Category Archives: 4-H

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.

4-H as Seed Corn

4-H'ers raising flag at the Alabama 4-H Youth Development Center, Coumbiana, Alabama

Following is a significantly revised rework of a piece I uploaded a couple of weeks ago about 4-H serving as vital seed corn for the future.

If you happen to be an Extension educator, please feel free to copy and use the material freely in newspaper columns, social media outreach and other measures aimed at heightening public awareness of the value of Extension programming.

Seed Corn for the Future

Folklore abounds with accounts of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times, with predictably disastrous results.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks observed recently, this era of budget cutting appears to be one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: young people.

“In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries,” Brooks writes. “In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.”

Add 4-H to that list. For more than a century, 4-H has fostered skills that not only keep kids in school but also busily and happily engaged in learning.

In response to impending and especially stringent federal budget cuts, Cooperative Extension professionals all over the country have been relating some of the tangible ways 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on kids staying in school, going to college and pursuing lifetime passions acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

Yes, 4-H offers immense opportunities for enriching the learning experience at a critical juncture in this nation’s history.

In an earlier column, Brooks stressed how much the success of this nation in the 21st century will be determined by how closely it hews to the traits that have long distinguished it: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only a few.

Likewise, the longstanding American reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which vaulted this country to the forefront of scientific and technological leadership in the 20th century appears to be steadily eroding.

As Brooks observed in an earlier column, Americans have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

What youth organization is better equipped than 4-H to provide young people with a renewed appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

4-H arguably has another critical role to fill: putting young people squarely on the path toward acquiring the levels of immersion in learning and related skills considered crucial for high achievement in life — what social critic Malcolm Gladwell has described as the 10,000 hour rule.

“If we’re trapped within the walls of a learning environment, reading, writing and arithmetic don’t spawn the creativity to go out and do great things,” says Wes Laird, an Opp, Ala. attorney and 4-H alumnus who has spent his legal career defending the economically disadvantaged.

Laird lauds his 4-H involvement as his social networking experience that enabled him to see beyond his rural Alabama hometown to the larger world beyond.

“Extracurricular activities that lie beyond classroom walls and that allow freedom of mind are crucial for excelling in any field,” Laird says.

In fact, research has confirmed that outstanding creators and innovators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours — roughly 10 years — learning and perfecting their skills.

This insight speaks volumes about the sort of role informal, unstructured learning activities serve in putting kids squarely on the road to lifetime success.  It also underscores why so-called frivolous school activities such as art, music, cheerleading —and, yes, 4-H — should be valued for what they are: critical pathways to lifetime self-mastery and achievement.

Let’s not allow these valuable lessons to be lost on our policy makers, those who are threatening to consume all of our seed corn.

4-H is seed corn for the most critical crop of all: young people.

Seed Corn for the Future

Yes, I’m always talking about the value current events serve in driving home valuable lessons and insights to Extension educators.

4-H Clover

4-H: One of America's Most Indispensable Youth Programs

New York Times columnist David Brooks drives home yet another valuable lesson in today’s column.

Folklore abounds with tales of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times.

As Brooks soberly observes, this era of fiscal austerity is one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: youth.

…legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable. In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries. In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.

Brooks is spot on again. We need to be underscoring to policy makers why our own educational outreach program, 4-H, is anything but a frivolous program — why it continues to play an essential role in fostering the skills that keep kids engaged and in school.

I’ve been impressed within the past few days with how several Extension professionals throughout the country are engaging in old-fashioned story-telling, focusing on tangible examples of kids whose 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on their staying in school, going onto college and pursuing a lifetime passion they acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

4-H offers immense opportunities for enriching the learning experience at a critical juncture in this nation’s history.

In an earlier column, Brooks stressed how much the success of this nation in the 21st century will be determined by how closely it hews to the old-fashioned bourgeois values that have distinguished it in the past: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only three.

Likewise, the longstanding American reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which vaulted this country to the forefront of scientific and technological leadership in the 20th century appears to be steadily eroding.

As Brooks observed in an earlier column, Americans have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

What youth organization is better equipped than 4-H — and, for that matter, its sister organization, FFA — to provide young people with a renewed appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

4-H arguably has another critical rule to fill: putting young people squarely on the path toward acquiring the levels of immersion in learning and related skills considered crucial for high achievement in life — what social critic Malcolm Gladwell has described as the 10,000 hour rule.

Research has revealed that outstanding creators and innovators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours — roughly 10 years — learning and perfecting their skills.

This insight speaks volumes about the sort of role informal, unstructured learning activities serve in putting kids squarely on the road to lifetime success.  It also underscores why so-called frivolous school activities such as art, music, cheerleading —and, yes, 4-H — should be valued for what they are: critical pathways to lifetime self-mastery and achievement.

Let’s not allow these valuable lesson to be lost on our policy makers, those who are threatening to consume all of our seed corn.

4-H is seed corn for the most critical crop of all: young people.

We Need a Scientific Counterrevolution in the United States — and 4-H and FFA Should Lead the Way

I’ve stated more than once what I consider as one of the greatest long-term threats facing American prosperity:  The unwillingness of America’s most talented and educated young people to pursue the sorts of practical fields that propelled this country to the pinnacle of technological leadership in the 20th century.

In his most recent column, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman outlined how this practical knowledge deficit is seriously undermining our competitive standing among other advanced nations:

“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says [former MIT President Charles M.] Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.

