Alternative agricultural enterprises hold promise for small and family farmers attempting to remain viable in today’s agricultural economy. Correspondingly, agricultural educators are offering an increasing number of seminars and presentations about alternative farming methods. However, these types of educational efforts often fall short in generating the knowledge and information required to successfully implement an alternative farming enterprise.
In response to this need, an alternative agriculture educational program was initiated in Blount County, Tennessee, for a period of one year. This program consisted of local farmers participating in monthly educational meetings, in which the researcher and the participating farmers engaged in two types of teaching and learning – Type I, or lecture-based presentation, and Type III, collaborative learning. The intent of this study was to identify whether participating farmers felt that the combination of Types I and III teaching and learning was an effective approach to alternative agricultural education. This was accomplished by asking farmers to describe their experiences participating in the combined Types I and III teaching and learning structure of the meetings. Due to the importance of the teacher/facilitator role in any educational program, farmers’ perceptions of facilitation in this learning experience were also investigated.
Individual interviews, field notes, and reflective journaling were used to obtain descriptions of farmers’ learning experiences and perceptions of the researcher’s role as facilitator/participant. Data were analyzed using domain analysis and coding methods. The results were expressed as categories of data that described farmers’ perceptions of facilitation in the meetings and their assessment of the two types of teaching and learning.
Farmers participating in this study responded positively to the combination of the two types of teaching and learning, as well as to the facilitative efforts of the researcher. Results suggest that Type III may be used in addition to conventional educational strategies to enable farmers to construct knowledge about alternative farming enterprises, and to involve farmers in dialogue about specific issues pertinent to their individual farming operations. Findings also led to recommendations for research and practice in the area of alternative agricultural education.
In the United States, agricultural and rural economies are based upon the contributions of small farmers (National Commission on Small Farms, 1998). Unfortunately, the current agricultural trends in America do not reflect this importance. While modern technology and governmental farm policies have enabled vast improvements in agricultural production, the number of full-time small farmers continues to shrink every year (National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1999). Farmers attempting to make a living in agriculture are faced with low commodity prices, expensive equipment, high labor and maintenance costs, increasingly strict regulations, scrutiny by the media and the non-farm public, and an overall poor farm economy. To stay competitive, many farmers have been forced either to expand their operations or to become more productive on the land they farm, paving the way for large corporate farms that can reap the benefits of high volume, lower cost production. All the while, farmers have become more dependent on governmental price supports and subsidies, most of which are provided to the largest farmers (Beus and Dunlap, 1990). This cycle works against the vast majority of American farms, which are relatively small, family owned and operated businesses (Papendick, 1987; National Commission on Small Farms, 1998; National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1999).
This phenomenon is well illustrated in Blount County, Tennessee, which over the last several years has transformed from a rural to a suburban area. Virtually all the farms in Blount County are classified as small operations (Economic Research Service, 1999). Due to its pleasant climate, close proximity to a major metropolitan area, and access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blount County has seen dramatic population growth, as well as a decline of farmland and farmers. For local small farmers wishing to remain in agriculture, skyrocketing land values and socioeconomic pressure from the population boom have compounded the already difficult task of making their farming operations economically viable (Blount County Planning Commission, 2001).
A potential solution – Alternative agriculture
Over the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in alternatives to traditional farming practices to help ensure the viability of small farms into the future (Ulbricht 1980; Papendick, 1987). In 1997, the National Commission on Small Farms was formed to study the rapid decline of small and family farms and its subsequent impact on U.S. agriculture and the world’s food supply. The report of the Commission’s findings, A Time to Act (1998), highlighted the necessity of further research and development of alternatives to conventional farming practices. These alternatives, such as non-traditional crops and livestock, organic practices, retail marketing, agri-tourism, value-added products, on-farm business enterprises, and other farming methods, have the potential to supplement or replace traditional farming systems. Through commodity diversification and increased profit potential, adopting alternative agriculture increases the likelihood that the small farm will remain viable for future generations, thus becoming a crucial factor in maintaining a farming lifestyle (Ulbricht 1980; Papendick et al., 1986; Kroma and Flora, 2001). For example, the suburban population explosion that has led to the demise of many small farms in Blount County may also provide opportunities for small farmers to tap into alternative enterprises, such as direct marketing of specialty crops or agri-tourism.
The motivating factor for many farmers investigating alternative agriculture is the search for knowledge and ideas that promise enhancement of financial and ecological sustainability and quality of farm life (Kroma and Flora, 2001). However, there are many potential pitfalls and uncertainties that accompany alternative enterprises. For farmers investigating a transition to alternative agriculture, intensive research and planning are necessary to transform an alternative agricultural idea into a practice (Sauer and Sullivan, 2000).
Traditionally, agricultural professionals are the predominant source of alternative agricultural information for farmers (Kroma and Flora, 2001). For example, in Tennessee, agricultural professionals are stepping up efforts to provide information about alternative agriculture to farmers by offering field days, farm visits, and presentations addressing alternative agriculture topics. These events, which are typical of most agricultural education activities, are designed to inform farmers about alternative agricultural practices through lecture based delivery methods. Peters and Armstrong (1998) refer to this type of educational effort as Type I teaching and learning.
Type I teaching and learning is analogous to a typical classroom environment, where the instructor or presenter is seen as the sole source of knowledge and members of the audience are passive recipients of information. In a Type I learning experience, learners have little or no input in the selection of material or on the manner in which it is distributed. Knowledge gleaned by learners in Type I has usually been pre-determined by the instructor, and lecture is the primary mode of information dissemination (Peters and Armstrong, 1998).
While Type I presentations are helpful in increasing awareness of alternative agriculture practices, the drawback to this type of teaching and learning is that it rarely allows for discussion of specific issues faced by individual farmers. There is also little opportunity for farmers to share their personal thoughts or experiences with each other – input that may help create additional understanding about the topic under discussion or reveal new knowledge about alternative agriculture.
The need for participatory strategies in alternative agricultural education
Standing in contrast to Type I strategies are those that enable learners to directly participate in the selection of content and method, as well as to participate in the construction of new knowledge. Some participatory strategies have been used in alternative agricultural education. The closest example of this is the so-called grassroots group approach. Grassroots groups enable farmers to share knowledge and experience, as well as fellowship, in a non-competitive arena where all participants have a chance to voice their views. For example, the mission statement of one such group, the Grassroots Grazing Group in Northwest Arkansas, is “to facilitate the free flow of ideas and to learn from each other by observing, sharing and discussing information concerning forages” (Wells, 2000). Participation in these groups helps farmers vocalize their needs regarding alternative agriculture and further their awareness and knowledge concerning alternative farming systems. For example, in their assessment of farmers learning in grassroots groups, Kroma and Flora (2001) reported that the sharing of experiences helped farmers realize that they could be teachers as well as learners, which empowered them to make decisions about alternative agriculture and to adopt new agricultural practices.
Importantly, Kroma and Flora (2001) discovered that farmers not only value their peers’ knowledge and techniques, but “perceive their social networks as important arenas for sharing and exchanging that knowledge” (p. 78). Furthermore, these researchers reported that farmers who have investigated alternative agriculture found traditional educational activities less helpful than these social networks. This suggests that the act of sharing experiences among farmers creates a learning activity more conducive to the investigation of alternative agriculture.
As articulated by Andrew (1988), in order to obtain the information necessary to initiate an alternative agricultural enterprise, the farmer must not only be a recipient of information, but an active participant in knowledge creation. The predominant method of agricultural education, however, still relies upon information dispersal from specialists to farmers. If the root of the problem is lack of educational opportunities for farmers to engage with one another, it stands to reason that a more participatory educational strategy might better serve the needs of farmers as they investigate alternative agriculture. This need for participatory educational strategies in alternative agriculture seems to point towards the integration of other teaching and learning strategies into alternative agricultural education. Following the teaching and learning typology of Peters and Armstrong (1998), in designing the present study another Type of teaching and learning, Type III, was used in addition to Type I. (Peters and Armstrong (1998) actually identify three Types of teaching and learning, Types I, II, and III. Type II, in which individuals work together to interpret presented subject matter, did not seem able to address the needs of farmers in alternative agricultural education as comprehensively as Type III. Therefore, Type II was not investigated in this study as an addition to Type I.)
