Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why Alabama 4-H Understands the 21st Century Like Nobody’s Business

Alabama 4-H educators are mastering inquiry-based learning methods to provide Alabama young people with the fluid learning environments they will need to succeed in this new globalized economy.

The further I advance into middle age, the more I’m convinced that a few things in life really are simple — not necessarily easy, mind you, but simple in terms of understanding their fundamental nature.

For example, I think a few very gifted and insightful science and tech writers, notably Steven Johnson, have successfully identified the key factors that account for the West’s technological triumph over the past century.   At the heart of all lies a strong commitment to openness.

As Johnson contends, the roots of this openness can be traced to the coffeehouses of the 17th century — boisterous places that provided the ideal environments for sharing ideas.  Something rather remarkable and entirely unexpected followed: The ideas exchanged within those highly fluid environments ended up mating and mutating into new ideas.  Many of these ideas formed the basis for huge strides in scientific innovation which, in turn, secured immense material benefits for billions of human beings over the next 300 years.

Unfortunately, within the last few decades, American education has lost sight of this fundamental insight.

Fortunately for us, a few educational trailblazers, Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra and educational speaker, author and adviser Sir Ken Robinson are pointing the way back to them.

I’m proud to report that another group of educators much closer to home are also pointing the way: Alabama Extension 4-H administrator Lamar Nichols and the educators and professionals of Alabama 4-H.

Having spent the last couple of days at their annual priority team meeting, I think it’s highly likely that they will be remembered decades from now as vanguards — people who set the standards for youth educators in the 21st century.

They understand the implications of this emerging information/technological order as few others do.

The world is changing. We all know that.  Digitization is the reason for much, if not most, of these changes.  We know that too.

Yet, contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not only about adopting iPhones or learning how to tweet.

Technological adoption is only part of what we must do.  At the heart of it all is the critical need to understand the different kind of society that is emerging from all these technological changes.  While it’s partly about technological adoption, it is most of all about learning to think and act in a fundamentally different way.

To put it another way, it’s mostly about how to create optimal learning environments— ecosystems of knowledge in which people are to able share ideas freely and openly and that bear a strong resemblance to those raucous coffeehouses of the 17th century.

Alabama 4-H understands the dire importance of restoring this understanding of the fundamental factors that drive human innovation and progress.   What 4-H educators call inquiry-based learning provides the same thing as 17th century coffeehouses: fluid knowledge environments where ideas can be exchanged freely and with the greatest chance of their mating and mutating into even bigger ideas.

4-H educators understand that creating these kinds of environments among young people will be critical to ensuring that rising generations of young people develop a working knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, to use a highly appropriate acronym — factors that will be key to this nation’s global competiveness over the next century.

They’re creating these fluid learning environments to complement what is being taught in the state’s science and math classrooms.

The introductory material presented to each participant set the tone of the meeting:  “For our economic future, it’s not sufficient to target college grads and advanced degree holders for the STEM workforce — our nation’s economic future depends on improving the pipeline into STEM fields for high school grads as well.  As a nation, we need to strengthen the STEM workforce pipeline and in Alabama, we just need to strengthen workforce pipeline — period.”

By addressing this critical need, Alabama 4-H educators, in addition to setting a benchmark for other 4-H youth development professionals, are drawing us closer to a vision of the new model Extension educator of the 21st century.

Four Defining Traits of the New Model Extension Educator

Seeing, setting and articulating goals within networked, collaborative settings will be critical skills of 21st century Extension educators.

I’m not one to oversimplify, but I’m beginning to believe that the four most desired traits of Cooperative Extension professionals in the 21st century will be the ability to see, to set goals, to articulate, and to innovate.

To increasing degree, Extension educators in the 21st century  not only will be challenged to perceive emerging trends but also how they relate to current challenges — to see, in other words — then to set goals and to articulate them in ways that inspire others.  Finally, they will collaborate with others to develop and to achieve the most innovative solutions.

(Note: I’m highly reluctant to use “client” in this context because I’m more convinced than ever that there is no such thing in this networked world — only collaborators.)

One of this nation’s leading innovators and achievers, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, helped me see this.  Indeed, if anybody deserves credit for laying out a clear vision for 21st century Extension educators — new model Extension educators, as I prefer to call them —it’s Donovan.

Incidentally, to all you young Extension professionals who aspire to attain the front ranks of your fields: Donovan’s interview with New York Times features editor Adam Bryant should be considered required reading.

Donovan related in the interview how he taught himself over many years to draw on the talents of others while simultaneously inspiring them — a skill he first began honing when he was elected captain of his hockey team.

You must “look at a landscape, characterize it and set a framework for action, then be able to articulate it clearly” — simply put, to see, to set goals and to articulate.

As I see it, this will be the essence of Cooperative Extension work in the future: perceiving the emerging trends and challenges that likely will grow out of them, then inspiring and working with others within extended, mostly virtual, networks to develop creative solutions.

As Donovan observes, “You have to have the antennas for picking out what’s important.”

That’s where our specialized training and unique perspectives will benefit us.

Most of you have heard my old saw about Extension educators undergoing a transformation from normative to nodal professionals within the next few years.  They will no longer be the norm setters they have in the past but nodes operating with vast networks.

Even so, within this new networked environment, our backgrounds, coupled with the fact that we are temperamentally extroverted people working within a historically extroverted organization, uniquely equip us to function in this new nodal role.

We will be much better equipped than others to perceive trends and to work with others to flesh out workable solutions.

Yet, as Donovan stresses, there’s more to it than simply perceiving trends and setting goals.

At some point in their careers, successful innovators learn to develop team skills — as Donovan says, they learn that “giving credit away, deflecting credit, [is] an effective thing to do.”

It’s not about keeping score, it’s about playing for results, he says.

Donovan’s interview also underscored the enduring value of two other traits: working hard and drilling deep.

Needless to say, hard work has and always will be a distinguishing trait of outstanding professionals, but so is drilling deep — as he describes it, viewing every experience as an opportunity “to gain the broadest set of experiences I can.”

He’s absolutely right: Those who take the time to develop multiple perspectives — or borrowing from Dan Pink, those who cultivate right-brained in addition to left-brained cognitive skills — will be the best-positioned, best equipped professionals of the 21st century.