Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Recess Is Over


Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist, Southeast, 4-H and Youth Program
Kansas State University
Chanute, Kansas

Benny S. Robbins
Area Extension Director
Cooperative Extension Service
Kansas State University
Chanute, Kansas

The central problem of our time is that the future is not what it used to be. (Anonymous)

Each of us in Extension has several roles to perform: change agent, facilitator, educator, and manager. Our role as educator is becoming the most important, yet it's also the one many of us are the least prepared for. In the immediate past, Extension agents have been rigorously trained to manage, supervise, organize, coordinate, plan, facilitate, and counsel (all important tasks), but not to teach. It's time to strengthen our expertise as professional educators.

Extension evolved out of a need to provide Americans with up-to-date information that could help improve the quality of life. In time, four guiding principles were formulated about Extension: (1) it's an educational organization; (2) it's cooperatively organized with links at the federal, state, and local levels; (3) it's people-oriented; and (4) it's problem-oriented.1 These founding principles are just as valid today as they were in the early years. However, it's time to change our interpretation of the educational function.

Why is such a change necessary? Previously, programs seemed to operate around seven assumptions:

  1. The primary role of Extension was to deliver information.2
  2. The more information the better.
  3. Information was ethically neutral.
  4. Good programs today would ensure our survival tomorrow.
  5. Extension was the predominant source of information, particularly for people in rural areas.
  6. People's desire for information would assure us of an audience.
  7. County Extension agents should receive specialized training in specific subject-matter fields.

Although these assumptions have guided Extension in the past, we must recognize that they can no longer provide prescriptions for the future. Perhaps Roger von Oech, founder of Creative Think, says it best: "Sometimes nothing short of a 'whack on the side of the head' can dislodge the assumptions that keep us thinking 'more of the same.'"3 Changes in society, technology, and people's attitudes have delivered a "whack" that should shake us out of our routine patterns and compel us to rethink our assumptions.

Primary Role to Educate3

Extension was borne of a need to provide innovative, informal adult education programs. Initially, many programs concentrated on providing the most up-to-date information possible to producers, homemakers, and youth. However, with the rise of electronic transfer, the world has seen an unparalleled explosion of information. It's now available from a plethora of groups; in fact, some claim that this overabundance is the problem of our time.

Our challenge, then, is to develop our expertise, not as mere disseminators, but as professional educators to help interpret and synthesize it in practicable ways. The goal of Extension should be in "assisting people to achieve what they desire through information and education."4 [emphasis added]

Informed People Solve Problems

Information alone doesn't solve problems, informed people do. In Megatrends, John Naisbitt observed that more than 6,000 scientific articles are written each day, and that technical information is doubling about every five years.5 With such proliferation, we desperately need professional educators who can adapt to new ways aimed at helping people grow intellectually.

Information alone isn't a solution. Extension educators should focus on changing attitudes as a means of changing behavior. People want to know how to put it to work for them. As Extension staff, we should naturally and easily fill this role.

Information-Suspect and Biased

So much information is available from so many sources that, to many people, it appears to contradict itself. Each day, for example, we're deluged with more studies that tell us what does and doesn't cause cancer. People are skeptical to the point of resigning themselves to the fact that (as one current musician put it) "everything gives you cancer."6 In such a climate, even scientific information becomes suspect.

Numerous groups throughout our society are providing information based on their own values, beliefs, or orientation. Today and in the future, information isn't viewed by anyone as ethically neutral (if indeed it ever was).

Need to Benefit

People want to be assured that they'll personally benefit from their participation in Extension programs.

Potential clientele aren't attracted to programs that promise only more of the same. Our programs must be action-oriented and provide practical, adaptable techniques. As Naisbitt observed, people are swamped with information, but starved for knowledge.7 In our society, people want to know how to apply information to help them solve specific problems. Extension programs must provide this link.

Survival Requires Anticipating Future

Good programs today don't necessarily ensure Extension will have a future. People demand that we be on the cutting edge - otherwise (like Damocles of ancient times), we're likely to find ourselves seated under it. We can't rely on learning from the lessons of the past to guide us in the present or the future:

    In our agricultural period, the time orientation was to the past. Farmers learned from the past how to plant, how to harvest, how to store....We must learn from the present in precisely the ways we have learned from the past....We must now learn from the present how to anticipate the future.8

And the most reliable way "to anticipate the future is by understanding the present."9 Another authority, W. Robert Lovan, wrote in a seminar paper:

    The challenge is to get your thoughts to follow a "futures" process: that is, getting away from being captured by either past or present events in thinking about the forces Extension will be called upon to deal with.10

