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March 22, 2012

Are we disoriented about Extension's assets?

Module 7 of the Building Extension's Public Value workshop leads participants to answer the question "Why Extension?"--that is, why should Cooperative Extension, and not some other public or private entity, develop and deliver outreach education programs? We answer the question by listing the people and organizations that are perceived to deliver programs that are similar to what Extension does, and naming Extension's strengths relative to those alternative providers. The result is a type of asset inventory: a list of the qualities that make Extension a preferred source for programming or the assets that we bring to the table when we engage in partnerships. The inventory usually includes Extension's trained educators, research-based curricula, local knowledge, statewide and national networks, and connection to the land-grant university.

disorient.JPGIt can be affirming for Extension professionals to assemble this asset inventory and see the organization's strengths. However, the exercise also gives us an opportunity for transformative learning through a disorienting dilemma, an idea from Jack Mezirow that I learned from Nancy Franz and wrote about in these blog entries.

The fact is, we can only use our list of Extension's strengths to make our case for Extension funding if the items on the list are true. In the "Why Extension?" exercise, I challenge participants to think about whether their organization really does ensure that educators are using the best teaching methods, curricula are based on current research and local knowledge, and connections to the university and to key networks are maintained. Inevitably, I hear participants share that for their organization, there is frankly room for improvement in at least some of these areas.

I think this challenge can create a disorienting dilemma for some participants: they have been asked to switch from admiring their organization's strengths to recognizing some of its weaknesses. I suggest that the way out of the dilemma is to see the asset inventory as a list of possible investments that Extension administrators can make to shore up Extension's strengths. Investing in our strengths can help us make Extension's best case.

I thought about this opportunity for disorientation and transformative learning on Tuesday of this week when I lead the "Why Extension?" exercise for Virginia Cooperative Extension professionals. Were you at the VCE workshop? What did you think of the exercise? Have you taught this module? What approaches work for you?

November 20, 2009

Disorienting dilemma and public value

I am continuing to look for ways that the theory of transformative learning--including the disorienting dilemma and perspective change that Mezirow (1) included as elements--applies to the "Building Extension's Public Value " workshop. One of the ways we try to encourage a perspective change for workshop participants is by setting up the free market ideal...and then knocking it down, or at least identifying its limitations. Hopefully we create a disorienting dilemma for someone who has bought into that free market ideal.

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For someone who is confident that there is a private-enterprise-driven, government-hands-off solution to every condition that challenges a community, it's hard to see a role for publicly-funded outreach programs. But, once that person understands that free markets and private businesses alone can fail to lead to ideal outcomes, she can see that there is room for the public sector to act to improve those outcomes. Outreach programs in general, and Extension programs in particular, are one way the public sector can take action. (Recall that the "Public Value of Public Programs" workshop makes the same kind of case for outreach education that is sponsored by local governments and non-profits.)

I presented this argument, and the above slide, last week when I guest lectured in the "Transforming Public Policy" (PA 8001) course in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, here at the University of Minnesota. A student challenged me by saying that she didn't see the point of my illustrating the limitations of the free market argument because she didn't believe it in the first place. She started from the perspective that the public sector has a role in addressing market failure, and so didn't need to make the transformation I was advancing.

Surely, this is often the case: that the audience for the BEPV workshop (Extension professionals) is made up of people who fully grasp the limitations of the market ideal. That's why they work for Extension in the first place! But, the above illustration is really intended to help BEPV participants to view the world from the perspective of a stakeholder who is skeptical about public sector involvement in the economy: someone who highly values the role of private enterprise. Hopefully, BEPV participants will then be better positioned to make their case for Extension to that skeptical stakeholder, perhaps by setting up the disorienting dilemma and inducing a perspective change in them.

(1) Mezirow, J. (Ed.). (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

November 19, 2009

New perspectives and public value

One of the tenets of Jack Mezirow's theory of transformative learning (1) is a change in perspective triggered by a disorienting dilemma--an event or observation that causes the learner to question her prior assumptions. Being introduced to someone else's perspective can be part of that dilemma. Consider, for example, a rancher and a wildlife conservationist working together in a community group to develop a consensus plan for managing a local population of wolves. Challenged to critically reflect on their own assumptions and to understand others' perspectives, their own perspectives may "transform."