Type III teaching and learning – Collaborative learning
Type III is a collaborative learning approach, where there is no longer a sole source of knowledge, and the teacher’s role shifts from teacher to facilitator and group member. Peters and Armstrong (1998) define collaborative learning (Type III) as people working together to construct knowledge. Central to collaborative learning is the theory of social construction, which states that knowledge is created through interaction with others (Gergen, 1999). Bruffee (1993) describes collaborative learning as the social construction of knowledge that occurs among a group of peers. In collaborative learning, the facilitator is no longer the sole source of information, and a collaborative relationship is established among members based upon the valuation of their contributions to the group (Geltner, 1994; Imel, 1997).
In collaborative learning, dialogue is the primary mode of discourse by which participants engage each other in conversation. Dialogue requires collaborators to get to know one another, to suspend assumptions, to become aware of others’ backgrounds, and to establish trust and respect (Isaacs, 1999). Reflection upon long held beliefs, values, and practices is also important in collaborative learning (Geltner, 1994). In a collaborative learning experience, group members interact and share experiences, then make meaning by reflecting upon their own actions and the actions of others. Another important facet of collaborative learning is that individuals work together to jointly construct new knowledge (Peters and Armstrong, 1998). New knowledge in this sense is something socially constructed between collaborators as they work together; it is new because it is knowledge that did not exist in the lives of the individual participants before the collaborative learning experience. Collaborators not only direct their efforts toward creating this new knowledge, but attend to it during the process of collaborative learning.
In suggesting that Type III may apply to alternative agricultural education, it is noteworthy that farmers investigating alternative agriculture engage in “a conscious search for an alternative approach to agricultural production that expresses farmers’ broader definition of themselves in relation to agricultural practice” (Kroma and Flora, 2001, p. 76). Correspondingly, Harré (1993) and Gergen (1999) articulate that the self – in this case, the self as farmer – is a social construction. Perhaps farmers investigating alternative agriculture need to engage in a process of construction regarding perceptions of themselves within their agricultural practices. Moreover, Meares (1997) proposes that the trend towards alternative agriculture is a social movement, and knowledge and meaning are socially constructed by the farmers and others who participate in it. It stands to reason that knowledge jointly constructed by farmers may have particular relevancy to what farmers consider appropriate alternatives for their farm businesses and lifestyles.
In this study, it was postulated that a common problem in alternative agricultural education lies in the need for farmers to participate in the learning process and to construct knowledge. Since participation and construction of new knowledge are central to Type III teaching and learning, Type III was integrated into an educational experience as an attempt to better serve the needs of farmers investigating alternative agriculture.
The predominant approach to alternative agriculture education is Type I, which offers farmers little opportunity to learn by sharing their experiences. Studies investigating farmers’ perceptions of alternative agricultural education suggest that many farmers prefer a more participatory approach (Murray and Butler, 1994; Kroma and Flora, 2001). The success of some grassroots learning groups provides evidence that Type III approaches can be effective methods of education; however, Type I approaches are also effective in terms of their efficiency in disseminating information to farmers.
In order to devise a more comprehensive educational system for alternative agriculture, a strategy that took advantage of the benefits of both Type I and Type III teaching and learning was implemented in this study. This program consisted of a group local farmers meeting monthly for a period of one year. In these meetings, practitioners of alternative agriculture were invited as guest speakers to briefly present their alternative enterprise to the farmers (Type I), then join the farmers as the group engaged in dialogue around their presented ideas (Type III).
The intent of this study was to identify whether participating farmers felt that this combination of Types I and III teaching and learning was an effective approach to alternative agricultural education. This was accomplished by asking farmers to describe their experiences participating in the combined Types I and III teaching and learning structure of the meetings. Due to the importance of the teacher/facilitator role in any educational program, farmers’ perceptions of the researcher’s facilitative efforts in this learning experience were also investigated. The following questions guided this investigation:
1. How will the participating farmers experience the combined Type I and Type III teaching and learning environment of the meetings?
2. How will the facilitator’s actions be perceived by farmers participating in the collaborative learning process?
Dr. Fazio performed the role of both researcher and facilitator in this study. Field research was conducted in Blount County, Tennessee, and data analysis was conducted at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with the assistance of Dr. Peters and others in the Department of Educational Psychology.
Participants in the study
The participants in this study were small farmers who farm either full or part time in Blount County, Tennessee. To obtain a listing of potential meeting participants, the researchers asked University of Tennessee Blount County Agricultural Extension Service for a listing of farmers who had previously participated in agricultural education activities. Upon receiving this list, an Nth power sampling technique, in which every tenth name on the list was selected to receive an invitation to participate, was used to select potential participants. Out of a list of approximately 500 names, 48 invitations were sent to potential participants in March 2002. Wording in the invitations attempted to target farmers according to the USDA definition of small farm (1999) and the aforementioned criteria. A short form was included with the letter, and farmers were asked to check YES or NO to indicate their interest in participating and then return the form. Invitations included a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Of the 48 farmers receiving invitation letters, only six farmers responded with interest. Each participant was contacted by telephone to inquire as to the best time to host a meeting, and it was agreed that Tuesdays were the most convenient time. Only four of the six participants, however, attended the first meeting.
Due to the low number of participants (six total, two of which were spouses of invited participants) at this first meeting, a snowball sampling technique was utilized to invite additional participants. This involved informing the participants in attendance of the criteria to select participating farmers and asking them if they knew of anyone meeting that criteria who might like to participate in future sessions. This method proved to be a more successful means of attracting participants, since only three of the original six participants continued to attend the meetings regularly.
Ten meetings were held at the Blount County Farm Bureau’s meeting facility from April 2002 through May 2003. Every attempt was made to make the meetings convenient and accessible to the majority of participants. The number of farmers participating in each meeting varied from six to fourteen, with a mean attendance of eight. Participating farmers became eligible for the interview process only if they attended at least half the meetings. Nine participants attended enough meetings to qualify for interviews (Appendix A). There were 21 total participants who had attended the meetings, but over half of these participants attended just one or two meetings.
The researcher was responsible for contacting and inviting the guest farmer speakers, for arranging the meetings, for providing the meals, and for facilitating the sessions. Ideas generated during the first and subsequent meetings were used to lead to the selection of material for the next meeting, and participants were given the opportunity to choose which topics were featured. The intent of involving participants in selection of subject matter allowed them to more fully participate in the learning process, as well as to select topics relevant to their own farming practices. As articulated by Kidd (1959), “It is clear that where the learner does take part in the development of curriculum, this act leads to a learning experience that is markedly different in quality” (p.274). Admittedly, participants more often decided that they wanted to hear about a very general topic (marketing, for example, was the most popular), but they were not specific as to the types of alternative agricultural enterprise they wished to discuss. Therefore, suggestions were usually offered by the researcher as to potential guest farmers for subsequent meetings, and the group chose which farmer they wanted to hear.
To foster collaborative learning in the meetings, the researchers utilized Peters’ (2002b) facilitation tools and techniques for each of the four elements of collaborative learning. These tools are summarized in Appendix B. To provide a clear example of how Types I and III teaching and learning were combined in the meetings, the first meeting is described in detail:
On the day of the first meeting, the researcher arrived at the meeting facility early and arranged the tables and chairs in a circle so that everyone could see and hear one another and so that no one person would be in a physical position of leadership. As farmers began to arrive, they were greeted at the door and thanked for their attendance. As a gesture of courtesy, a meal was offered at the beginning of the meeting. The first thirty minutes of the meeting were devoted to sharing the meal and informal conversation. After the group finished eating, the researcher assumed the Type I role of speaker and began the meeting by introducing himself and providing personal and professional rationale for initiating the meetings. The farmers were told that the meetings were a research endeavor as well as a community program and it was emphasized that as a group we were going to try a different way of learning from those with which they were likely familiar. Instead of dictating this information directly, following Hatfield et al. (1994) the researcher framed his rationale and description in the form of a story. He described his practice working with farmers seeking alternatives to traditional farming practices and told of his personal search for alternative agricultural enterprises to implement on his own farm. He relayed how both of these experiences had led to frustration with the lack of sufficient educational opportunities in alternative agriculture and how these meetings were an attempt to offer a better way of education. To transition towards Type III, the rest of the meeting was devoted to participating farmers interacting with one another by introducing themselves and sharing their interest and experiences in alternative agriculture.
As the farmers took the opportunity to speak to the group, the researcher (in the role of facilitator/participant) focused his attention on Peters’ (2002b) facilitation techniques in an attempt to create a Type III experience. For example, active listening and attending to moments were two techniques used in this meeting. As farmers went around the circle introducing themselves and their interests, the researcher engaged in active listening by taking note of what one farmer had said and relating it to comments made by another farmer. He then called the group’s attention in the form of a question or statement to encourage dialogue around the issue.
