Best Practices for Field Days E-Tips for Environmental Educators
Welcome to this edition of the EE E-Tip for Field Days - the quarterly source for practical tips to raise the impact of field day programs. We want to hear your suggestions for improving this resource. Send your ideas to Nate Meyer.
EE E-TIP: Field days and similar events also work well for adult learners.
In over six-years of delivering workshops on the Best Practices for Field Days, we have learned that our participants often work with adult learners. When we talk about assessing youth audiences, they inevitably ask "Can field days work for adults?" and "How are adult learners different than youth?" The first question is easy to answer: Yes. Field days or similar events can serve adults well. And we are all similar - adults and children - in that we have different kinds of learning preferences, backgrounds and worldviews, and personal interests. But there are a few qualities of our learners and presentations that we need to give special attention when working with adults.
The following is a short summary of important characteristics of adult learners. You can also view a more detailed web presentation https://umconnect.umn.edu/adultlearning/.
Adults are variable in many ways.
For most of our learners, adulthood spans many more years, situations and life stages than childhood. In some ways, I was an adult as both an 18 yr old college student, an intern in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, an educator for Extension, and a new father. In her Characteristics of Adults as Learners (CAL) model, Karen Cross provides us a helpful set of characteristics to make sense of this variability among adult learners:
- Personal Characteristics. Adults have personal characteristics like their age, life phases (e.g., single, newly married, or retired) and developmental stages. Imagine, for example, teaching a session on rain gardens at a public water festival. Your group of adult learners may encompass a single, second year college student attending for her environmental studies course; a newlywed couple who are landscaping their first home; and a retired Master Naturalist volunteer interested in advanced training.
- Situational Characteristics. Adults also learn in different situations - some mandatory (e.g., job training) and others voluntary (e.g., watching NOVA or This Old House). The Minnesota Voluntary Forest Management Guidelines training is probably job-related for participants. Training at an Earth Day event on selecting and installing energy efficient windows may cater to both job-related participants and homeowners.
So: Assessing the personal and situational factors of your adult learners is akin to knowing the grade level and curriculum that your youth participants study. It will help you identify potential content, activity characteristics and connection points for your presentations or events.
Adults have real needs and problems to solve.
Though they have individualized personal and situational characteristics, we tend to define adults collectively as people with real responsibilities for themselves and others. To meet these responsibilities, our adult learners tend to have real problems to solve (e.g., improving the energy efficiency of a home, raising children who understand and care about their natural resources, or mastering fly fishing). Subsequently, they have real, immediate needs to learn new knowledge and skills (e.g., how to install energy efficient windows, make the most of family time outdoors, or make a roll cast). Moreover, they tend to be self-directing learners. Unless your field days and other events are mandatory for some reason, your adult participants have decided that the event will probably meet their needs, help them solve their problems. They have made a decision that your events are probably more interesting or useful than alternatives like an internet site, book or television show.
So: You should always think about and ask what motivates adult learners to take part in your programs. Why are they here? Why do they think it will be helpful for them? It is absolutely important to focus your events and presentations on meeting their personal needs, and help them clearly see their progress towards meeting their responsibilities.
Adults learn and experience through the lens of their past.
You have no doubt set quietly through a presentation or program before, and thought to yourself, "This is bunk. I don't buy it." or "Nice try but it isn't enough to change the way I see or act in the world." You keep doing things or thinking in the way that has always worked for you. There is some evidence that the way we learn and experience the world around us is different as adults than children. In adulthood, some psychologists suggest, we experience the world through the lens of our past experiences and feelings. In childhood, according to these psychologists, it is more likely that our experiences of the world guide our thoughts.
The following is a brief example of an experience with a snake from an education study (Hyun, 2005):
3-year Old Female Child: "What is this? I see it has no legs. But it moves! [I wonder] how it moves without legs?"
Child's Father: "Oh, it's a snake! Don't touch it! It may have some poison."
You can imagine this taking place at a family field day focused on exploring nature. A father and child see a snake. Seeing the animal immediately raises the child's curiosity. But, the father reacts with caution. Drawing from his experience with snakes (possibly in years of accumulated books, movies, etc. or possibly real) he says it might be poisonous. You can imagine him catching her hand as she tries to reach out.
It should be apparent that this difference in perception is critical for adults in managing a child's learning and safety. You can also imagine how this can clearly affect an adult's willingness or ability to learn new ideas and skills.
So: When preparing, it is important to consider experiences and feelings that your adult participants are likely to carry into your presentations and events. It is important to consider whether their past experiences and feelings are in 'concert' or 'conflict' with your content and activities. Moreover, it will typically be helpful to draw on your participants' different experiences and multiple ways of knowing as a way to co-learn from each other.
Try a little 'andragogy' (the practice of teaching adults) in your next event or presentation.
Malcolm Knowles is often credited with popularizing 'andragogy', the practice of teaching adults, in the US. He and others have extensively detailed strategies for successful adult education. Visit this online version of The Adult Learner to learn more about andragogy. The following are a few tips to address the three characteristics that have been covered in this article:
Ask your adult participants to answer three key assessment questions before your event or presentation. These questions can help you uncover a common motivation or learning preference among participants that was not on your radar. They may help you recognize a VERY experienced learner planning to attend the class, and prepare to draw on her/his experiences.