I’ve outlined more than once in this forum the role that 4-H and FFA could play in helping spark a counterrevolution of practical scientific knowledge among many of this nation’s best and brightest.  No two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to help restore these values to a preeminent place in American life.

Are they listening?

4-H and FFA: Vanguards of a Scientific Counterrevolution?

“If we don’t restore the manufacturing sector in this country, we’re scr*wed in the long run.”

Those were the blunt sentiments expressed last week by an industrial engineering professor and close friend summing up the future economic outlook of the United States barring a radical turnaround.

If any statement best underscores why I still believe passionately and unequivocally in the enduring value of 4-H and FFA, it’s is that one. 

Yes, I know that historically speaking these two youth organizations have been closely tied with agriculture rather than with the manufacturing base.  But their historical emphasis on practical knowledge and the critical thinking that accompanies it is the reason why I’m convinced these two organizations have an invaluable role play in the future as practical scientific vanguards.

Practical scientific vanguards? Yes, I know that sounds a little grandiose, if not slightly bizarre. But I’m serious. I believe our success as a nation depends on whether we reverse the trends that are moving us away from the traditional American emphasis on practical science and critical thinking.

Scottish Lessons

I was reminded of this yet again last week while finishing last chapter of Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book that chronicles the enormous Scottish contributions to modern thought and technological achievement.

Herman credits the Scots with fostering huge leaps in moral philosophy, history, economics and scientific and technological advances throughout the 18th century. Intellectual discussions throughout the civilized world were peppered with Scottish names such Hutcheson, Kames, Ferguson, Smith and Hume, Reid and Carlyle.

Medical training at Edinburgh University set the standard for the rest of the world, particularly the newly independent United States.  Similar standards were set in engineering, steelmaking, ship building, textiles and chemistry.

Yet, as the 19th century drew to a close, Scottish intellectual achievement began to wane.

Scotland’s brightest students abandoned Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen for Oxbridge.

By the close of the 19th century, Scottish businessmen, whose professional forebears had advanced printing and the book trade — not to mention renowned publications as the Edinburgh Literary Review — turned their energies to the tabloid press. 

Likewise, Scottish writers abandoned their interests in philosophy, political economy and history for escapist literature.

A growing Scottish preoccupation with conformity blocked innovation and creativity — a change that Herman ascribes to the disastrous results stemming from World War I battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, when Scottish generals, once vaunted for their independent-mindedness in addition to their courage and sense of honor, concentrated on means while losing sight of the ends.

A Lesson for Americans?

Could it be that American society is following the same course?  Is our longstanding reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which sparked similar scientific and technological advances throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, eroding?

The symptoms are all around us. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoaned the degree to which U.S. young people, especially elite college graduates, have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

“The shift is evident at all levels of society, “Brooks writes. “First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.”

Yet another observation that left a deep impression last week was expressed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former Texas A&M University president, who stressed that American society is more self-aware and self-critical than any other in history.

“That doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of geniuses,” Gates said. “It just means — due, in no small part to a free press — that we recognize our problems faster than anybody else and move to correct them faster.”

Back to my premise: 4-H and FFA and the need for nothing less than a practical scientific counterrevolution. What two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

Expertise Research: Lessons for 4-H?

Malcolm Gladwell, a native Canadian, has been accused of holding Canadian views on the factors behind high achievement.  Success, he contends, stems from more than just latent talent and a rugged individualistic desire to succeed. 

Whether these views reflect Canadian or American values, I do believe they fall close to the truth.

Success does not stem from raw talent alone.  Indeed, Gladwell says a number of psychologists specializing in expertise research have determined that there is an especially significant factor associated with high achievement — one that Gladwell calls the 10,000-hour rule.  Simply put, great creators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours, or 10 years, working diligently to perfect their skills.

Gladwell describes this phenomenon in his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Every great composer, for example, has composed for about a decade before he writes his master work.  Mozart, considered by many to be the greatest of all, was no exception. 

“Mozart is composing at 11, but he’s composing garbage,” Gladwell says.  “He doesn’t compose anything great until he’s 22 or 23.”

Gladwell says the research he’s done into this phenomenon has driven home a vital lesson: that society is not allowing sufficient enough time to for people to master complex skills.

“We are far too impatient with people,” he says. “We assess what it takes for people to do a certain job.  We always want to make that assessment after 6 months or a year and that’s ridiculous.”

“The kind of jobs we require people to do today are sufficiently complex that they require a long time to reach mastery.  What we should be doing is setting up institutions and structures that allow people to spend the time and effort to reach mastery, not judging them prematurely.”

Consider the number of people throughout history who, while possessing tremendous potential, were passed through educational institutions by educators who either did not readily discern their gifts or simply lacked sufficient patience.

Speaking as a Cooperative Extension professional, this raises an intriguing question: Could 4-H help fill this breach by providing children with the levels of immersion they need to acquire these high-level skills?

I think the answer is obvious.  The findings of expertise researchers present 4-H and other publicly and privately supported grassroots organizations with tremendous opportunities to fill this breach.

The “Lean Years:” A New Mission for Cooperative Extension?

A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension’s Marketing Team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.

The New York Times’s David Brooks’s most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named “The Lean Years.”

Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.

He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.

America’s young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn.  Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession:  College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods.  And this earnings gap persists for decades.  Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.

Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.

Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as “debilitating blows to their identity.”

Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.

The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives. 

As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.   

These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.

As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times.  The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.

Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment.  How?  By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years.  By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation’s vital, but frayed, social fabric.