Over the course of the study, the only change made to the structure of the meetings was that of the speaker. In the first meeting, the researcher assumed the role of the speaker. For the remaining nine meetings, alternative agricultural practitioners were invited to present their respective farming operations in the meetings. In each of these meetings, the group shared a meal together, then began the meeting with introductions. After introductions were completed, the group turned its attention to the guest farmer for a brief presentation of his or her alternative agricultural enterprise. When the presentation was finished, the speaker joined the group in a discussion, during which the researcher utilized facilitation techniques to foster collaborative learning. Each meeting was ended by “debriefing”, or asking each farmer to relate what was significant to them about that particular meeting. The group then thanked the speaker and adjourned.
Individual interviews, field notes, and reflective journaling were the methods used as the principal means of data collection. This overlap of several research strategies enabled the researchers to capture a comprehensive picture of the participating farmers’ experiences of engaging in the meetings, as well as the researcher’s own perceptions of the experience.
Interviews were conducted with each of the nine farmers, in which both phenomenological and semi-structured questions were asked. A phenomenological inquiry seeks a rich description of the experience of an interviewee, from the interviewee’s own point of view (Pollio et al., 1997). Each phenomenological interview was begun by asking an open-ended question regarding the meetings. The direction of the interview was set by the participant as the experience was described. The role of the interviewer was to ensure that experiences were clarified and discussed in detail. As Thomas and Pollio (2002, pg. 26) explain, “the researcher does not control the interview or determine its content…[but] does have a responsibility to help the participant focus on unfolding themes and details.” This open ended approach to asking questions enabled the researchers to gather first-person accounts of the learning process and of the knowledge created by participants.
Immediately following the phenomenological interview, semi-structured questions (Appendix C) were asked in order to gather information about specific aspects of the teaching and learning process involved in the series of meetings. These questions were based upon Types I and III teaching and learning experiences (Peters and Armstrong, 1998) that occurred in the meetings, as well as upon the researcher’s facilitative actions.
Each interview was audiotaped and transcribed verbatim for analysis. Permission to interview and use data as described above was sought by following standard procedures for human subjects research.
Field notes were recorded during each of the meeting sessions. An educational psychology research assistant recorded these notes. Using another person to record field notes allowed the researcher to be fully attentive to the group.
These notes described the process of the meetings through a detailed account of actions and statements uttered by the participating farmers, the guest speakers, and the facilitator. Since the field notes provided a record of the meetings as they occurred, they were reviewed after each meeting to assist in reflecting and journaling. These notes were also used during data analysis to help contextualize the information generated in the interviews.
As an additional data source, the researcher kept a journal between meetings to record his reflections on the meeting process, the nature of his participation as facilitator of meeting sessions, and participants’ reactions to the process. While field notes are descriptive in nature, journaling is more analytical. According to Glesne (1999), reflective journaling is “a place for ideas, reflections, hunches, and notes about patterns that seem to be emerging” (pg. 49). The process of journaling included a review of field notes taken during each session, reflection upon the researcher’s actions as facilitator and group member, and discussion of observations that arose during the meeting. Journaling took place once for each meeting and not more than three days after the meeting had been conducted.
Data analysis procedures
Spradley’s (1980) ethnographic domain analysis procedure was used to extract comments in the interviews relevant to the research questions. According to Spradley, a domain is a basic unit of meaning, made up of three parts: the cover term; the included term; and the semantic relationship, which links the cover term and the included term together. Spradley lists nine semantic relationships (Appendix D), which serve to identify potential relationships within the data.
In conducting the domain analysis, the complete data set was read and re-read by the researcher. He then proceeded through one transcript at a time, referring often to the nine semantic relationships. When a statement was identified (included term) in the transcript which appeared to exhibit a semantic relationship with aspects of the study, it was extracted from the data and labeled with a cover term. For example, the phrase “That’s a fine line that you walk…to keep the participants going without squelching any of the participants” was a characteristic of the role of facilitator. Using Spradley’s terminology, the quote itself is the included term, “role of facilitator” is the cover term, and “characteristic” is the semantic relationship between them. Each extracted included term was labeled with the respective speaker’s initials as well as with the numbered lines where it was located within the transcript. This procedure was repeated for all transcripts.
After domain analysis, further analysis was necessary to structure the data into categories representing the context of the interviewees’ experiences across the data set. To conduct this analysis, the researchers utilized the coding method described by Glesne and Peshkin (1992). Using this inductive approach, groups of like information items are coded, conceptualized, and re-sorted in terms of categories that appear in interviewees’ answers to interview questions. Cycles of coding and sorting continues until no new categories appear in the data.
To construct categories of data from the domain structure, the comments included in each domain were read and re-read, searching for patterns that appeared across the data. When a category that seemed to be repeated across several domains was noticed, that category was named, and the included terms corresponding to that category were coded by highlighting them in color. After coding and conceptualizing the entire data set, the included terms were organized under their particular category using the color code. Completed categories were then read and re-read for instances of data that lacked internal consistency.
To check the researcher’s interpretive skills, one of the interview transcripts was submitted for analysis by an interpretive group made up of graduate students experienced with both phenomenological and semi-structured interview data. The group analyzed the transcript utilizing the same procedures the researchers had used, and the results of their analysis were found to be similar.
To verify the integrity of data interpretations, the analyzed data set was presented to the participating farmers of the meetings to learn whether the researcher’s findings reflected their experiences (Thomas and Pollio, 2002). All participants reported that the categories of data did represent their experiences in the meetings.
Data from field notes and reflective journals were used to describe the context of the comments by participants, to recount perceptions of the meetings as they happened, and to augment the final thematic analysis. Categories of themes and their descriptions, as well as accompanying data from field notes and reflective journals, were then interpreted in terms of the research questions.
The participant/researcher role can potentially carry with it certain biases that may enter into data analysis and interpretation. To account for these potential biases, prior to the interviews with participating farmers the researcher underwent a bracketing interview conducted by an experienced phenomenological interviewer. A bracketing interview is designed to surface researchers’ assumptions about the phenomenon being studied, so that they can be accounted for in the interpretation of results (Van Mannen, 1990).
The researcher reviewed the transcript of his bracketing interview prior to and during data analysis in order to minimize the possibility that he would define themes based upon his “bracketed” assumptions. Reading and re-reading his own bracketing interview helped to ensure that interpretations of the data were supported by the participants’ interviews, and not simply an extension of his own biases towards this study.
Corresponding with the two research questions, two categories of data are presented and discussed in this section: the experiences of the farmers in the Types I and III teaching and learning structure of the meetings, and the farmers’ perceptions of the facilitation in the meetings. Prior to delving into the presentation of findings, the reader should be aware of the following technical considerations. In any qualitative study, direct comments from participants are more powerful in conveying results than suggestive analyses by researchers. Therefore, support of the findings is provided in the form of participating farmers’ own words as well as through data collected during the meetings. Also included is a discussion of the findings with respect to published literature and other references. For organizational purposes, each citation given by the participants is coded based upon its speaker and its location within that interviewee’s transcript. For example, a phrase spoken by Stan West in lines 242 through 245 of his transcript would be cited in the text as (SW242-45). Excerpts from field notes and reflective journals are cited by the date they were recorded.
Perceptions of collaborative learning within combined Types I and III meeting structure
The following section answers the first research question: “How did the participants experience the combined Types I and III teaching and learning environment of the meetings?” This was accomplished by analyzing specific comments directly related to the Types of teaching and learning as well as participants’ perceptions of the overall structure of this learning experience.
Role of the speakers
Prior to describing the influence of the speakers in our group’s attempt to engage in collaborative learning, it is necessary to re-clarify the researcher’s role as facilitator compared to the role of the guest farmer speakers. The researcher’s role was that of facilitator of the meetings – he arranged the logistical details prior to each meeting, and during the meetings he attempted to facilitate a collaborative learning experience. He only assumed the speaker/presenter role in the first meeting, since that was the introductory session. The guest farmer speakers, on the other hand, were the “feature” of the meeting, in that they presented to the group their specific alternative agriculture operation. The following paragraphs detail findings regarding the role the speakers played in transitioning through the two types of teaching and learning in the meetings.
