Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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A Profile of Excellence


Lorilee R. Sandmann
Program Leader, Home Economics and Associate Professor
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

Patricia M. Copa
Assistant Professor
Department of Continuing and Vocational Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Excellence...the cry of the 80s! But how is excellence found in the performance of Extension agents? For example, what's unique about how outstanding county level faculty do their jobs? Do these people approach their work in special ways that are likely to make what they do particularly effective? And, is it possible to use what we learn about the practice of excellent professionals to select new staff more wisely and to provide better support and instruction to those already in the system? These were some of the questions that guided a recent study of competent Extension professionals in Wisconsin.

Study Description

Five county home economists, who had been identified by district and state leaders as being exemplary in their practice, were each followed for three days, while observations were made and formal and informal interviews held. All involved were observed in teaching, program planning, staff interaction, and intra-agency activities. The five were chosen from a larger group suggested by the state leader to ensure that a variety of roles, full- and part-time positions, geographical areas, and years of service were represented.

Although not large, the number permitted some diversity, while allowing in-depth study by two fieldworkers. The selection process was based on the belief that excellent performance in a particular field isn't necessarily an absolute quality, but rather is defined by the field's members - and particularly by its leaders.

The study was planned as descriptive in design and aimed at providing a better understanding of the practice of good professionals in real settings. No attempt was made to generalize the findings to all Extension staff everywhere.

Specialized qualitative analysis procedures were used to examine and analyze the gathered information - that is, transcripts of interviews and observations were studied for repeating themes. These important ideas and their relationships were examined for patterns based on how and where words and actions were used in several different contexts. Having observations as well as interviews made it possible to test what people said against what they actually did. Gradually, a model was constructed representing the dynamic processes that made up the thoughtful practice of these special professionals (Figure 1).

Nature of Exemplary Practice

Perhaps the most noticeable quality of the home economists' approach was its thoughtfulness and deliberateness. The agents continually and reflectively used and refined the following operations interactively as they thought about and acted on the particular dilemmas encountered in their work.

Acute Sense of Context

The home economists studied demonstrated special sensitivity to the social, political, historical, and cultural conditions of the settings in which they worked. They balanced a "big picture" of their county against the particular qualities and needs of special circumstances and individuals with whom they interacted (including themselves as participants in the process).

Thoughtful Loyalty to Goals

These educators knew where they were going and weighed alternatives against what they held as important ends. Sometimes they considered various objectives for particular situations; however, certain overall goals seemed to guide their decisions generally. Goals apparently provided consistency to conditions specific to the situation.

Consideration of Alternative Means

The group's choice of means was impressive and no doubt due to the initiative each person took to explore nontraditional resources, different colleagues, and alternative technologies. The wide array of means made it possible for the agents to select among many options and to consider trade-offs when particular conditions and goals made them desirable.

Reflective Judgments Based on Balance

Deliberate decisions were made about the best course of action to take in particular situations. These judgments involved determining an optimal balance between alternatives that created a sense of contradiction or tension.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Relationships among elements of competent practice.

Essence of Excellence

Often in the past, we've tried to tap the nature of successful professional practice by breaking down a position's responsibilities. Then, we proceed to pinpoint and describe the knowledge and skills needed to perform the particular tasks involved.

This study examined the different activities in which the agents were involved, in addition to what they needed to do them successfully. For instance, we noted that each of the home economists did planning, teaching, question-answering, leading group meetings, writing reports and evaluations, and making TV and radio presentations. However, it wasn't what the agents did, but how they did it that made their activity praiseworthy.

The five professionals we studied used the thoughtful process of reflection-in-action as described by Schon in his book, The Reflective Practitioner.1 True to this approach, they carried on a serious conversation with their unique settings and circumstances.

They observed carefully and with skill. They developed ideas, hypotheses, and tentative plans. They tested these experimental ideas and approaches and watched. They carefully scrutinized the goals set and evaluated them in light of their observations - although some goals were held sacred and weren't open to compromise.

They made judgments and acted on them, again paying careful attention as they planned for the future. All these activities were done as a whole and involved a dynamic, deliberate, interactive process executed with conscious, responsive, and reflective thought.

In brief, the agents dealt thoughtfully with both the uniqueness and the generalities of the complex, changing human worlds in which they operated - but they didn't stop there. They made judgments and then acted on them decisively. Neither reflection nor action is of any value to Extension educators without the other, and these individuals were able to combine thought and action into an effective whole that successfully considered unique people and their settings. They found an optimal interplay between the careful thinking and the reasoned action needed to perform their jobs well. This interplay may well be the most essential part of excellence in Extension performance.

Important Questions for Extension

The challenging situations these outstanding home economists encountered are typical of those faced by all Extension faculty. Better understanding of the ways competent professionals make judgments and act in these circumstances can help us implement improved systems and approaches for developing and supporting excellence. We must ask ourselves:

  • Are there better ways to recognize and encourage reflective practice in administrative, interpersonal, and programmatic areas?
  • Do certain policies and procedures (reporting, planning, evaluation) discourage or sanction the initiative, resourcefulness, and risk-taking that appear to characterize outstanding practitioners?
  • What can we do to promote more effective approaches to thoughtful practice in beginning and/or less skilled county Extension staff?


Answers to these questions have implications for all aspects of the Extension system. A few are suggested here to illustrate what a better understanding of exemplary practice might mean for policies and practices.

Selection and Hiring

The way programming efforts are undertaken appears to be more important than the doing of particular activities themselves. Thus, it seems necessary to ask applicants to describe the process by which they made programming and other judgments in the past. How do they describe the role that unique contexts, goals, and alternative means played in particular decisions? And, in describing future job responsibilities to potential employees, do we emphasize the ways people are expected to approach their work rather than only the tasks they are required to perform?

Pre- and In-Service Assistance and Instruction

We know that the dilemmas faced by field staff involve unique combinations of needs, assumptions, values, resources, and histories. The traditional linear model that applies general theory and facts to specific situations is inconsistent with the way good professionals operate in situations such as this.

Might not the reasoning-focused, case study approach to training used in fields such as medicine and law be more valuable in fostering the skills needed in good Extension work? Ways of developing and using knowledge in real or simulated situations might well be the focus of training.

Supervision and Support

Perhaps the most significant challenge is directed toward administrators and supervisors. The study indicates that it's inappropriate for these people to present themselves as experts and reservoirs of ready-made answers. Instead, it's probably more supportive of good practice if they see themselves as askers of better questions. Mentors, colleagues, and fellow explorers (rather than authorities, bosses, or superiors) might be more appropriate relationships for promoting and supporting exemplary county staff.


Perhaps the time has come to look again at roles, structures, policies, and procedures that we've come to take for granted. Excellence in the practice of county Extension staff could well occur in spite of the systems we've set up, rather than because of them.


1. Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983).