Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Danny Nusser, Regional Program Leader for Agriculture and Natural Resources/4-H and Youth Development, North Region, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Stacey Dewald, Graduate Assistant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Michelle Payne, Extension Program Specialist I, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
This research has identified the critical success factors and principles that are important for Extension program design and effectively utilizing learning communities of practices. This case study focused on an agricultural community of practice that had a specific emphasis on improving practice in relation to herb pasture use in New Zealand. However, the five critical success factors and the seven principles of learning are equally applicable to Family and Community Health, 4-H and Youth Development or other Extension educational program areas.
Researchers in New Zealand recently published findings related to identifying factors that were important to clientele learning and adoption of practices. In this study, an extension program was developed based upon educational theory and research and then evaluated over a 3 years to identify the factors that were important for clientele learning and adoption of practices (Gray, Sewell, Hartnett, Wood, Kemp, Blair, Kenyon & Morris, 2016). These researchers reported findings of a 3 year interdisciplinary study conducted at Massey University with 23 producers that investigated the critical factors that support producers’ learning (Gray et al., 2016). The five critical success factors and the seven educational principles identified from this study provide guidelines for how Extension can effectively interact with producers to foster effective innovation (Gray et al., 2016).
This 3-year study was conducted where producers worked with an interdisciplinary team of three animal scientists, one agronomist and four social scientists in a sequence of learning experiences designed around a lamb finishing trial at Massey University in New Zealand (Gray et al., 2016). The experiment was part of a research project comparing two herb (plantain and plantain and chicory) and legume pastures with a perennial ryegrass and white clover pasture (Gray et al., 2016).
Producers were selected from individuals known to the science team (Gray et al, 2016). Purposeful sampling was used to identify 23 producers located within 2 hours of the university (Patton, 2002). A diverse group of producers was selected in relation to farming experience (15- 45 years), geographic locations, farming systems and use (or non-use) of herb pastures (Gray et al., 2016). An important criteria utilized in their selection was that they were open to change (Gray et al., 2016). The 23 selected producers were all male and ranged in age from their late 20’s to early 60’s (Gray et al., 2016). They represented 18 farms because some were represented by two family members (Gray et al., 2016). Four producers were managers and the rest were owner operators (Gray et al., 2016). The natural scientists’ role was to run the trial, and provide results that formed the basis for discussion and debate (Gray et al., 2016). The social scientists investigated the workshop process to determine how it influenced producer learning and practice change (Gray et al., 2016). The two science groups jointly planned the learning experiences, but were guided by education and extension theory (Gray et al., 2016).
The producers attended four workshops/year that were primarily focused on the trial, but also involved farm visits and other activities (Gray et al., 2016). The core element of these learning experiences was observation and discussion of trial data (Gray et al., 2016). Associated with this were an extensive variety of experiences designed to promote learning about herb pasture establishment, management and performance (Gray et al., 2016). Social activities were planned to support the development of relationships (Gray et al., 2016).
At the end of each workshop, an audio-recorded focus group discussion was conducted with six randomly selected producers to determine ways in which the activities had supported or detracted from their learning and the learning activities they would like at the next workshop (Gray et al., 2016). This action learning approach was pivotal in providing feedback and useful insights that informed subsequent workshops (Gray et al., 2016). Audio-recorded semi-structured interviews were conducted with the producers at the end of the 3-years to learn what had influenced their learning and practice change (Gray et al., 2016). Participant observation, using field notes, photographs and video, was also used to collect data throughout the workshops (Gray et al., 2016). The audio-recorded material was transcribed and then analyzed using qualitative data analysis approach (Yin 2003). Findings were triangulated with the field data (Gray et al., 2016).
This New Zealand study identified five critical success factors and seven principles of learning that Extension educators need to consider when working with a group of producers to bring about practice change (Gray et al., 2016). Of the five critical success factors, the most important was the development of a learning community. Ensuring producer interest, making connections to their farming systems, ensuring alignment between the learning activities and the science behind the new technology, and supporting evidence-based producer inquiry into their current practices were also important for fostering learning and practice change (Gray et al., 2016). From these five critical success factors, seven principles of learning emerged (Figure 1) that have also been shown to be important in education theory (Aitken & Sinnema 2008).
