August 9, 2014

Agricultural education in New Zealand. 5. Better ways needed for learning

 By Dr Clive Dalton

A new approach is URGENT
New Zealand’s primary industries should be screaming for a new approach to education, using every possible aspect of the Internet access aided by ultra fast fibre. What we are using today is already old technology. The big problem for our future exports is that we are suffering badly from DKDK  (don’t know what we don’t know) to meet future technical and economic challenges.

KDK (know what we don’t know) is bad enough if we are honest enough to admit it, but many aren’t, and there are few signs in overall Ag learning to get action to fix things.  You rarely see this subject raised in the farming media by industry commentators, or what the PrimaryITO is planning to do. 

Farming just seems to accept that the status quo is OK as nobody is complaining and demanding more money and resources from the government where the Minister of Agriculture is around 13th in the caucus pecking order.  PrimaryITO staff have to spend far too much valuable time finding enough students to fill classes, and then make sure they attend to complete their NZQA Units.  In my Polytech days we were buried in paper concerning the NZQA farming Units, and I suspect it’s no better now.

But would current Ag educators welcome drastic change, as it will commit the old ways to the scrap heap. I'm sure they would.  The variation between tutors’ ability and resources at their disposal over the country was always an  issue, and the bureaucrat's answer was 'moderation' where tutors would meet and marks compared.  It drove most tutors mad with the paper work and waste of time involved.

more use of the Internet and sharing of the best national resources available is the obvious way to help this.  Thankfully it’s starting to happen – but far too slowly to meet the 2015 targets.

When I was interviewed for the job of Assistant University Lecturer’s, I was never asked if I could teach, or even if I liked young people.  It was assumed that if I had tertiary qualifications I could teach, which is both arrogant and outrageous.  And it’s equally dangerous to assume that any qualified technical person can teach in a way that students can learn from them.  Finding out is the hard part – and is often take as being too hard, so everything just carries on the way it has done in the past.  This won’t do for the needs of 2025.

As you age in teaching, it’s easy to assume that what you know now will get you through, without the chore and more likely humiliation, of having to retrain. Imagine if you couldn’t cope and were found out!  I had this experience after retirement on the Polytech IT course when I struggled among a class of folk who had done very little academic work.  I got so frustrated by seeing far better ways to teach things, that were easier for us dummies to learn.  But again, nobody complained about the tutors or the organisation.

This hope of not having to update is also common with scientists, when faced with ever increasing numbers of published papers to read, with statistical techniques that we don’t understand and dare not take on trust.  We rarely bother to try and understand them, and are always reluctant to find somebody (younger) to explain them to us.  What would happen to our ego?

Many of us think that we don’t want any more technology, even if others say we need it, as we can’t handle what we’ve got already.  And making things work is frequently far too difficult, with manuals generally of little help beyond the ‘quick start’ page. And even that page needs reading about ten times.

When you have found out how to use something by trial and error, you then find that the manual or the ‘Dummies Guide’ is helpful.  The only hope is to get one-to-one help from someone still at school – while reminding them all the time to go slowly, and repeat things again – and again.  Or get help from the Internet.

Urgent actions needed to meet 2025 targets

Individual learning
People have differing learning abilities, and people in employment have different work and family responsibilities. Everyone in education knows this, so learners are going to learn better if they can have their individual needs met, provided they get help when needed to avoid getting discouraged.  Too much failure leads to frustration and puts learners off, especially if there’s a time limit on their learning.

Professor Sugata Mitra did some amazing research in deprived areas of India with his ‘hole in the wall experiment’, where nobody had ever gone to school and nobody would go to teach.  He stuck a computer in a wall down town like an ATM and left it, knowing that in no time kids would gather around and start pressing keys to see what appeared on the screen. He secretly observed what went on over a period of months.

The kids gathered in droves to press keys and help each other, and surprisingly nobody vandalised the machine.  So in no time they had learned how to work the computer and use it to find information.  Some had even learned English from it.  See link below.  It’s mind blowing.

So the message is that young folk will learn what they see a need for, and especially if learning has a strong element of fun and reward.  And they love learning from each other – helping, challenging and celebrating success in learning. The good news is that this is going on in an increasing number of New Zealand primary schools with full use of computers and other support equipment, and continuing up the system into higher learning. It’s an IT world already; so all schools need all the technology they need.    It shouldn’t depend on parents to provide this.

Young folk today are not afraid to make mistakes using computers, which is in direct contrast to the older generation who were brought up in an age of the teachers’ feared red pen, marking large crosses to show that you got it wrong - again.  It engendered fear of failure, and took all the fun out of learning.  Looking back on my school days, fear of failure and it’s consequences was sadly the main driver. 

So the obvious solution is to organise – or let learners organise themselves, joint sessions with friends, peers, mentors, employers, coaches, or anybody else they trust, to learn using the Internet what they see is needed to advance their Ag careers.  They could race through the material very quickly and keep moving on.

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