- Rank your TOP THREE choices for workshop topics that will help you address your needs.
- Describe briefly one or two examples of how you hope to use skills/knowledge learned during this workshop?
- To what extent do the following represent ways that you prefer to learn in workshops? (Provide a list of possibilities like 'PowerPoint' or 'Trying things for myself'.)
Make your presentations and events accessible for a variety of adult participants. Consider your activities, setting, handouts and other resources from the viewpoints of adult learners with different personal characteristics. You may intend to have them hike too far. The font size on your handout may be too small, or the language too technical. Or they may prefer a website rather than travel to an in-person event.
Make your presentations and events practical, practical, practical for your adult participants. Practicality is a focus on what is feasible for your learners, their actual use rather than theory. Recall that they have immediate needs to satisfy, and are likely to put into use the ideas/skills from your presentations right away. So, it is helpful to build handouts or resources that they can use right away, even practice using during your presentation. It may be helpful to structure your presentation around solving a problem - their problem. For example, a presenter might begin a field day presentation on fly fishing by providing participants with a stream map, and having small groups select a good fishing spot using a list of criteria to consider. She might ask participants to practice roll casting on a stream edge crowded with alder.
Use collaborative methods. Involving your adult participants in collaborative work can help them to share past experiences, feelings and co-learn from each other. For example, a field day presentation on making the most of family time in nature might involve participants in sharing childhood memories of time spent in nature. Working in small groups, they could analyze their collective memories for common threads - things that work well or do not. We have described a variety of team learning activities in a previous tip. There are also a variety of activities that can help you initiate discussion about complex and value-laden issues.
Project and protect your adult participants' success. Failure has real consequences for your adult learners insofar as they are involved in your presentations and events to meet immediate needs, solve real problems. Consequently, they can be particularly vulnerable. Therefore, it is important to structure your activities to avoid unnecessary risk, and provide a high success rate in practice. For instance, participants in a field day presentation on installing energy efficient windows should personally experience a safe and successful installation. They should leave with a clear awareness of how to tackle the problems that may come up in their own home installations.
Give your adult learners genuine praise often. Consider providing a periodic agenda recap or a checklist to reinforce progress toward solving the problem or meeting needs. Make a follow-up phone call, if possible, or offer some consultancy time to help your adult learners in applying lessons learned in your presentations and events
Field days, water festivals and other similar events are indeed effective strategies for teaching adults. In fact, Franz, Piercy, Donaldson, Westbrook and Richard reported in a recent study that 88% of 94 farmers described 'field days' as a preferred way of learning. The only preferences that superseded 'field days' were 'hands on,' 'demonstration,' and 'farm visit,' in other words, very practical teaching strategies. When planning events that focus on teaching adults, it is therefore important to ensure their practicality. Draw out and utilize participants' past experiences. And account for the variability of adult learners personal and situational characteristics. A well-designed field day can have a significant and immediate impact on your adult learners' daily lives.
Best Practices for Field Days is a University of Minnesota Extension program. The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Minnesota Extension is implied.
For more information on using effective teaching methods for field day presentations, review the Use Experiential Teaching Methods section of the Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers - pages 61 to 73. Curriculum copies, workshop and other information are available online at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays.
Use the new Best Practices for Field Days Events Calendar to promote your field days and festivals, connect with presenters and volunteers. Learn more about the calendar and http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays/Calendar/.
Learn more about evaluating field days and water festivals with the Best Practices for Field Days Observation Assessment Tool http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays/evaltool.html.
To learn more about the Best Practices for Field Days, read our short article in the online http://www.joe.org/joe/2004october/tt4.shtml.
Bardon, R., Meyer, N., Moore, S., Overholt, G., Peterson, G., Simon-Brown, V., Smith, S.S., Stortz, & P.J., Vandenberg, L. (2009). Communication techniques for initiating discussion about complex value-laden decisions. Journal of Extension, 47(1).
Download from http://www.joe.org/joe/2009february/tt1.php
Cross, K.P. (1981). Adults as Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Franz, N.K., Piercy, F., Donaldson, J., Westbrook, J., & Richard, R. (2010). Farmer, agent, and specialist perspectives on preferences for learning among today's farmers. Journal of Extension, 48(3). Download from http://www.joe.org/joe/2010june/rb1.php.
Galbraith, M.W. (2004). The teacher of adults. Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction. 3rd Ed. Ed. Michael W. Galbraith. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co.
Hyun, E. (2005). How is young children's intellectual culture of perceiving nature different from adults'? Environmental Education Research, 11(2), 199.
Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2005). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. 6th Ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.
Leib, S. (1991). Principles of Adult Learning.
Long, H.B. (2004). Understanding adult learners. Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction. 3rd Ed. Ed. Michael W. Galbraith. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co.
Meyer, N. (2007). EE E-TIP: Allow students to work in pairs or teams to solve problems and make discoveries during your field days. Best Practices for Field Days EE E-Tip. Saint Paul: University of Minnesota Extension. Download from http://www.extension.umn.edu/EnvironEd/etips.html.