Learning to learn with farmers : a case study of an adult learning extension project conducted in Queensland, Australia 1990 - 1995

N.A. Hamilton

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    <p>In this thesis, the relationship between the use of participatory processes in the development and use of information and knowledge and their impact on change is described and explored. This research utilises a major extension project carried out with respect to fallow management in southern Queensland, Australia between 1991 and 1995. This project was carried out by a project team known as the Viable Farming Systems Group (VFSG).<p><strong>The problem addressed by the extension project.</strong> At the commencement of the project the fallow management practices in use left the soil unprotected from intense rainfall. Consequently, much of the rainfall ran off the cultivations. In the process, soil erosion was worsened and soil moisture storage, so necessary for growing profitable crops, was not optimised. Scientific research had demonstrated that by maintaining stubble cover above 30%, soil erosion was minimised and soil moisture storage in the fallow was optimised. Yet, in 1990, less than 30% of farmers were implementing the findings of this research. The extension project was undertaken to promote change in fallow management practices amongst farmers in southern Queensland. The project initially aimed to use a Transfer of Technology approach, the dominant approach used in the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI). Debate, within the extension environment of the QDPI and Australia generally, challenged this approach as being the most appropriate with participatory action learning being suggested as being more appropriate.<p><strong>The problem addressed by this research.</strong> Initially, the research focussed on deciding the most appropriate approach for the project. This was determined to be participatory action learning. The research then focussed on (i) the relationships between participatory processes and client decision making, and (ii) the role of information in these processes. The research and the project were different entities but were intimately and systemically linked. The pursuit of the project purpose generated case studies that allowed the pursuit of the research purpose. The results of the research fed back into the project and modified its role and process.<p><strong>The research methodology and approach.</strong> The research was emergent in design. It proceeded on the basis of a series of eleven interventions, a mix of pre-planned, opportunistic and serendipitious activities. The research was mainly qualitative in nature due to the complex nature of the social phenomena being inquired into. The research was undertaken from a constructivist perspective and using the principles of grounded theory, followed a Participatory Learning and Action Research (PLAR) methodology. My tools and perspectives in undertaking this research included soft systems thinking, Agricultural Knowledge and Information systems, a coupled system's approach to managing ecosystems and an actor oriented approach. The research process began with the identification of focal questions. These were refined during a two phase market research process, and explored during the nine case studies. The theoretical insights generated by the research are analysed and the theoretical and practical implications are discussed.<p><strong>Market research phases.</strong> This was a consultative process conducted over two phases. The first used a rapid rural appraisal (RRA) to produce a wide overview of the problem situation. The second phase used a focus group analysis to validate and probe in depth priority issues emerging from the RRA, and to verify or legitimatise project assumptions. The RRA revealed: (i) important elements (and hence linkages) of the knowledge system that were not encompassed by the original proposal; areas of knowledge deficit that required further investigation during the subsequent phases of the market research in order to allow action to be planned and implemented; and, areas of knowledge deficit that required action (to be planned and implemented in conjunction with clients) to develop or capture the required knowledge.<p>The Focus Group Analysis revealed that: (i) the situation we were intervening into was complex, with an associated extended Knowledge System; (ii) actors had preferred communication channels; (iii) decision makers required information supporting strategic decision making rather than operational decision making; (iv) decision makers required understanding of the fundamental causes of land degradation rather than prescriptions of solutions; and, (v) the information requirement extended beyond technical information to economic and social information and the interactions between these.<p>The outcomes of the market research phases produced different reaction amongst the scientific community, the farming community and the project team. Scientists tended to dismiss the findings as unrigorous because they were not statistically based, while those working in the farming community tended to discuss the findings as already being common knowledge. The criticism at first threatened the cohesion of the team. But in intensive team discussions, they realised that the criticism was basically unfounded, and appreciated that the VFSG was involved in discovering or creating a complementary paradigm began to develop. The team believed they were on an exciting and important learning path. The market research phases had given the team cohesion, and empathy with the range of people involved directly or indirectly with farming were created. In this respect, undoubtedly the biggest impact was brought about by the greater understanding of the multiple "world views" concerning viable farming systems through communicating and interacting with respondents.<p>The market research phases uncovered some important lessons from and changed the project direction. Lessons included..<br/>(i) By balancing the status between departmental staff and the interviewee, better information emerged.<br/>(ii) The use of third party interviewers demonstrated the value of alternate worldviews.<br/>(iii) The team members of the MG developed enduring social research skills.<br/>(iv) The power of qualitative research processes was demonstrated in the range of emergent issues, breadth of data, contextual details and insights.