For many of the participants, the guest farmers as speakers were a significant part of their Type I learning experience in our meetings. Speakers were described as “very informative and easy to follow” (SL171), “done a good job in…alternative agriculture” (JK6-7), “well-rounded, intelligent, and well organized” (RG134-6), and “well prepared” (DS183). Every participant complimented the speakers on the quality of their presentations, and there were no negative responses regarding the speakers in any of the interviews. For example, the quality and clarity of the presentations was important to Mike, who remarked that “They had something to say and they said it well so it was not being professional instructors…it was easy to know what they were talking about” (MM130-6). James echoed these comments, stating that, “They’ve been interested in their subject and anybody that’s interested in it can present it much better to other people” (JK156-7). Mary remarked that “They [speakers] knew what they were talking about” (MSM230), suggesting that the credibility and quality of the speakers was important to her as well. These comments indicate that the participants place a high value upon the quality of the speakers in a learning experience.
Peters and Armstrong (1998) define the role of the teacher in Type I teaching and learning as transmitter of information, whereas participants in this type of learning experience serve as recipients of this information. The comments above suggest that the speakers in our meetings fulfilled the role of a Type I presenter. According to Bruffee (1993), most learners are familiar with this type of teaching and learning; for example, Mike referred to the guest farmers as “instructors” and David termed our meetings “classes”. Perhaps due to their past educational experiences, the role of the speaker as instructor was familiar to participants and one they reacted to favorably, since traditional activities in education often involves a teacher or instructor as the provider of information (Freire, 1970; Knowles, 1980). The positive nature of participants’ comments also warrants attention. According to Cafarella (2002), adult learners prefer that presenters be informative and of high quality to result in a positive learning experience. The fact that participants repeatedly mentioned the quality of speaker presentations suggests that the use of Type I teaching and learning was both valuable and appreciated.
Influence of the speakers on Type III teaching and learning
By design, meetings always began with a speaker’s Type I presentation. How long the group remained in a Type I mode, however, depended primarily upon the speakers themselves. For example, in the eighth meeting, the group remained in a Type I mode for nearly the entire session, having to compete with the speaker for even a few minutes of question and answer. This also had occurred during the fourth meeting, during which the speaker spent a very long time describing his farming operation. When it came time to shift into Type III, the speaker was reluctant to allow others to contribute their experiences, feeling as if he had to answer all of the questions himself. Fortunately, this particular topic (agricultural cooperatives) proved to be one of the most interesting to the group members. When the facilitator asked everyone to comment upon the presentation in an attempt to engage in Type III, the experiences shared by the group members sparked some of the most productive dialogue of the entire study. In this case, simply taking the focus away from the speaker and allowing group members to participate was enough to bring about a transition to collaborative learning.
In other meetings, the speakers’ behavior encouraged Type III teaching and learning. In the second, third, and sixth meetings, speakers were particularly interested in listening to the agricultural experiences of group members. These speakers tended to spend much less time talking about their respective farming operations, preferring instead for group members’ questions to lead the direction of the conversation. After the second meeting, the researcher reflected that: “[The speaker] was an excellent facilitator and presenter, very comfortable in a group and willing to listen to others” (Refl. 5/28). A similar experience occurred in the third meeting: “The [speakers] were again excellent facilitators and presenters, very comfortable in the group and willing to let others participate freely. They even asked questions back to the group members. Group members seem to interact with each other more when the speaker is more ‘collaborative’” (Refl. 7/20). Similar influences were noticed during the sixth meeting. Group members seemed to recognize the facilitative efforts of these speakers as well, since speakers mentioned most often in interviews were the speakers from these three meetings. Mary remarked that “They were succinct and got their information out and then were very open to questions” (MSM233-5). According to Sandy, the benefits of this participatory engagement were that “Out of a general speech it brought reality to it…because then you could sort of ask questions and follow up on exactly what they were doing” (SL181-2).
While these observations alone do not provide enough evidence to reach a definitive conclusion, the actions of the various speakers seem to suggest that some individuals are more inclined towards fostering collaborative learning than others. Other researchers in agricultural education have reached similar conclusions. In a study comparing the characteristics of conventional farmers to those of farmers practicing sustainable agriculture (a type of alternative agriculture), Peter et al. (2000) reported that the conventional farmers exhibited more monologic behavior, and their actions and words did not acknowledge others or other perspectives. On the other hand, farmers practicing sustainable agriculture were more dialogic – they took others into account when framing their actions and speech. Duram (1997) described similar results in a comparison between conventional and alternative farmers’ attitudes towards farm and resource management. While these studies suggest differences between conventional and alternative farmers regarding collaborative behavior and action, it should be noted that all of the speakers in our meetings were alternative agriculture practitioners. Despite this fact, it is clear that different speakers displayed different levels of Type III behavior which affected the meetings in both a positive and a negative manner.
Purpose of the meetings – Specific information or generation of ideas?
Another noteworthy aspect of the meetings is how participating farmers perceived the purpose of the meetings. This perception was reflected in comments comparing past educational experiences in agriculture (the vast majority of which were lecture-type field days or seminars) with their experience of our meetings. Overall, participants agreed that our meetings provided general concepts and ideas, whereas the more traditional educational events provided very specific information.
James recalled that he particularly enjoyed traditional field days, because “[Field days] are always very interesting to me where they have various speakers on various subjects about cattle and cattle is one of our main interests” (JK183-4). James indicated here and elsewhere throughout the interview that an educational experience is worthwhile for him if he is able to gain useful and specific information. In comparing his previous educational experiences to our meetings, he noticed that “our meetings haven’t been as structured as the…the field days. In the field days you have a certain objective…I think there’s more freedom in this type of thing [our meetings] and…it can take a lot of different directions” (JK223-9). Mike, having also attended agricultural seminars and field days, remarked that “our meetings were in a totally different category. It’s the overall and the concept versus the particular. In our meetings it was not the specific as much as it was the general that I was looking at” (MM184-93). Rebecca remarked that the highly structured nature of her previous educational experiences had contributed positively to her learning but added that “[Our meetings] were very different. I just found it very exciting because there was perhaps more variety and …there was a lot of other possibilities” (RG176-83). Stan felt that our meetings were not intended to provide specific information but rather to stimulate ideas about alternative agriculture that farmers might pursue in order to remain in agriculture. He remarked that “The purpose of your meeting in my mind was to show me hey here’s somebody that did it and here’s the problems it had and here’s the successes it had and here’s why they loved what they did. Your program gave me some top level stimulus” (SW452-78). Roger’s perspective on the purpose of our meetings was similar to Stan’s: “I took it the general idea of the meeting was to give you the ideas and see if that’s something that you wanted to do or needed to do or could do and I don’t think in the meetings they [speakers] told all the details and usually at a field day they’ll tell a lot of the details” (RN286-94).
What is important to note in these statements is the lack of value judgments in comparing the two types of educational approaches. Granted, in many sections of this analysis participants described why they thought either field days or our meetings were better, but in regards to the purpose of the meetings, a judgment of value was absent. Instead, farmers remarked that both strategies were good, depending upon their particular educational needs at the time. James, for example, was more interested in specific information about raising beef cattle, thus our meetings did not appeal to him as much as they did for someone like Stan, who was looking for alternative agricultural strategies to remain on the farm.
Other remarks from the participating farmers seem to lend support to this observation. Roger commented that “It’s kind of hard to follow every word of a…lecture unless you’re there for some particular point or problem” (RN264-5), indicating that a Type I experience is potentially unproductive unless specific information is desired. Mike, in comparing the meetings to Type I seminars, offered the following analogy: “Sort of the difference between deciding whether or not…you want a car or a truck or a van – that was…the level of our meetings; whereas these others [Type I seminars] were more like on how to change a tire. I think you have to have them both, otherwise you get caught up in the tire changing and never get to drive” (MM184-93). Mike’s analogy refers to a balance that he views as important in agricultural education – the balance between the general and the specific. Mike felt that our meetings gave him new overall concepts and ideas upon which he could build knowledge, but he also stressed the importance of specific, how-to information. Stan’s perception of our meetings was similar, remarking that “The depth of knowledge that I got from this excited my curiosity about some things. Did you educate me on growing goats? No. Growing daylilies? No. To go down to the nth degree of detail in that you have to do something like I did for twenty something years in beekeeping. And that’s comparing Mack trucks and little model hobby cars” (SW468-78). Stan, like Mike, emphasized the importance of a balance of both detail and general concepts in agricultural education, but at the same time suggested that these are two distinct styles of education, and found it impossible to say which is better.
The combination of Types I and III
The approach to alternative agricultural education described in this study involved a mix of Types I and III teaching and learning, and in practice was dependent upon this highly structured arrangement. Thus, an analysis of the meetings would be incomplete without investigating how participants perceived this overall structure.