A critical success factor reported in this research was the development of an inclusive “community of practice” by the team where producers and Extension educators jointly “engaged” in learning activities (Gray et al., 2016). The research team made it clear to producers that they were involved in a learning group and reinforcing this concept during the workshops was reported to be an important factor (Gray et al., 2016). As a result, researchers reported that producers came to the workshops “expecting to learn” (Gray et al., 2016). Essential to the creation of this “open” learning forum was the development of mutually respectful and trusting relationships (Figure 1) (Gray et al., 2016). The producers respected the Extension educators’ wealth of evidence-based knowledge about herb pastures and their understanding of farming systems (Gray et al., 2016). Trust and mutual respect were further fostered by the willingness of the Extension educators to share both positive and negative experimental outcomes and take notice of the producers’ suggestions (Gray et al., 2016). The producers involved in this research reported that they often learned more when the Extension educators shared some aspect about the trial that yielded unsuccessful results (Gray et al., 2016). The research team also reported that trust and mutual respect was built because the Extension educators provided objective information that was unbiased by commercial considerations, a problem producers often identified with information provided by commercial firms (Gray et al., 2016). Trust and mutual respect were also built because the Extension educator actively listened to the producers and valued their knowledge and experience (Gray et al., 2016).
Providing the opportunity for informal dialogue was imperative in fostering a learning community. Producers reported that they preferred to discuss issues in small groups that normally comprised three to six people (Gray et al., 2016). Space was created by the research team for informal dialogue by providing time within the workshop schedule (Gray et al., 2016). This was vital for learning, but it is something not often valued in a science system dominated by milestones and outputs (Gray et al., 2016). The research team used the term “slow science” to describe this way of interacting (Gray et al., 2016). During these interactions, producers tested ideas with other producers and the Extension educators, were exposed to new ideas, and as one producer stated, the workshop became “a place to hatch new ideas” (Gray et al.,2016). The researchers observed that as trust and mutual respect developed, the producers’ confidence increased (Gray et al., 2016). This led to more robust interaction among all participants (Gray et al., 2016). An important element to emerge from this study was the importance of enhancing producers’ confidence to bring about practice change (Gray et al., 2016). Confidence is a producer’s assessment of their capability to initiate a specific action or practice (Wilson et al. 2015).
The researchers reported that another attribute of the community of practice was the importance of the research team “sharing power” with the producers (Figure 1) (Gray et al., 2016). Differentiating from a normal top down approach, power did not exist exclusively with the research team or Extension educators because of their expertise (Gray et al., 2016). The experience and practical expertise of the producers was highly regarded by the research team and often drawn upon in discussions during the workshop (Gray et al., 2016). The research team shared their decision-making processes in relation to the management of the trial with the producers and requested suggested improvements (Gray et al., 2016). They also invited input from the producers regarding ideas for learning experiences at subsequent workshops and topics for future research (Gray et al., 2016). The researchers reported that gradually, this power-sharing culture, in combination with the trust and mutual respect that had emerged, helped both the research team and producers become more open which allowed for a more critical, but constructive dialogue that was essential for on-going inquiry (Gray et al.,2016).
The research team developed learning experiences that created interest in the producers and this was fundamental to their learning (Figure 1). Allowing the producers to observe the trial as well as providing trial data was valuable because producers could view results in the field, which was much more effective than just being presented tabulated data (Gray et al., 2016). Similarly, the research team provided the producers with learning experiences related to key aspects of herb pastures such as: grazing management, establishment, herbicide management, meat quality and stock performance (Gray et al., 2016). These topics were extremely relevant to the producers and created interest among members of the group (Gray et al., 2016).
