Spring 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 1 // Futures // 1FUT1

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Tomorrow's Extension Educator- Learner, Communicator, Systemicist

If the keys to future organizational survival are responsiveness and flexibility, then adaptable, perceptive people-people who understand and can lead change-are necessary. Rather than relying on a specific, technical, subject-matter base, the Extension educator of the future will be prepared to manage change with a combination of knowledge, attitudes, and skills...

Thomas F. Patterson, Jr.
Extension Associate Professor & Chair, VOTEC Department
University of Vermont-Burlington

Imagine two musical groups. One is a formal symphony orchestra, led and conducted by a maestro, where each musician plays an instrument according to pre-determined musical notes of a master score. Everything is precisely ordered and controlled according to a centralized musical plan. The orchestra rehearses so the music will sound the same each time it's played. Consistency and faithfulness to the score are the mark of musical excellence. Only obedient team players succeed.

The second group is a jazz ensemble. There's no leader or conductor, the musicians have no music in front of them, and often they play several different instruments during the course of a performance. Rather than relying on a master score, the players decide what to play and then respond to each other and to the audience in crafting and expressing their music. The music unfolds and develops differently each time the group performs. Each musician exchanges solo leads, guided by almost imperceptible clues passed from one to another and between the group and the audience. Flexibility, communication, and perceptiveness are key skills.

This analogy has been used by futurists to describe the difference between archaic organizations based on bureaucratic routine and repetition versus organizations of the future designed to lead and manage change. To organize and staff these organizations dedicated to change, employers need:

...men and women who accept responsibility, who understand how their work dovetails with that of others, who can handle ever larger tasks, who adapt swiftly to changed circumstances, and who are sensitively tuned in to the people around them.1

This quote is particularly relevant to Extension, not only because it's an organization greatly affected by change, but its very mission is to change others. If Extension is to survive in an atmosphere of flux, what kind of people should be Extension educators?

Future Extension Educators

If the keys to future organizational survival are responsiveness and flexibility, then adaptable, perceptive people -people who understand and can lead change-are necessary. Rather than relying on a specific, technical, subject-matter base, the Extension educator of the future will be prepared to manage change with a combination of knowledge, attitudes, and skills that come together under three themes:

  1. An autonomous learner.
  2. An effective communicator.
  3. A systemicist.

An autonomous learner is someone who can manage information to solve problems and use new experiences to make decisions. An effective communicator is someone who understands people and can get a message across that helps them learn. A systemicist is someone who uses systems ideas and methods to bring improvements to problem situations. As shown in Figure 1, these three qualities are interdependent and work together.

Figure 1. Three interdependent qualities.

Autonomous Learner

A thorough grounding in learning theory and an understanding of the learning process will be essential for the Extension educator to quickly respond to a wide variety of organizational and clientele needs. Extension educators will have innermost knowledge of their own development and styles of learning, understanding the ways they best learn to facilitate the learning of others.

They'll be sought out and identified not by specific subject -matter expertise, but by their autonomous learning capabilities. They'll have diagnostic skills to ascertain learning needs and be masters of information retrieval, accessing an incredible array of databases and information storage systems. A world of information will be at their fingertips.

Autonomous learning means more than information retrieval, however. Extension educators will need to be able to synthesize and make sense out of large amounts of information. They'll be "critical thinkers" who can think creatively and critique their own ideas, as well as the views of others.2

Rather than serving as an expert, dispensing facts and knowledge, tomorrow's Extension educators will work with their constituents in developing a co-learning relationship. In this affiliation, both partners learn from each other, drawing on their collective experiences and expertise with synergistic results.

Today's Extension educator is doing issues programming, forecasting trends, and developing programs that will often be implemented several years later. The rapid pace of change and the volatility of future events will make this way of programming obsolete. Instead of following an elaborate systematic plan, individuals engaged in a co-learning relationship will often "learn their way through" a problem situation. Extension educators will facilitate this co-learning process to make decisions, confront issues, and help others solve problems.

Effective Communicator

Effective communication will remain a key quality for future Extension educators. Effective communicators are distinguished by their ability to understand and use all kinds of personal and mass communication techniques to facilitate the learning of others.

They'll be equally comfortable leading as well as responding, getting their messages across by, first, perceptively observing and listening to the environment. An appropriate response is then developed and delivered through a suitable medium. This response won't be a canned program or approach, but a carefully tailored message designed to help the receiver learn.

Effective communicators stay abreast of communications developments and adopt technologies and methodologies that will help them improve in their role as Extension educators.


A systemicist is a person who understands and uses systems methods and ideas to enable him/her to deal with complicated unstructured situations. Using a soft systems methodology (SSM) developed by Checkland,3 Extension educators will be able to take a holistic approach in addressing problem situations.

Employing this technique, an Extension educator works with groups of clientele affected by a problem situation. These groups are guided through the SSM process so they can analyze the situation conceptually. This conceptualization helps group members develop new ways of thinking about their problem. These new ideas are then compared to the actual situation, debated for feasibility and desirability, and then implemented.

Not to be confused with being systematic, the use of systems thinking is the antithesis of typical reductionistic methodologies. Instead of reducing a complex situation into its simplest parts, a systemicist deals with the complexibility as a whole. He/she uses systems thinking to develop conceptual models that can offer insights that, in turn, can lead to improvements in the original problem situation.

Systemicists also do action research projects, working collaboratively with clientele to improve situations and increase knowledge, while meeting professional demands to conduct research and publish results.4


A comparison of contemporary Extension education to this futuristic scenario reveals implications for hiring practices, pre- and inservice training, and organization development.

In hiring new Extension educators, the emphasis on prior subject-matter training will give way to applicant demonstration of the three competences listed above. Pre-service curricula and programs at the undergraduate and graduate level will be revamped. The prevailing emphasis on teaching and memorization will be replaced by a focus on autonomous learning with students developing and demonstrating competencies instead of passing written examinations. Inservice training for Extension educators will include retraining in the new competencies as well as continual updating in new learning methodologies, communication techniques, and systems thinking.

The transition won't be an easy one. Turning classical musicians into jazz players will force them to either grow and change or leave the system. New decentralized organizational structures will be required to support Extension educators in their roles as learners, communicators, and systemicists. But, these changes are inevitable-required, in fact-if Extension is to embrace the responsiveness and flexibility needed to survive in the future.


1. Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (London: Pan Books, 1981), p. 395.

2. Stephen Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

3. Peter B. Checkland, Systems Thinking: Systems Practice (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981).

4. Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart, The Action Research Planner (Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press, 1988).