Importance of structure
The overall structure of our meetings was significant to David, who mentioned it several times throughout the course of his interview. According to David, “We’ve followed a structure instead of just a hit or miss thing. The classes have been very well structured” (DS85-6). James also found the structure of our meetings to be notable, although in a different context. Throughout his interview, James commented several times that the meetings were not personally helpful to him. Despite his being disappointed at what he gained from the meetings, however, James still believed that the structure of the meetings was effective: “You’ve got a pretty good format where you have a speaker and then you have some discussion…[but] I don’t feel that there’s enough in-depth interest on the part of the people who are there” (JK364-7).
In comparing our meetings to previous experiences with other agricultural education events, Stan remarked that “My other experiences in alternative agricultural events or meetings or functions was, they weren’t very well structured” (SW382-4). David seemed to agree, stating that “There was a pattern that followed all the time. I knew from the very beginning what was gonna happen and therefore it was a little better” (DS237-54). From their comments, it appears that David and Stan both valued structure in the meetings, and that structure had been absent in some of their past agricultural education experiences.
David and Mary remarked that an important facet of blending the two Types of teaching and learning together is that it provided a framework for the meetings, so that participants knew what to expect prior to each meeting. Mary stated that “In structuring you do have a rhythm and flow and so you know what to expect” (MSM146). The structure of the meetings may have been significant because it gave the participating farmers a feeling of preparedness and security. According to Isaacs (1999), security is an important consideration in the establishment of a collaborative learning environment. Additionally, when the facilitator asked David to describe the structure of our meetings, he commented that he valued “the inclusiveness of it and not alienating anyone even when they [participants] have come in and they themselves weren’t quite sure what to expect, a clear explanation of what was expected” (DS88-9). It seems to David that the structure of our meetings was closely related to making participants feel welcomed and included, an important aspect of any group educational activity with adults (Knowles, 1980; Imel, 1995). Without asking David to explain his statement further, it is impossible to be sure if this assumption is correct; however, it does seem to indicate that structure is important in bringing the group together, because it is something the group engages in together.
The following remark by Stan supports this idea. Stan perceived the overall combination of Types I and III as an integral part of the meetings, stating that it “br[ought] people together in a highly structured way but sufficiently informal til not any person in the group ‘recognized the structure’. You didn’t feel that you were, had an hourglass over here and when this much sand ran through you had to change horses and turn it over. It happened that way but you didn’t make it seem that way. So…wherever you got this model from I have to applaud it” (SW406-412). “This model” refers to the combination of types of teaching and learning in our meetings, a combination which was highly structured, but comfortable enough that participants did not feel constrained. For Stan, by adding the two Types of teaching and learning together, the group was able to attain a comfortable environment while maintaining structure. David also supported this theme by remarking that “The class was structured but not so tight that it couldn’t be flexible. It was flexible enough for folks to come and express themselves” (DS110-1).
As David and Stan point out, another benefit to a combination structure was that it allowed participants to contribute to the learning process, a critical component of collaborative learning. Sandy provided support for this observation by stating: “In a lecture type meeting you sit and you take notes and you go home…but at these meetings it’s not this way at all because you become part of the meeting and I think that’s a better way as far as education is concerned” (SL217-221).
When Mary was asked what was significant to her about our meetings, she remarked that “It was the structure. I’ve been a part of some focus groups…and this really was very different from that because it wasn’t all lecture…I think if you removed any part of what you did you would have significantly decreased the value of the program because you had a bit of a lecture, you had a bit of questions and answers. The focus groups…there’s no comparison. …what you didn’t have [in the focus groups] that you had with this was the social aspect” (SB306-26). In Mary’s comments, evidence of both Types of teaching and learning is present. She noticed Type I as lecture and question and answer, which might be expected since lecture and question-answer discussion are both commonly used practices in adult education (Merriam and Cafarella, 1999). Importantly, Mary noticed that the use of Type III, collaborative learning, distinguished the meetings from her past experiences with other group learning activities. Additionally, Type III was interpreted as the “social aspect”. She commented a number of times that our use of Type III was a valuable part of the structure of our meetings: “You had your social time and ate… there was a chance for questions and answers and…there was a time for the social afterward for…people to sit and say gee I really like your ideas… That’s what I meant by liking the structure” (SB142-5). While Type III is more than simply social engagement within a learning experience (Peters and Armstrong, 1998), the group interaction and sharing between learners that occurs in collaborative learning is more social in nature than a Type I experience.
Importantly, the social atmosphere present in Type III teaching and learning enables the construction of group knowledge not usually possible in Type I. In most learning activities, knowledge is either presented or created for the purpose of the individual learner (Phillips, 1997). While the generation of information for individual purposes can be present in Type III, what sets Type III apart from Type I is that knowledge is constructed by the joint actions of the group (Armstrong, 1999). Group knowledge, because it is created and shared by the group members through their joint action, generates meaning in the unique context of that group (Shotter, 1994; Peters and Armstrong, 1998). According to Peters and Armstrong (1998), group knowledge is “something other than the individual interpretations of what the group has constructed” (p. 76).
In the meetings, an example of group knowledge was the way of learning created through the joint actions of the group. In comparing the meetings to her past educational experiences, Sandy’s comments reflected this joint creation of group knowledge: “It was all real. It wasn’t an artificial lecture. I mean these are real people dealing with real life situations and in a roundtable discussion everything is real and it’s happening now” (SL278-82). Sandy’s phrase “everything is real and it’s happening now” is akin to what Heron and Reason (2001) term experiential knowing – the “in-the-moment” perceptions of the participants as they experienced our meetings. Shotter (2002b) describes these “fleeting first time, only-once-occurrent…events” as “particular understanding[s] from within our ongoing participation in an active meeting that enables us to go on in a practical situation in an unconfused, well-oriented fashion” (p. 2). This knowing from within was the underlying force that allowed the meetings to “go on” in a manner that was specific to our group. As Sandy’s comments suggest, this was brought about through the “roundtable discussion”, or the way the group worked together to allow the group to participate in creating its own way of learning. Unlike a lecture, which is “artificial” because it is constructed by someone else and disseminated to learners, the group’s way of learning together was “real” to Sandy because the group had constructed a specific way of learning together that existed only within the group. Mike’s comment regarding what he gained from the meetings illustrates this point well: “The answer was there. The group had the answer. I felt very comfortable there and I felt like a member of the group” (MM234-6).
Summary conclusions – Combined Type I and III teaching and learning experience
Comments by participants supported the blending of Types I and III teaching and learning. Participants indicated that the structure of the meetings provided them with a familiar framework, so that they knew what to expect when entering the meetings. Perhaps including both types of teaching and learning rather than solely Type III prevented the uneasiness that is often present when people experience collaborative learning for the first time. In other words, the combined structure added familiarity to an unfamiliar way of learning. Participants noted that the familiarity afforded by the structure made them feel comfortable enough to participate during the meetings, which is crucial to engaging in collaborative learning. Additionally, the repeated mention of the social aspect of the meetings suggests that aspects of Type III were noticed by participating farmers. Indeed, as described in published definitions, collaborative learning is purely a social process, made up of relationships, dialogue, and joint construction among group members (Bruffee, 1993; Geltner, 1994; Peters and Armstrong, 1998; Armstrong, 1999; Merrill, 2003). This social engagement enabled the group members to create knowledge together, in the form of a new way of learning specific to the meetings.
It appears that an important Type III role of speakers was to foster participation among group members. This engagement began in the form of questions directed toward the speaker and toward other participants. In general, these questions facilitated the expansion of presented information and helped participants relate the presented topics to their respective experiences. In the meetings, this sharing was stimulated by the speakers’ openness to questions. As more and more participants began directing their questions towards the speakers, participants would begin to engage each other by asking questions or building upon previous comments. Indeed, the notion that teachers should encourage adult learners to participate in the learning process is one of the most affirmed tenets of adult education (Dewey, 1938; Kidd, 1959; Knowles, 1980; Merriam and Cafarella, 1999).
More important was the observation that speakers seemed to significantly influence the group’s ability to engage in collaborative learning, depending upon their willingness to allow the group to participate. In retrospect, perhaps by positioning the guest farmers as “speakers”, they were placed into a traditional instructor role. Since none of the speakers were experienced in collaborative learning, perhaps they filled the role of speaker based upon their prior experiences in education, which were most likely Type I. Should guest speakers be utilized in future collaborative learning activities, it might be helpful to position them as group members instead of as instructors.
In the meetings, the application of Type III teaching and learning to alternative agricultural education seemed to be a function of the respective situations and needs of participants. This was substantiated by the perceptions of group members that the purpose of the meetings was to generate knowledge and ideas regarding alternative agriculture, but not to provide technical information about specific practices. Results from other researchers in the field of collaborative learning do seem to support these observations. In a study applying collaborative learning in a college computer course, Merrill (2003) reported that although collaborative learning was an effective means of learning how to learn software skills, students occasionally noted that they needed her to present specific information about computer concepts. Cotter (2001), in applying collaborative learning principles to a university counseling practice, found that at times his students needed him to engage in the Type I role of providing advice and information. Additionally, in their definition of the teaching and learning typologies, Peters and Armstrong (1998) claim that situational realities and needs of learners often dictate when and where various types of teaching and learning may be applied.
For these reasons, results of this study suggest that Type III teaching and learning (collaborative learning), combined with Type I teaching and learning, is an effective approach to alternative agricultural education when the purpose is to stimulate ideas and affect choices regarding agricultural practices. In practical application, this conclusion is extremely important for agricultural education, since many educational events pertaining to alternative agriculture are geared toward providing ideas (for example, two recent alternative agriculture conferences this researcher attended were titled “Marketplace of Ideas in Agriculture” and “Alternative Agriculture: A Supermarket of Ideas”). While these educational activities are usually conducted in a Type I format, the findings of this study suggest that collaborative learning combined with Type I teaching and learning might be more effective in sharing ideas and constructing knowledge based upon these ideas.
Perceptions of Facilitation
The following section addresses the second research question: “How will the facilitator’s actions be perceived by farmers participating in the meetings?” First, it is important to remind the reader that the researcher’s role in facilitating the meetings was one of both facilitator and member of the group (Armstrong, 1999). This is a markedly different approach from most other learning events, where the leader of an educational group of adult learners is referred to as teacher or instructor (Merriam and Cafarella, 1999). Even when he or she is referred to as facilitator, it is inferred that this individual possesses knowledge that the rest of the learners do not have (Peters and Armstrong, 1998). While this may also be true in collaborative learning, it is the attitude and approach of the facilitator that sets Type III teaching and learning apart. In most educational events, the teacher/facilitator’s role is to pass on the knowledge he or she possesses to the learners, regardless of teaching method used. In collaborative learning the facilitator becomes a member of the group, contributing to the group’s learning by sharing his or her own experiences. He or she recognizes that each group member brings knowledge to the learning experience, and that the facilitator’s knowledge is not privileged over the knowledge of other group members. The facilitator’s goal is not to “pass on” what he knows, but rather to utilize facilitative techniques in order to help the group build knowledge together (Brickey, 2001).
This role should be distinguished from the facilitator of a focus group, who otherwise shares some of the same characteristics. Like the facilitator of collaborative learning, the facilitator’s role in a focus group is not to be the transmitter of information, but rather to work to keep the dialogue going among learners and to help them elicit information through specific facilitation techniques. The facilitator of a focus group, however, distances himself or herself from the group, in that he or she does not participate as a member, but rather serves as a moderator (Murray and Butler, 1994). In contrast, the facilitator of collaborative learning strives at every opportunity to join and participate in the group as a group member and co-constructor of new knowledge.
In this study, it was discovered that participants perceived the facilitator’s actions in several different ways, some more traditionally educational, such as an organizer and moderator, and others more closely related to Type III teaching and learning, such as instigator of dialogue and member of the group.
Note: Since the researcher performed both the role of facilitator and interviewer in this study, and this document is written by the researcher himself, to minimize linguistic awkwardness the following section is written in the first person.
Facilitator as organizer
Several participants commented specifically upon my organizational role in the meetings. Sandy commented that “I think you’re a very good organizer” (SL322), while Mike thanked me “for conducting this thing” (MM263). Mike added that “You did a good job of selecting…people” (MM74), referring to the speakers that I invited to the meetings. David also commented on my organizational role in the meetings, remarking that “The organization that I think you’ve done is to be commended” (DS156). Organization in the meetings was important for David, who repeated several times that he appreciated my actions “keeping us on task although the subjects varied…and well informed ahead of time. I liked that” (DS95-6). For Roger, having an organizer is important to the success of any meeting: “You’ve always gotta have some person who will continue to push whatever you’re doing” (RN340-1). In all of these comments, it is clear that a part of their perception of me was as the organizer and conductor of the meetings. In truth, I did spend quite a bit of time organizing the meetings. I arranged for the meeting space, drafted announcements, brought the food, and invited speakers. In a collaborative learning sense, these actions differentiated me from the rest of the members. In my attempts to be a member of the group, my organizational actions positioned me (Davies and Harré, 2001) more like a traditional teacher than a group member, since I had more control over the meetings than any other participant.
Facilitator as moderator
Participants also perceived me as our group’s moderator, who, like the facilitator of a focus group, controls the flow of the meeting while remaining somewhat distanced from the other group members. According to participants, my facilitator role most often involved keeping our discussions from straying too far off subject. Mary remarked that I was able to “pull things in and keep the group focused…the only positive ones [group meetings] I’ve been in have had good facilitators that didn’t allow it go just, spread” (MSM362-3). Sandy also commented upon the importance of a moderator in meetings such as ours, remarking that “You have to act as an intermediator between two bodies…you have the capabilities to bring it back together” (SL324-7). Expanding on her earlier statement, Mary remarked that “You’re a very good facilitator because you didn’t allow to get too far off course…there was a chance for questions and answers and there was the time afterwards you didn’t rush us to leave the building” (MSM142-6). David agreed, stating that “You knew when it was time for closure without rushing anybody or without anybody feeling like well I’ve still got a question to ask” (DS111-2). To David, Mary, and Sandy, my role as moderator included knowledge of when and how to direct the meeting since I knew when to close the meetings and when to steer the participants back towards productive discussion.
It is noteworthy that participants expressed gratitude at not feeling rushed near the end of the meetings. My perception of the end of the meetings was somewhat different, in that I found time management to be a difficult issue. As facilitator I tried my best to be sensitive to the time obligations of the speakers and group members. My efforts were noticed by both David and Mary, who remarked favorably on my use of time. Early in her interview, Mary commented that “The meetings were on time and I liked that” (MSM9). David appreciated “the recognition that there is a time limit” (DS90) on how long participants could devote to the each meeting.
In contrast to these comments, I found it difficult to close each meeting, and sometimes felt as if the meetings lasted too long, since in over half of the meetings, a group member had to leave before we finished: “I found it difficult to close the meeting – when someone was talking, I hated to interrupt, even if it was one person dominating the conversation” (Refl. 4/30). “I didn’t want to interrupt anyone, and everyone was very engaged. In fact, we stayed until 8:45 – 30 minutes after I had mentioned we needed to start wrapping it up” (Refl. 5/28). The possibility exists that I interpreted time management differently from the participants. Perhaps closing the meetings in a timely fashion was not as important as “not feeling rushed”, since participants appreciated the freedom to leave when they needed to as well as the freedom to remain as long as they wished.
Moderator or facilitator?
Despite the positive nature of these comments, they still do not fit the characteristics of a Type III facilitator. A good focus group leader can also maintain discussion and manage time well (Murray and Butler, 1994); however, some participants suggested that my role as facilitator was more than simply a moderator.
Managing discussion was a significant duty in my role as moderator, although the manner in which I accomplished this seemed to be a mixture of moderation and facilitation. Supporting this assertion, Greg remarked that, “You weren’t an overbearing moderator. You didn’t take control of the group but you were just there to facilitate the group. For the most part …you let it run smoothly” (GW441-3). For Greg, there is a difference between control and facilitation. In a study of facilitation of collaborative learning, Brickey (2001) reported that the Type III facilitator does not control the group but rather maintains discussion. Keeping the meetings moving smoothly also stood out to Mike: “The meetings moved along…you kept it going without squelching anything. That’s a fine line that you walk…to keep the participants going without squelching any of the participants” (MM242-6). “Squelching” seems to fit the description of someone who controls the participants by keeping them silent. Additionally, Mike used of the word “enabler” to describe my facilitative actions, suggesting that to him I did not fit the role of traditional moderator. According to Greg and Mike, my actions seemed to fit Brickey’s (2001) description of a Type III facilitator as least as much as they fit the role of moderator.