<br/>(v) Altered the deemed importance of various stakeholders. (vi) Changed project management objectives.<br/>(vii) Challenged long standing assumptions.<br/>(viii) Discovered that information for strategic decisions was a major issue.<br/>(ix) confirmed that a RRA will create a demand amongst participants for follow up activities.<p>As a result of the market research, the original project proposal, its assumptions and TOT approach were discarded. The market research phases demonstrated that participatory approaches were promising mechanisms for initiating and facilitating change. The market research also illuminated areas where MG activities could be developed and implemented. These activities were then the nine cases studies that the subsequent research focused on.<p><strong>New Applications for old tools</strong> included the <strong>Rainfall Simulator</strong> which allowed clients to develop better understanding of the relationship between fallow management practices, rainfall, soil moisture storage and runoff and to experiment with optimising soil moisture storage; the <strong>Soil Corer</strong> which allowed clients to develop better understanding of their soil profile and monitor soil moisture storage, and, <em><strong>How Wet</strong> ,</em> a decision support tool, which allowed clients to gain a better understanding of their soil-water relationships from rainfall records.<p>These tools were the most powerful initiators of change. These tools allowed clients to play with their environment, to test various options, to gather information, to enhance our and the client's understanding of the problem situation, and to gain knowledge without any direct risk. They were highly reproducible processes for a range of facilitators, client groups, and situations in time and space. Their impact was enhanced by science facilitating the process and the client becoming the researcher. This change in roles enhanced the clients' self perception of their status, and their perception of their ability to generate knowledge and the value of that knowledge. In turn, this enhanced their trust in the research and its results and their understanding of the situation. This enhanced perception is the driving force that makes these tools and their associated processes powerful agents in creating change. Conversely, fear of perceived loss of status associated with being a facilitator was a barrier for some scientists to adopting this role. The use of the tools in group situations was also important in their success. Through dialectic discourse and joint observation, understanding is enhanced and consequently, more purposeful decision making is made by the clients. We also learnt that these tools and processes contained "black boxes" which, when opened, enhanced the client's trust in the tool and the belief they had in the results. The status attached to these tools by farmers as they used them was also an important agent in their impact. We also learnt that the power of these tools in initiating change was related to the tools being compatible with the clients' preferred learning style.<p><strong>The creation of new tools for specific purposes and clients</strong> included the <strong><em>Fallow</em><em>Management Game</em></strong><em></em> - a computer based game that provides information to users as a normal decision support program, but it also facilitates discussion, information exchange and learning between producers within groups- , and, <em>With and Without</em> - a <em></em> comparative analysis tool designed to analyse and test options on a whole farm basis. These tools enhance participatory learning by engaging in a form of "risk-free" action research based on formal representations of real farm situations.<p>The <em>Fallow Management Game,</em> when it was used by groups, facilitates learning between group members. Farmers also enjoyed playing the game and expressed that "farming in a fun sense" had an impact on how they responded in practice. Clients play a role in developing the game. By playing the game, farmers identify which variables would be useful to their decision making and these variables are incorporated in updated versions.<p>Prior to our involvement, <em>With and Without's</em> main use had been within the QDPI, to improve extension officer's understanding of the costs and benefits of change, with only the results being transferred to farmers, that is, a classic TOT approach. We tested the use of the tool in two situations: (i) a co-learning situation within a PLAR framework (between the VFSG team and farmers) to test the implications of major changes in strategy on a whole farm basis, and, (ii) as a framework for delivering a semi-formal education course for DAC graduates.<p>The use of these tools brought home to professional agriculturalists and farmers the need for such tools in order to understand and explore "reality" from differing perspectives. The tools provided a forum in which scientists', extensionists', and farmers' experience and knowledge were placed on a more equal footing than is the case in the TOT approach. Information and data were shared, not transferred. Both farmers' and agricultural professionals' understanding were enriched by the exchange and the opportunity for dialogue. The tools allowed the manipulation of impersonal-but-contextualised "reality" which could be interrogated at will. In the process, deeper insight into the nature of technology as a social construct was gained. The use of participatory processes to develop information either as an information product for mass distribution or internalised by the participating farmers as personal constructs, demonstrates the power of participation as opposed to the reception of information that the user had not input or participation in. This raised the challenge of replication: how possible is it, in practical terms, to reproduce participatory learning opportunities across the target farming population?<p><strong>Innovative approaches to working with target clients</strong> included <em><strong>Investing in Young Farmers</strong> -</em> working with graduates of the Dalby Agricultural College utilising <em>With and Without</em> as a framework for delivering a semi-formal education course for DAC graduates; <em>Producing information - with farmers, for farmers</em> - producing <em></em> information by transforming existing scientific information with the addition of variables farmers had indicated as being important, through producing rules based information for a research context to producing rules based information for a farmer's context; <em><strong>Making Better decisions for your Property</strong> -</em> a consultative experience of writing strategic decision support information; and, <strong><em>Is Cotton the Crop for Me?