens were completely unfamiliar to both learners and staff at the schools and this, combined with the approach to introducing and establishing the gardens, made it a fun process. The approaches that were used by the research team (in particular the facilitators) were also new to the teachers and learners. They included collective learning processes where the learners could collectively explain the functioning of the gardens, rather than always being expected to answer as individuals. They were also given the opportunity to draw on their knowledge about farming activities in their communities, or in their own homes. The teachers were surprised at the behaviour and capacities shown by the learners in the context of the garden – they were more engaging and interactive. They were able to be creative and make songs that they performed to other learners, staff and parents at school events. The teachers had not expected them to be able to do this on their own. 

The teachers clearly articulated the way that the gardens offered opportunities to provide practical links to the content of the classes, especially with maths. The limitation of the project timeframe was that it did not allow the teachers to work with the team to find ways to actively integrate the use of the gardens into the school programme as part of the curriculum and their activities were limited to break times and sessions after school. One of the schools asked for additional gardens for their scouts and girl guide groups, which showed that they can also effectively contribute to extramural activities of learners.

One of the major lessons from the project is that while a school food garden can contribute directly to improved nutrition of learners if it produces sufficient food or targets specific needy households, it can contribute in many other ways too. Firstly, it can build capacity of learners, staff and the local community to produce their own food (even exposing people to different food types such as broccoli and herbs); secondly it can contribute to knowledge generation and consolidation through experiential learning. However, it also has the potential to contribute to a range of soft skills that will prepare our youth for the future. Teamwork, decision making, planning, speaking in public were all skills that emerged from the project activities, as well as some social consciousness related to decisions such as who should receive the harvested vegetables.  

Key Themes:
Sustainable Livelihoods
Location: south africa
Principal Investigator: Brigid Letty
Co-Investigators: Bridget Johnsen, Steve Worth, Lunga Dlungwane
Host Organisation: Institute of Natural Resources NPC
Duration: 12 months