Facilitator as developer of relationships and dialogue
Although it was something I had not consciously planned to do as facilitator, the building of relationships among group members was an important aspect of my facilitation of the meetings. Mary noticed that “When we got there you were always there…you were very good at introducing people…and people would have a few minutes to sit and chat” (MSM136-40). In every meeting, I tried to make everyone in attendance feel as welcome as possible by greeting them at the door and introducing them to others present in the room. Often, people with similar interests would then visit with one another during the meal, which occurred during the first part of the meetings. Mary referred to this in the following comment: “You also helped it because you knew enough about everyone …so you would find commonalities [among] the individuals so that they would have something to talk about during it [meal] so it became part of the social” (MSM160-3).
Establishing relationships among group members and between group members and the facilitator is important in any teaching and learning situation (Knowles, 1980). Relationships are also one of the key components in Type III teaching and learning (Peters and Armstrong, 1998). Both Brickey (2001) and Merrill (2003) have reported that taking time for the group members to get to know one another is important in building relationships within a Type III experience. By giving participants a chance to socialize with each other at the beginning of each meeting, group members were able to establish informal relationships prior to engaging in the meeting’s content.
While I was aware of assisting in the formation of relationships, I also found myself concentrating the majority of my efforts upon stimulating dialogue and focusing upon the construction of new knowledge. I used a variety of facilitation techniques in my attempt to foster these aspects of Type III teaching and learning, several of which were mentioned specifically by participants.
For example, one of the techniques I used near the end of each meeting was debriefing, or asking group members to share what was significant to them about that particular meeting. Noticing that dialogue most often occurred near the end of the meetings after I had asked the group members to debrief, I began using it earlier and earlier in the meetings as the study progressed, eventually using it whenever it was difficult for us to engage in dialogue. Similarly, Armstrong (1999) also reported that presenting members of a collaborative learning course with the opportunity to debrief stimulated dialogue. David’s comments seem to lend some support to this perception: “I thought you did a marvelous job in closure, in wrap up, in summarization, in getting folks to express themselves about that particular meeting” (DS294-7). According to David, debriefing seemed to encourage others to contribute and share their own perspectives.
The collaborative learning environment is a key component of a Type III teaching and learning experience. Correspondingly, in my attempt to facilitate the meetings, many of the techniques I used were directly related to creating a collaborative environment. A comfortable space for dialogue was noticed by Roger, who remarked that although there were “A lot of different people there; you were able to let each one of them talk and those of us who were listening were able to listen and not be offended or and that’s good if you can make people at ease enough that they will tell what’s happening” (RN328-35). Giving each member the space to contribute to dialogue created a comfortable atmosphere, which encouraged the sharing of experiences. Rebecca also recalled that my facilitative actions created a comfortable ambiance among the group members: “You asked good questions. You made everybody feel at ease and you tried to draw out from us what would help us all…what would be of benefit to the group. You made us feel at ease and we did not have to be anxious about expressing or asking questions” (RG267-70). Rebecca’s remarks not only echo Roger’s appreciation for room to contribute discursively, but they allude to a focus on construction of knowledge. The phrase “draw out what would help us all” refers to a facilitation technique termed attending to moments (Peters, 2002b), which I used quite often to call attention to significant topics, statements, or experiences that we could build upon. Katz and Shotter (1999) refer to these as “arresting moments…moments which make a difference to and in our lives; they ‘move’ us; we are ‘struck’ by them; they ‘call out’ new responses from us” (p.3). In dialogical interaction, within these moments joint meaning is created among dialogical partners (Shotter, 2002a). Calling attention to these moments in collaborative learning provides an opportunity for the group to build new knowledge.
Another important facet in my facilitation of Type III teaching and learning was my valuation and affirmation of the contributions of participants. Mary remarked that feeling valued and affirmed was an important part of the learning experience for her: “No one was ever made to feel that that was a stupid question…I have been in group dynamics where the facilitator has a way of just looking or body language that would go ‘oh lord is that a stupid question’ and then you’d go ‘oh well I’m not going to ask any more questions’ and I never felt like that” (MSM172-6). Affirmation is an important step towards dialogue (Gergen, 1999); for Mary, this feeling was directly related to my actions as facilitator, an action which led her to ask questions freely. Similarly, Greg remarked that “You sort of let things run themselves as long as they would as compared to you know dominating the discussion…cutting people off or you know if you thought it was a stupid question” (GW444-9). Like Mary, Greg felt that it was significant that I provided that group with the freedom to ask questions without the fear of criticism. Additionally, Greg noticed that by intervening as little as possible, I allowed group members to take the dialogue in the direction of their experiences.
This was important to Stan as well, who stated that “You draw people into the discussion. You get people to talk. You don’t talk. You did a great job of getting people to open up and you know they were expressing their inner feelings. That’s very important and often missing in what I call a meeting of discussion – people don’t open up. You stimulated participation” (SW196-204). Stan points out that an important aspect of facilitating collaborative learning is the ability of the facilitator to stimulate dialogue by allowing others space to contribute (Armstrong, 1999). This is not to say that the facilitator of collaborative learning does not intervene; on the contrary, intervention is important in facilitation, especially if the facilitator is to participate in the group as a co-learner. However, there is a difference in intervention and domination. For David, the timing of my interventions was important in maintaining our dialogue: “You knew when the discussion was going well, [and] you knew when you needed to step in and spark the conversation or maybe redirect it” (DS292-4). Stan added, “You were able to draw people into the discussions. When I’m in a meeting it takes a lot of effort on my part not to ‘conduct’ the meeting” (SW511-2). The distinction between intervention and domination, according to David, Greg, and Stan, is that facilitative intervention should not control the meeting, but should rather stimulate further participation. By “not talking”, as Stan describes, I performed an important Type III facilitative role by listening and encouraging discursive interaction (Brickey, 2001).
Facilitator as member of the group
According to Bruffee (1993), the social construction of knowledge that occurs in collaborative learning is in part due to the group members functioning as peers. The peer relationship between group members and facilitator is important in breaking down stereotypical barriers between teacher and learners and in establishing all members as co-learners (Geltner, 1994). Thus, the facilitator of Type III performs a dual role, assisting the group in entering into collaborative learning while maintaining the status of member of the group.
In many respects, I did feel like a group member, since often I asked questions from my own personal interests, and did not simply participate when I felt the need to facilitate Type III. This was noticed by David, who remarked that “You haven’t treated it as just a job but something that you’ve also enjoyed and that comes through. It does come through to the class in a very positive way” (DS157-8). Another aspect of our meetings that contributed to my status as group member was inviting a guest farmer to speak at every meeting. This enabled the center of attention to be focused away from me as facilitator and towards the speaker.
James alluded to my dual role in the meetings, stating that “You do a real good job as being part of the group and a facilitator” (JK306). For Greg, my role as a member of the group was a matter of my behaving like the other group members: “You participated…if you had a question you’d talk like the rest of us” (GW440). Greg’s phrase “like the rest of us” signifies what I believe to be important about the facilitator’s role as member of the group. To be effective in facilitating Type III teaching and learning, the facilitator must be seen as a peer instead of as an instructor. In an instructor-led group, the instructor is often viewed as the expert (Horton and Freire, 1990), leading to an imbalance of power between facilitator and group members. In effect, the group members may not view their knowledge as equal in importance to the instructor’s, and may be less likely to share their knowledge (Peters and Armstrong, 1998). Mary agreed with this, stating that “A good facilitator has to be a participant otherwise they’re just like [a] line judge. But a facilitator has to be part of the group. Otherwise it doesn’t work” (MSM419-21). As stated by Mary, the facilitator as moderator or instructor has control over the meeting. If the facilitator is seen as a peer, however, the balance of power is more equally distributed. Even if the facilitator does possess more knowledge about the subject matter than other members of the group, the attitude that the facilitator assumes within the group – becoming “just like the rest of us” – enables members to contribute more freely by affirming that their contributions are equally valuable as those of the facilitator. As Geltner (1994) articulates, a community of collaborative learners “provides a model of human interaction that looks more like a circle of equality than a pyramid of rank” (p.6).
Summary conclusions – Perceptions of facilitation
As an overall experience, participants seemed to react positively when Type III facilitation techniques were implemented. One of the most important aspects of this type of facilitation from the participants’ point of view was making them feel welcomed and their contributions valued, which in turn stimulated participation. Additionally, my actions during the group meeting were perceived as stimulating dialogue among the participants. At the same time, my facilitation provided enough structure to prevent non-productivity. The participating farmers responded favorably to this type of facilitation, frequently comparing it to past learning experiences, in which they had felt unable to speak or express themselves because of a teacher/facilitator’s dominance and subsequently their lack of participation.
