August 9, 2014

Agricultural education in New Zealand. 2. Better ways needed for future learning

By Dr Clive Dalton

It’s how to ‘learn’ – and not how to ‘teach’
The problem is simple.  Too much emphasis has always been spent on how to teach, and not enough on how to learn.  It was all about teaching and not how much of the teaching had been transferred into learning.  This is such a critical point, which most folk in education fully agree with – but it’s making the changes to make sure it happens where it seems to die. 

Fortunately, because of the use of modern technology and IT motivated teachers – there are a few shafts of light showing through the old traditional gloom.

The Polytech farming students I taught knew nothing about learning, as they had never been shown how to accumulate knowledge – most likely because their teachers/tutors hadn’t been concerned about helping them to learn.  It’s was a very difficult question to answer – how do you learn?  I used to ask them, but it was too hard to think about the answer for them.

A teacher’s job was all about pushing information out, and worry much less (if at all), about information being received.

On many occasions, after I’d been jabbering on thinking I was doing a brilliant job, getting deep into the detail of a topic like preparation for calving, somebody would ask – ‘should we write this down, or should we draw it?  I assumed they would know, but that showed how out of touch I was with their problems of learning.  They had never been shown at school how to take notes.

Sitting listening - were they learning?
My biggest concern was for students who would just sit for the whole day’s class of four hours, listening attentively with arms folded, clearly not suffering too much, and only the occasional one nodding off through work exhaustion.  Many during calving had worked from daylight to dark for 100 days without even an afternoon off.  I once asked what was the biggest deficiency on farms in spring and one student told me it was ‘sleep’. 

These attentive listeners clearly assumed that what they heard would stick in their heads, to be recalled later when it was needed, like having to pass a test. 

I had great concern for them, having suffered hundreds of hours of one-way communication in my own day, when lecturers waffled on making no sense, clearly in a world of their own, and where the clock on the wall wouldn’t go fast enough.  The only hope was to write everything down that came out of their mouths, hoping that on reading it later, it would all become clear.  It rarely did, so approaching exams was always a nightmare.  

What is a lecture?
A good definition of a lecture is –‘where the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student, without passing through the minds of either’.  We even had old lecturers (they were all old in our view) who would stagger in and ask – ‘now where did we get to last time’?  We always told them two lectures back, so we could have a relaxing hour till he finished.

And then remember all the hours wasted by the lecturers/tutors recapping what they had dealt with in the last lecture.  If they thought we looked dumb or confused – they spent most of the current lecture repeating the last one.  Wouldn’t learning on line have prevented all that agony?

We had lecturers whose notes were so old on yellowing foolscap paper, that they had to be turned slowly using both hands, as if they’d been flipped, the pages, would have disintegrated into dust.  How many lecturers declared that in the summer break they’d update or rewrite their lectures – and never got around to it.  I remember having that urge many times.

I assumed that I’d helped my Polytech students’ learning problems with handouts – loads of them, already double punched to be put in a file, with the hope that they would be there for reference if ever needed. I wonder where they are now?

 And I always tried to get students with reading problems to sit in the front row, so I could reach to point out any long words or technical terms for them to highlight.  But it was still all one-way communication.

Hopeless lecturers
I once had Polytech students (and even their employers) contacting me complaining about a colleague’s lectures.  He was so bad that some students refused to come to his classes, getting more benefit from working on the farm.  I and others reported his problem to the HOD but nothing was done, as facing the bureaucratic hoops to get rid of him was far too big an issue. 

It was easier to just let him continue, and hope the complainants would go away – always assuming it was the students’ problem and not the tutor’s.  How’s that for client care, providing value for money, ‘putting customers first’ and ‘wearing your client’s shoes’?

 Why do so many learners quit studies and quit employers?
I wonder where the Minister of Primary Industry came up with the figure of 50,000 new recruits needed by 2015?  Does it take into account advances in technology on farms, hence saving labour, and is that figure over and above today’s employees as a base. Because if it does, it clearly can’t include people exiting the industry and not coming back between now and 2025. 

If you were best guessing, and just looking at dairying with around 12,000 current herds, if each had an average of 2.5 hired staff, that’s 30,000 staff today. A wastage rate of 5%/year would be generous, and I’d go as high as 10%.  So the 50,000 human resource by 2025 is far too low.  The industry could need twice that figure or more, unless technology takes a massive role in replacing people with robots.

Failing to complete
One worrying concern now for the PrimaryITO and the industry, is how many students fail to complete their NZQA Units for the course they sign up for. One of our Waikato Polytech top students who was sharemilking and racing ahead, told me she’d kept in touch with her classmates, and three years later, of the 20 who started with her on a Dairy Farm Trainee course, only three were still in the industry.

On the Wintec IT course I completed after retirement, admittedly for free, only about 6 of us finished from the 20 starting in each of the three classes.  At the initial briefing and welcome, everyone stressed how committed they were to doing the course because of their need for qualifications to get employment.  It was all hot air, when you heard the paltry reasons why folk kept dropping out, and just disappearing without trace.

Staff retention in farming
Farming has always had major problems with staff retention, and apparently still has.  But it’s never talked about or openly discussed to find solutions – as it implies failure. All I ever heard from the old AgITO bureaucrats in my Polytech days was how many new students they had signed up on farming courses – and not the number who had completed their programmes. This was in the day when students paid for their courses so it was their own or borrowed money they wasted. 

Former CEO of the PrimaryITO, Kevin Bryant states in Rural News, August 5, 2014 that in 2013 they had 20,344 people in training to complete 514,550 credits.  Different Units have varying credit values.  That’s great news, but it would be more meaningful to know how many credits were completed, and how many of those trainees were still in the industry in three years time.  The Minister needs those figures every year as an urgent priority – but I suspect getting them is in the too hard basket.

At the Waikato Polytech, we were paid on number of students starting their courses, when it should have been on the number finishing to save the waste of dropouts.  We used to get students who were circulating around different courses with no intention of completing anything, for as long as they were officially 'signed up for  training' - they could qualify for financial support.

Criticism of farmers as employers
Federated Farmers never liked my criticisms implying that many farm employers were the problem, and I got a fair bit of grief from the Waikato Feds about my comments on the subject. The many disappointed mothers of young trainees who chewed my ear about the disappointing future I had promised their offspring, didn’t contact the Federation.

A Federated Farmer spokesperson in reply to criticisms of farm employers recently stressed that staff regularly move on to other jobs to make progress, as this was always part of normal farming.  What she didn’t comment on was employees moving OUT of farming and not employees moving ON. 

This problem doesn’t get a lot of exposure by employers, as it’s being solved by importing foreign labour from the Philippines and the Middle East – and sadly for worse pay and conditions which investigations by the Labour Department when discovered. Nothing seems to have changed over recent decades in terms of farming as an employment opportunity – which will have to be faced to find these 50K employees by 2025.

Research needed
No research seems to have been done on the problem of poor staff retention rates in farming, and whether farming is any different from other industries.  It may not be, but it would be nice to know. 

The question I would like to see researched is this.  Was coming to classes and the lecture style of teaching switching learners off, and would basing everything on line make things more attractive. The industry and the Minister needs to know the answer before any more money and resource is spent on it, and whether the same money should be invested in a complete change of tack using the Internet, for those providers not doing this already.

This research would be tricky, as it would have to measure dropout rate over different periods of time. It's like a rolling maul with people joining, leaving and then rejoining over time.  Once learners had reached the higher levels of training, there's less chance of them leaving due to their commitment to the industry up to that point. 

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