Often as agricultural education teachers, people ask us to define agricultural education. Most of us respond by explaining that it is a career and technical education program that provides students handson experience related to agriculture through classroom and laboratory instruction, FFA, and Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) programs. Some of us might even throw out the term experiential learning. But when pushed a little further and asked to describe what is meant by hands-on, often our only response is that's what meets the needs of our students. The issue with this superficial response is that it can equate with the notion of busy work as much as it does to minds-on learning activities.
Agriculture is a great context and also provides content for learning. Hands-on activities are great way to engage students; however, it isn't the "hands-on" nature of the activities that makes it learning. One can think of several menial agricultural tasks that are hands-on, but wouldn't correlate to learning. Is mowing lawns, in and of itself, educational? How about pitching manure all day or driving fence posts? How about transplanting plants in a large commercial greenhouse? All of these activities are engaging, use multiple senses, and require the person to be active. There might even be some initial learning that takes place, but how many days will it take before a student learns how to effectively and efficiently manually detassel a corn plant? If we're going to call these hands-on activities, shouldn't something else have to occur?
These activities could easily be part of agricultural education students' individual SAE program. SAE programs face a similar issue where the extent to which students learn from the experience might come into question. Agriculture teachers often talk conceptually about the value and importance of SAE. But in its current state, SAE isn't much more than a contextual record keeping opportunity for students. And that is assuming the teacher values SAE enough to incorporate it into his or her local program. In most cases, it isn't until students begin to complete applications for proficiency awards or state or American FFA Degrees that they are required to discuss how they got started with the SAE and its progress. This is also the point where students are asked to articulate what they learned and to list skills that were developed as a result of the SAE. It seems to be a little late in the SAE program to implement the learning components, especially since SAE is part of a formal agricultural education opportunity. We have a terrific context of agriculture from which to teach and we espouse that we are all about experiential learning, yet we really aren't practicing any of the lifelong learning skills associated with the experiential learning process.
Before expounding on the experiential learning process, let's explore what researchers have learned in the past couple of decades about how people learn. The National Research Council (2000) provides three key research findings related to learning that influence teaching and learning. First, students have a preconception of the world upon entering the classroom. To actively engage students, teachers need to tap into these preconceptions and help students connect their understanding with new concepts and information. Without a connection to existing knowledge, students might not retain the new information beyond an immediate purpose.
Second, in order for students to be competent in an area they must have a deep and factual understanding of the topic, understand the facts and ideas of the topic within a framework, and have that information organized in a way that supports future retrieval and application. Third, a metacognitive approach where students are empowered to learn how to take control of their learning is vital. Such an approach enables students to define learning goals and monitor progress in achieving those goals. …