Other conclusions regarding facilitation from both the participants and from my point of view can be drawn from the manner in which the learners and I positioned ourselves. When people interact with one another, their ways of speaking and interaction depend upon their relative position. People position themselves by statements, actions, professions, body language, and other communicative venues which in turn influence how they interact with one another. As conversation proceeds, the persons involved can shift position depending on their action/reaction to each other (Davies and Harré, 2001). In the meetings, by providing the food, organizing the sessions, introducing the speaker, and closing the meetings, I positioned myself as the facilitator/organizer. Similarly, in attending the meetings, listening, and asking questions, the participants positioned themselves as learners. The more I acted to facilitate the meetings, the more I positioned myself as facilitator. In a similar fashion, the more participants relied on me to moderate the discussions, the more my position as facilitator and their positions as learners solidified. Given this observation, it is not surprising that my role as organizer and moderator was mentioned so frequently in the interviews.
I attempted, however, to shift my position by inviting guest speakers and joining the group as a member; positioning himself as a co-learner instead of strictly as a facilitator. The position of facilitator shifted as participants turned their attention to the guest speaker, allowing me to facilitate in a collaborative learning manner as a group member. Some participants would occasionally position themselves in a facilitative role by asking questions of other group members, thanking the speakers on the group’s behalf, or offering to host a meeting. As the meetings progressed, the shifting of positions between the group members and I seemed to occur more frequently as we became more comfortable learning with each other.
For the facilitator to truly become a co-member, each group member must also become responsible for facilitation of Type III (Armstrong, 1999). Bohm (1990) describes the role of the facilitator as someone to get the dialogue started and explain things periodically, but who will eventually “work himself out of a job”. Indeed, I observed that I was able to facilitate Type III best when I allowed participants to assume some of the responsibilities of facilitation. Thus, while the facilitator in Type III teaching and learning must be prepared to utilize techniques to assist the group in engaging in collaborative learning, this time might be better spent modeling these techniques from the position of a group member. By doing so, the facilitator positions other group members to assume facilitation responsibilities on their own.
Educational & Outreach Activities
January 2003: QUIG Qualitative Research Conference – Athens, GA
October 2002: East Tennessee Agriculture and Community Exposition – White Pine, TN
Fazio, R.A. 2003. Collaborative Learning among Farmers as an Approach to Alternative Agricultural Education. University of Tennessee: Unpublished doctoral dissertation.
Fazio, R.A. and J.M. Peters. 2004. Collaborative Learning among Farmers as an
Approach to Alternative Agricultural Education. (Document in preparation for submission).
Type I teaching and learning has long been used as a method of presenting specific agricultural information. However, in the field of agricultural education there seems to be a contradiction in the type of knowledge needed by farmers investigating alternative agriculture and the method by which it is distributed. Currently, the majority of educational events in the Southern Region pertaining to alternative agriculture focus upon the presentation of new ideas to farmers. The intent of such events is that ideas will be taken back to the farm by participating farmers and adopted into current farming operations. However, ideas, by their nature, are fundamentally different from specific information – they are context-based and conceptual. For example, shifting from tobacco production to blueberry production is a conceptual idea, whereas how to grow blueberries is specific information. In addition, the decision of a farmer to shift from tobacco to blueberry production carries with it financial, social, and emotional consequences; however, the freedom to discuss these complex issues is rarely present in most agricultural education events.
Presentation of specific information by way of Type I teaching and learning remains an important part of agricultural education. However, the nature of alternative agricultural education suggests that conceptual information is equally as important as specific knowledge. By continuing to only utilize a Type I approach for sharing concepts and ideas, educators are implementing an educational strategy towards a purpose for which it is not fully adequate. Type III teaching and learning, however, considers the needs of farmers to ask questions, to dialogue, and to build knowledge about ideas – a construction of knowledge which is necessary prior to adopting a new farming practice. The findings of this study indicate that collaborative learning, implemented along with Type I strategies, was helpful to participating farmers as they investigated alternative agriculture options. Thus, a more comprehensive educational strategy consisting of these two types of teaching and learning may better assist farmers in the Southern Region make choices regarding alternative agriculture.
Perhaps the most striking outcome of the meetings, however, was that seven out of nine participating farmers mentioned that they wanted the meetings to continue into the future: “I think that we need to not stop these meetings” (SL331); “I hate to see them end. I wish we could do it again” (RG272); “I think we oughta just keep meeting somewhere once in awhile just to talk about things” (SW412). The positive manner in which participants related to the meetings reflects that the style of meeting designed and implemented in this study was well-received by participants. More importantly, the desire to continue our meetings seemed to have been constructed in the process of working together. As Merrill (2003) reports, individual connection to the group is a jointly constructed outcome of the collaborative learning process. In expressing a desire to continue the meetings, both the participants demonstrated that they had become a part of something good, a way of “going on” that they had created together.
For practitioners (researchers, educators and farmers) interested in pursuing this strategy, the following suggestions can be gleaned from the findings of this investigation:
First, practitioners should consider the purpose of their educational strategy – is it to provide specific or technical information, or is it to create suggestions or ideas? The needs of the targeted audience must be taken into account when making these determinations, and the purpose of the educational program will determine if Type III strategies are applicable. Regardless of the type of teaching and learning chosen, the results of this study strongly suggest that farmers both need and want to participate in the learning process. Informal meetings utilizing Type III teaching and learning are a good choice for fostering participation; however, practical circumstances such as size of the audience, location, and time may limit the use of a meeting-style educational event.
Second, if Type III is deemed applicable, a similar combination of combined teaching and learning typologies integrated into one learning experience is recommended. The results of this study demonstrated that the combined structure was well received by participating farmers since it provided a blend of teaching and learning types, yet it allowed farmers to participate in the construction of knowledge. Additionally, farmers engaging in this process for the first time may feel uncomfortable entering directly into a Type III experience, and transitioning from more familiar teaching and learning typologies into Type III can ease their discomfort.
Third, practitioners should be attentive to aspects of the physical environment. In this study, the sharing of a meal and the circular seating arrangement set the stage for a collaborative experience by demonstrating a sense of caring for the participants, as well as fostering the informal social atmosphere necessary for Type III.
Fourth, practitioners may need to challenge their own assumptions of agricultural education. The recognition that people’s perspectives of agriculture are socially constructed and that these socially constructed perspectives shape the actions of farmers suggests that simply providing information will not empower farmers to construct the knowledge they need to make decisions regarding their farming operations.
Fifth, practitioners must recognize that the learners are the most important part in any agricultural education event. The most valiant efforts to create an informative and well-structured educational activity are for naught if the program does not account for the needs and desires of participating learners as a top priority. A Type III approach can be very beneficial in this regard, since group members construct knowledge around what is meaningful to them.
Sixth, Type III research and practice requires a diligent effort on the part of the practitioner, especially if that practitioner plans to facilitate the process. Anyone interested in a more collaborative practice should consider becoming familiar with Peters and Armstrong’s (1998) types of teaching and learning, as well as Peters’ (2002b) four elements of collaborative learning. However, successful implementation of Type III techniques will only come with practical experience, along with a personal style of facilitating collaborative learning that is specifically suited to the situation and developed through the practitioner’s skills as a facilitator. In implementing Type III, the facilitator must learn that his or her knowledge is of no more value than any other participant and that the contributions of all participants are crucial to constructing knowledge and building community.
Although in the technical sense this question is not applicable for this study, engagement in this investigation involved farmers voluntarily participating in the meetings for nearly one year. Participation by the same group of farmers, combined with the facts that the farmers themselves frequently invited their friends and colleagues to join the meetings and that these farmers expressed a desire to continue the meetings even after data collection was complete, suggests “adoption” of the educational approach utilized in this study.
Areas needing additional study
It is noteworthy that the results of this study suggest that Type III teaching and learning combined with Type I is an effective approach to stimulate ideas and affect choices regarding agricultural practices. However, farmers in this study frequently indicated that specific information is also an important component in agricultural education. Therefore, in future research endeavors the researcher plans to utilize the following two-step approach: First, meetings could be hosted similar to the ones detailed in this study. In these meetings, farmers would be given an opportunity to discuss aspects of the meeting on which they would like more specific information. Second, follow up meetings could be scheduled that focus upon the presentation of information related to topics of their choosing. Hopefully, this approach would allow farmers to collaboratively investigate alternative agricultural ideas, and afford them an opportunity to learn about specific information regarding the agricultural topics they are considering implementing on their farms.
Additionally, it is important to note that this study only investigated participating farmers’ perceptions of collaborative learning in conjunction with the more traditional Type I teaching and learning. How the knowledge created in this process factors into farmers’ decisions regarding adoption of alternative practices remains to be investigated.