Broader Agent Training

County Extension agents will require training in several broad subject areas to help a more diverse clientele. Roger von Oech points out that in "a strategy for managing information, specialization is essential."11 However, as we've argued here, Extension, in the future, will rely more heavily not on information handlers, but on educators. Even Naisbitt observed in Megatrends that "we are moving from the specialist who is soon obsolete to the generalist who can adapt."12

County staff, to meet changing circumstances, will need to be conversant and knowledgeable in several subject-matter fields. As budget cuts reduce the time and travel of specialists, county agents must once again assume a central and prominent role in the Extension-university linkage. At the county agent level, the generalist will be more valuable than the person who has expertise in only a narrow field. For instance, here in Kansas, pre-service requirements for 4-H agents have recently been changed to de-emphasize a narrow agricultural or home economics background and instead emphasize coursework in many social sciences and human relations fields. Subtly, county staff are being encouraged to broaden their knowledge base.

Three Land-Grant Functions

Research, teaching, and Extension will be required of all Extension personnel as a way of bringing together the three functions of the land-grant system at the county level.

As we've observed, county staff will be required to develop expertise as professional educators with a broad knowledge base. This change will be so unsatisfactory and so alien that some will quit in frustration. For others, though, the future will enable county staff to meld the three functions of the land-grant system. In establishing themselves as local experts in agriculture, home economics, youth, or community and economic development, county staff may also be actively involved in conducting and reporting their own research on local problems.

What does this mean for us? First, we need to enhance our abilities as professional educators. By realizing that good teachers aren't born, but develop by their own efforts, we'll need to learn how to establish educational objectives, gather and interpret data, design appropriate learning situations, use a variety of teaching methods, develop lesson plans, and employ evaluation techniques.

A role as educator requires knowledge of group teaching techniques and processes, yet few of us in Extension have this foundation. We expect many states may need to develop and/or provide training to their staffs on adult education teaching processes, techniques, and methods. This has been done in the past and should be done now.

Second, we must enhance our status as professional experts at the local level. County staff need to get involved with organizations and groups with interests and goals similar to those of Extension, network with other agencies, seek out new contacts, and continue to educate themselves in new areas. Seeking positions on volunteer committees will help others recognize our interest in community issues. By striving to expand our contacts, we can reach new audiences as well as learn from them.

Third, each of us must be more visible as professional educators. We're part of the faculty of a land-grant university system, and our educational role stems naturally from this relationship. In many instances, however, our educational role has been the weakest. All too often, county agents have relied on specialists to conduct many local programs. In the future, county agents must move to the front of the class.


In many states, downsizing has meant that specialist positions, travel, and time have been curtailed. Additionally, our traditional volunteers and producers have also begun to reduce their level of participation in Extension activities, especially as resource people. This new environment will force county staff to be the prime educators, taking over where specialists leave off. County agents need to re-assert their prominence at the local level as experts in their respective fields and as professional educators by conducting programs for clientele groups. This is critical for the future.

Some have argued that "the only person who likes change is a wet baby,"13 but our history has been one of change and innovation. We can maintain that historical tradition by recognizing that Extension is still America's only national system of informal adult education with more than 70 years of success as an agency of change. This role is vital to the future of our country, but we must heed the changes that will affect our mission in the decades ahead. Predicting the future is risky, but anticipating it can help Extension become a part of it.


1. Handbook for County Extension Councils, C-350R (Manhattan: Kansas State University, Cooperative Extension Service, October 1975), pp. 4-5.

2. Certainly, the authors don't mean to imply that Extension hasn't been an educational organization in the past. Our point is that we've interpreted that educational role primarily as information transfer. For instance, Section 1 of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 states that the purpose of the Cooperative Extension Service was to "aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information.... "

3. Roger von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How To Unlock Your Mind for Innovation (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1983), p. 12.

4. Russell C. Youmans, "Sustaining American Farm-Ranch Family Incomes: The Land-Grant Institutions Can Help," Paper #27 (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University, Western Rural Development Center, September 1985), p. 7.

5. John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York, New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1984), p. 16.

6. Joe Jackson, "Everything Gives You Cancer," on Night and Day (Hollywood, California: A & M Records, Inc., 1982).

7. Naisbitt, Megatrends, p. 17.

8. Ibid., p. 9.

9. Ibid., p. xxiii.

10. W. Robert Lovan, "Problems and Opportunities for Extension Today and in the Future" (Presentation to the faculty of the New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service, University of New Hampshire, Durham, January 29, 1986), p. 1.

11. von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head, p. 105.

12. Naisbitt, Megatrends, p. 32.

13. von Oech, A Whack on the Side of the Head, p. 71.