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I can imagine that in some cases an Extension program succeeds in encouraging a participant to make a different choice than she otherwise would have by helping her see the perspective of the community-member her actions affect. Letting a homeowner see how her poorly managed septic system turns her neighbors' drinking water toxic could be enough to induce her make a fix. Simply learning the impact of her actions on others--whether beneficial or costly--could be enough for her to make different choices.

In other cases, the perspective change might be a change in the way the participant sees how her actions affect herself, her family, or her business. She may make an alternative choice, not because she is concerned about her impact on the community (her public benefits or costs), but because she wants to improve her own or her family's well-being. As long as these changes also benefit the greater community, she is--however unintentionally--creating public value.

As a final thought on perspective change, I note that Extension educators who participate in a "Building Extension's Public Value" workshop are asked to assume the perspective of a stakeholder--someone whose support for the Extension program is valued, but who is not a program participant. For example, a stakeholder for an out-of-school-time program might be a school board member, who does not have children of his own in the program. BEPV workshop participants are asked to imagine what matters the most to the stakeholder: to put themselves in his shoes. For the school board member, a primary concern might be Kindergarten readiness or student performance on standardized tests. The public value message directed to that stakeholder, then, takes into consideration his perspective and addresses concerns. In so doing, the public value message should be successful in securing his support for the program. It's a case of transformative learning (through perspective change) on the part of the Extension professionals, themselves.

(1) Mezirow, J. (Ed.). (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

November 17, 2009

Are Extension Educators Transformers?

The public value approach to securing support for Extension holds that public value arises when program participants adopt behaviors--make choices--that benefit others. The key to maximizing public value is to design educational outreach programs that increase the incidence of beneficial behaviors. But, how to do this? How can--and do--Extension programs help participants make choices that are different from what their prior experiences and perceptions would lead them to choose?

Nancy Franz, in a 2007 Journal of Extension article, "Adult Education Theories: Informing Cooperative Extension's Transformation," suggests that one route to behavior change is through Jack Mezirow's theory of "Transformational Learning"(1). Franz writes:

"Adult education theories of transformative learning and critical reflection are especially pertinent to inform successful transformation because they focus on developing more participatory learning. These theories suggest that Extension should create opportunities for learners to experience disorienting dilemmas, critically reflect on their assumptions, and facilitate how to learn not just what to learn." [Emphasis added.]

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When Extension educators create the right environments for transformative learning to occur, transformation is more likely to happen, and with it, changes in choices and behaviors. In short, Extension educators can increase their impact--and their programs' public value--by acting as "transformers." As an example, in a more recent JOE article, "Catalyzing Transformation: Conditions in Extension Educational Environments that Promote Change," Franz and team of co-authors assess whether the conditions for transformative learning are present in two cases: Cornell Cooperative Extension agent/specialist work teams and Virginia 4-H camps.

In the first JOE article, Franz repeats Mezirow's ten steps that a "transformative learner" might take (1):

1. Experience a disorienting dilemma
2. Undergo self-examination
3. Conduct a deep assessment of personal role assumptions and alienation created by new roles
4. Share and analyze personal discontent and similar experiences with others
5. Explore options for new ways of acting
6. Build competence and self-confidence in new roles
7. Plan a course of action
8. Acquire knowledge and skills for action
9. Try new roles and assess feedback
10. Reintegrate into society with a new perspective

While none of these steps explicitly says, "Do things differently than they would have done before," it is easy to imagine that exploring options for new ways of acting, planning a course of action, and acquiring knowledge and skills for action could lead to behavior change. Is setting the scene for transformative learning enough, however? Or is there some additional action Extension must take to increase the likelihood that program participants act on their new perspectives?

(1) Mezirow, J. (Ed.). (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.