Winter 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3

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Agent Specialization and the 4-H PRK Model


Gregory K. Hutchins
Program Leader, 4-H Youth Development
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

Issues programming and other new directions for Extension pose challenges in defining the role of the county agent. In addition, county agents are increasingly being asked to work collaboratively across county lines and across program areas.

Minnesota's Approach

In 1987, the Minnesota Extension Service (MES) introduced the agent specialization concept as a means of providing more expertise closer to the point of program delivery. While the Extension agent was still to be a resident community educator working with a broad range of county problems, he/she would also be expected to become specialized in a knowledge area. The agent's specialized knowledge could then be shared throughout the multicounty unit known as a cluster. The specializations would become a framework for agents' professional development and a criterion for selection of new staff.

Each specialization was identified and supported by one of the various Extension program areas on the St. Paul campus. In agriculture and home economics, a tendency existed to describe specializations related to the academic disciplines typically found in those areas. Lacking the same type of academic departmental base found in the other programs areas, 4-H had to find another way to frame its specializations.

It was during this time that the 4-H Professional Research and Knowledge (PRK) taxonomy was published.1 It became the framework from which the 4-H specializations were built. Minnesota focused on three PRK categories: youth development, educational design, and volunteerism. These three best describe Extension's special strengths in nonformal youth education.

Youth development would focus on understanding the complex processes through which youth grow and develop, with special emphasis on adolescence. These agents would explore strategies for enhancing healthy growth and examine specific obstacles to development. Educational design agents would become methodology experts. They'd focus on instructional strategies, learning theory, and program design, with special emphasis on experiential learning methods and models. Volunteerism agents would become specialized in the theory and practice of volunteer development and management. They'd develop an indepth understanding of the motivation of volunteers, both youth and adult, and become knowledgeable about the various contemporary issues associated with volunteer management and volunteerism policy.

Why Are They Different?

These three specializations aren't parallel to most of the other MES agent specialties. Most of these other specializations, such as "crops systems" or "food, nutrition, and health," represent content that can be taught directly to client groups. These other specialties also tend to be associated with Extension educational efforts that have as their aim: (1) technology transfer - the adoption of a specific practice, (2) problem solving - the application of knowledge to a specific and immediate problem, or (3) education - helping clients understand how to make informed decisions and compare practices over time.2

The educational aim of the specializations of youth development, educational design, and volunteerism is usually different from those listed above. They typically focus on the fourth type of Extension education - development.3 Working together, they strive towards the long-term development of young people. Agents specialized in these three areas don't teach the content of their specialties to young people. Instead they use these skills and knowledge to help create educational experiences ultimately aimed at the healthy growth and development of individual young people.

Issues and Specializations

Issues and specializations aren't synonymous. Issues are problems that may come and go in their importance. The specializations are the tools and content areas that agents can use to address a variety of issues. We expect the three 4-H specializations to maintain their relevancy over time, as they'll allow the specialized agent to rapidly transfer expertise from one issue to another as priorities change. They should provide flexibility.

Inservice Training

Since the assignment of specializations, much of the 4-H inservice training in MES has focused on the specialty categories. The initial challenge has been building the competencies of specialized agents so they feel they really have a special area of expertise to offer. The specialization system expects agents to function as teams, pooling their specialized knowledge to address specific programmatic needs. Until the individual agent has acquired a level of competence that exceeds that of colleagues in other specializations, it's difficult for the individual team members to see how each can make a unique contribution.

Agents can only attend training in their own area of specialization. We don't expect everyone to know everything. This has been somewhat disconcerting for agents who'd prefer to take part in all training, or who'd like to stay up on everything.

The specialization inservices have provided an opportunity to use the PRK/Specialized Agent framework to expand the agent's perspective as a professional. We're trying to help them see beyond the "practice," and to develop some understanding of the theories and issues around the broad areas of youth development, educational design, and volunteerism.

Role of Specialized Agent

Specialized agents may use their expertise in different ways. Here are some examples:

  1. Staff Resource. Become a resource person to other Extension staff in the cluster (multicounty unit), including providing training and support to colleagues in all program areas. Build linkages to relevant campus-based faculty and other agents in the specialized area across the state.

  2. Clientele Resource. Take leadership for creating specialized learning experiences for clients.

  3. Community Structures. Concentrate on linking with specialized community networks in the cluster. Represent Extension with these groups.

  4. Demonstration Model. Build a model program that demonstrates current wisdom and knowledge in a specialized area.

Continuing Challenges

After two years of experience with this concept of agent specialization, we've identified some unresolved dilemmas:

  1. Support and Stimulation. We continue to look for ways to provide ongoing, year-around intellectual support for the three specialties in an efficient and usable format.

  2. Volunteerism Academic Expertise. We've had difficulty identifying resident university resources in volunteerism, thus we haven't yet been able to adequately tap into the research in this area.

  3. Professional Affiliations. We haven't yet identified satisfactory professional affiliations for the three specialized categories.

  4. Team vs. Individual. The team approach inherent in the specialized agent model needs continual reinforcement.

  5. New Staff. How to bring new staff up to some minimum level of specialization while continuing to develop new competencies in all specialized agents remains an unsolved problem.

Agent specialization offers one model for addressing the complexities of issues programming and the challenge of staying relevant in today's information-rich society. The Minnesota model also suggests some principles that help to integrate the uniqueness of today's 4-H youth development effort with this new organizational system.


1. Extension Service-USDA, 4-H Professional Research and Knowledge Base (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1988).

2. Michael Q. Patton, "Extension's Future. Beyond Technology Transfer," Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization. IX (No. 4, 1988), 476-90.

3. Ibid.