Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

Using affinity diagramming to learn about the global food system

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I first learned about affinity diagramming through my work with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association which hosts participatory conferences using different types of group facilitation techniques. I later incorporated the technique into some public workshops I helped host through the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. I found it to be a fantastic tool for refining ideas after a huge brainstorming session and very useful in community organizing around food systems issues. But I wasn’t really sure that it would be helpful or even work in a classroom setting. When I first toured the room for my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class, I knew I had to try to squeeze it into my curriculum planning. The other faculty members lovingly referred to this classroom as “The Bowling Alley” because it was such a long, narrow room. The Mariposa building at Prescott College is a former carpet warehouse that has been creatively re-purposed as a teaching and public event space. If we had access to enormous empty walls, we were definitely going to put stuff on them!

On the first day of class, I asked my first year students to brainstorm topics that were in their mind part of the global food system. We wrote them on giant notepads in a frenzied and loud brainstorming session. That night I cut out all of the individual items and got some painter’s tape so as not to damage the paint job in my classroom. For the next class I introduced the affinity diagramming concept. When the students arrived all of the individual topics were posted on the left hand wall of the room. The only rule is “no talking” and the whole group was asked to move individual topics from the left hand wall to the right hand wall and cluster them into categories. Again, without talking. And the idea is to eventually reach consensus, although there was definitely some spirited back and forth with individual topics bouncing from one cluster to another. There was also some giggling, but that is to be expected when asking 12 students to do something this silly and new to them without talking.

We kept the clusters on the wall for the entire semester. For every new reading, we decided if new topics that we had learned about belonged on the “Global Food System Wall” and if so, in which cluster? I loved having it as a giant map to guide us as we delved into a wide variety of complex topics from food sovereignty, racism in the food system and the nuts and bolts of commodity markets. I also loved how it shook up the classroom dynamics by giving all students an equal say in the final result. Sometimes students who were not particularly vocal in class discussions felt comfortable physically leading much of the clustering process. I would definitely use this technique in the classroom again.

Students in this course also hosted a public education and outreach event on global food systems, the annual Global Food Dinner.

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Results of initial brainstorming session
“What topics are part of the global food system?”

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Refining the topics by clustering like items (without talking)

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