</em></strong> a participative experience of writing strategic decision support information.<p>From these activities, we learned that in the group situations, farmers were enabled to develop their own constructs of their current farming system and for where they would like their farming system to go. The information development techniques were of benefit to those participants directly involved in the exercise, but the benefits from the information output that resulted were not generally regarded as being of great use to the broader population.<p><strong>An emergent perspective.</strong> We came to see the system we were dealing with as a 'coupled system' (Roling, 1994) with the implications: (i) that performance would be diverse rather than standardised. and (ii) that sustainability is an emergent property, not a single objective function or end state. We also came to realise that interactions between decision makers and their farming system was both flexible and locked into their (natural and socio-economic) history. We showed that the way to purposefully move forward, is in terms of a co-learning process, by improving insight into systemic relationships and by improving monitoring and visibility of those variables thought to reflect changes in state. We realised however, that researchers and change agents would not readily adopt such a co-learning process unless and until they themselves began to operate in and explore the PLAR mode.<p>We demonstrated that, by means of such a PLAR process, <u>more</u> farmers tried one or more option; that farmers in a greater <u>range of target categories</u> tried one or more options; and that farmers became more purposeful in their decision making. End results were not predetermined by the process. Through improved understanding of the situation they were dealing with, farmers became more purposeful in their decision making, and they arrived at end results that they determined for themselves.<p>We also realised that, however powerful the learning process was for the team, it aroused considerable hostility among other members of our intellectual community. Specifically, it challenged the positivist realist framework of R & D and technology development, and the TOT model of technology adoption at the farm level<p>We discovered that written information is an ineffective mechanism for fostering change. It is more useful as a support mechanism for PLAR activities. However, written information can be made more effective if it enables the recipient to (i) improve their definition of the problem situation-, (ii) provide a framework within which the problem, its solution and communication about the two can be enacted and by providing information maps illuminating where relevant specific information can be found, and, (iii) allowing the stakeholder to seek their own solutions.<p>Of all the activities that the VFSG undertook during this project, the use of these learning tools and learning activities were the activities that had the greatest impact on change. That change has been demonstrated to be quite spectacular and unexpected. The reasons why these learning tools had their impact are many fold: (i) these learning tools were used in an andragogical approach; (ii) the role of the QDPI officers changed from being the technical expert to a role of facilitation; (iii) the process assisted farmers to <u>reflect upon</u> their learning, by providing a feedback loop, with observations and measurements; and, (iv) the activities matched the preferred learning style and perceptual modalities of the participants, with the learning activity. The other great advantage of these learning tools are that they allow a rapid and extensive penetration of the target audience. Contrasting the various activities demonstrates that once participation is not part of the process, the reliability of the method fails.<p>The conclusion is reached that under very simple biological systems, reductionist approaches are adequate in explaining the simple cause and effect relationships. However, to handle complex situations such as sustainability, soft systems approaches and adult learning approaches are concluded to be more effective and efficient. Under these approaches, individual stakeholders are encouraged to build their own constructions, and science has a different role in facilitating learning rather than teaching the scientific construct.<p>These conclusions have implications. When confronted with a problem situation, science will have to carefully explore the situation before making decisions about an appropriate approach. These decisions will be enhanced if research and extension practitioners develop a fuller understanding of the options available and their underlying assumptions. This means sponsoring organisations will have to develop an understanding of the role of experiential learning among their staff and their clients. A key to success will be the training of staff about the various paradigms in use and in the skills needed to successfully apply a particular paradigm. Ideally, this training should start during the formative period of a scientist's development - at University. For scientists already beyond the University system, constructivists have a role to play in assisting positivist realist scientists review their own paradigm and other paradigms. This study also demonstrates it is pointless to use a positivist approach such as TOT to assist in this review. Through a participatory explorations of the paradigms in use and their impact on the methods and areas of interest, new roles for science will emerge. This study indicates the readiness for a paradigm shift in the science of agriculture, both for research and extension. The paradigm shift will not be brought about by applying the processes of the old paradigm. TOT is not effective in complex and messy situations. Paradigm shifts are complex and messy situations. The processes of the new paradigm will be more effective in assisting this paradigm shift to occur.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    Award date20 Dec 1995
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054854760
    Publication statusPublished - 1995


    • adult education
    • australia
    • agricultural extension


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