The learning experiences were deliberately designed by the research team and Extension educators so that the producers could see the relevance of, and make connections to, their own diverse farming systems (Figure 1) (Gray et al., 2016). Data was provided so that producers could compare their stock performance to that of the trial (Gray et al., 2016). The greater part of learning activities at the workshops were designed to align directly to the important principles associated with herb pasture management (Figure 1) (Gray et al., 2016). Reinforcement of these important principles by the research team and Extension educators at 3-monthly intervals through a range of different learning experiences was imperative for the producers’ learning (Gray et al., 2016). Several of the producers reported that it was not until they had seen these principles in action under different seasonal conditions and/or reinforced through different learning activities that they began to understand the complexity of managing herb pastures (Gray et al., 2016).
The research team and Extension educators reported that in the initial workshops, the producers did not feel qualified to challenge the scientists or educators about their research or provide ideas for further investigation (Gray et al., 2016). However, as trust and mutual respect developed, the producers began to participate with the scientists in their inquiry processes (Gray et al., 2016). During the program, they became increasingly confident to question the scientists’ and Extension educators’ decisions, interrogate the data with the scientists, suggest ideas for future research and share their experience based on their knowledge of herb pastures (Gray et al.,2016). The researchers observed that producers knowing they could contribute ideas and that the scientists and Extension educators were receptive to such input further motivated the producers to be involved in the program (Gray et al., 2016). Intrinsically, the inclusive culture the research team had created fostered inquiry processes (Gray et al., 2016). The researchers reported that during the program it became increasingly evident that the producers were involved in reflective thinking, both at the workshop and back on their farms (Gray, et al., 2016). It was reported that an abundant amount of this reflective analysis was related to how to adapt this new knowledge about herb pastures to their own unique farming systems (Gray et al., 2016). Ultimately, the research team reported that this reflective inquiry led to wealth of practice change where the principles of herb pasture management were adapted to each producer’s unique circumstances (Gray et al., 2016).
The researchers in the study accurately pointed out that improving producer learning about herb pastures is of limited value unless it brings about practice change and improved outcomes for producers. The researchers reported that over the 3 years, 39% of the producers increased their area in herb pastures, 61% of the producers changed their management practices and 33% of producers changed how they used their herb pastures (Gray et al., 2016). This research team reported that practice change appeared to be accelerating because when the producers were asked about changes they planned to make over the next 1 – 2 years, 72% of producers expected to increase their area in herb pasture including four producers who had not previously grown herbs (Gray et al.,2016). This research also revealed that 33% of producers planned a change in terms of how they used their herb pastures in relation to sheep production and 28% of the producers planned a change in relation to cattle production (Gray et al., 2016).
The research team also reported that initially producers often considered herb pastures as a substitute for annual summer forage crops (Gray et al., 2016). However, as producers learned more about herb pastures, much more complex changes were introduced to their individual farming systems (Gray et al., 2016).
This research demonstrated the value of bringing together producers, agricultural scientists and Extension educators and incorporating educational theory to better understand how to enhance producer learning and practice change. This research indicates that essential to this was the on-going development of an inclusive professional community of learners (Gray et al., 2016). Fostering producer interest, making connections to their farming systems, ensuring alignment between the learning activities and the science behind the new technology, and supporting producer inquiry into their current practices that is based on evidence was critical for learning and practice change (Gray et al., 2016). The five critical success factors and the seven educational principles provide guidelines for how science should interact with producers to foster effective innovation (Gray et al., 2016).
Aitken, G., Sinnema, C. 2008. Effective pedagogy in social sciences: Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES), Wellington N.Z., Ministry of Education.
Gray, D., Sewell, A., Hartnett, M., Wood, B., Kemp, P., Blair, H., Kenyon, P., & Morris, S. (2016) Improved extension practices for sheep and beef farmers. Hill Country- Grassland Research and Practice Series # 16.
Patton, M.. (2002). Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, 3rd Edition, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.
Yin, R. 2003. Case study research: design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications