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.