Summer 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA7

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Paradigms for Program Planning

It's time to examine the assumptions of the program planning model and explore new ways of meeting the needs of society through education. This article argues that the reductionistic program planning model is a useful tool, but only in certain situations. New ways of approaching complex social issues, called wicked problems by public administrators, need to be considered.

Thomas F. Patterson, Jr.
Extension Associate Professor
Department of Vocational Education and Technology
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
University of Vermont-Burlington.
Email address:

The program planning model has dominated the development of Extension programs for more than 20 years. While adherence to this model has given Extension a systematic and logically defensible means of developing programs to meet society's needs, our success has been limited. Have American family problems been solved? Is American agriculture cured of its difficulties? Are youth today less at risk? Of course not.

It's time to examine the assumptions of the program planning model and explore new ways of meeting the needs of society through education. This article argues that the reductionistic program planning model is a useful tool, but only in certain situations. New ways of approaching complex social issues, called wicked problems by public administrators, need to be considered.

Current Assumptions

The traditional Extension program planning model is based on five reductionistic assumptions:

  1. Problems and objectives can be identified. The model begins with a needs assessment that leads to a problem statement. Objectives are developed that drive Extension programs expressly designed to solve the identified problem. Programmatic success or failure is measured against these objectives.

  2. The defined problems can be solved by people with appropriate expertise. This assumption underlies rationale for using the research and subject-matter expertise of the land grant university to support Extension efforts. Experts bring their acumen to bear on society's problems. Problems are broken down into disciplines and then attacked by specialists who become professional technological fixers.

  3. Problems and objectives are put into operational or quantitative terms and solutions are modeled to achieve optimal performance. To be rational and measurable, problems and objectives are assigned numerical indicators so progress can be monitored. Resolution of these problems comes in the form of an educational intervention, based on previously defined models of implementation.

  4. Improvements come from the implementation of solutions. Once the problem has been identified and solutions modeled, the best model is executed to solve the problem. Technology is transferred to resolve the issues of those identified in need.

  5. The analyst is independent of the problem, a consultant who makes recommendations to a client. To be fully objective and impartial, Extension personnel remain apolitical and scientific in devising educational programs and in providing advice and counsel to clientele.1

A program planning model based on these assumptions has been used to develop Extension programs regardless of the complexity of the expressed problem. It has been most successfully employed in addressing well-defined issues and where desired outcomes are agreed on, such as eradicating mastitis in dairy cows or ensuring food safety.

This planning model has, however, failed to result in programs capable of solving ill-defined, complex human problems where there's disagreement on the desired outcomes.

New Paradigm Assumptions

By reducing a multifaceted human issue into measurable bits, users of this model ignore critical characteristics of the whole, called emergent properties. In fact, the general failure of reductionistic methods has led to the development of alternative ways of viewing and approaching paradoxical human issues. Rather than divide problems into smaller and smaller chunks to be examined by experts, a new holistic paradigm for examining problems in their entirety has emerged. It's based on a very different set of assumptions:

  1. Problems and solutions are constructs of the mind. Problems don't exist independently from those who define them. Thus, a sense of unease is defined as a problem only by those who believe that a problem exists. Many of today's problems are so complex and so far-reaching that their complete dissolution is unrealistic. A more realistic expectation is to improve a complex problem situation. Correspondingly, no magic solutions exist, only ideas generated by humans to solve their self-defined problems.

  2. People have different views of the same situation. A problematic situation is viewed differently by the people affected. What may be an engineering problem for a dam builder is viewed as a cultural problem by the native inhabitants of the land to be flooded. Each group impacted by the situation defines the problem in its own terms, with each problem definition simply being a different aspect of the same phenomenon. Thus, there are no reductionistic problems, only holistic problem situations.

  3. People disagree on what's the actual state and desired state. Since there's no agreement on what the problem is (that's why we call it a problem situation), it follows that there won't be agreement on the solution. What's an acceptable solution to some may be unacceptable to others.

  4. Improvements result from discussion and debate. Rather than recommending a solution to the problem to be implemented or technology to be transferred, improvements to the problem situation are made through discussion and debate by the parties involved in the problem situation. In effect, the impacted parties learn together.

  5. The analyst becomes part of the problem situation. The analyst doesn't pretend to be an objective third-party "scientist" objectively observing the situation. He or she becomes part of the problem situation. Rather than developing and testing hypotheses, the systemic investigator uses action research to learn along with the impacted parties in formulating improvements.

Implementing a New Paradigm

Several conceptual tools and techniques of the new paradigm could be useful in the Extension program planing process. For example, mind mapping is a way of pictorially representing a central idea that shows relationships among key concepts.2 The antithesis of linear note-taking, a mind map organizes information so the brain can process it more efficiently. Using action research, the researcher and client work together in exploring, analyzing, and understanding the client's situation. Collaboratively learning together, they gain insight into the situation, allowing them to make better, more informed decisions.3 Soft systems methodology (SSM) is a systemic (not systematic-that's old paradigm thinking) way of exploring a wicked problem that helps participants learn their way to insight. Holistic or systems thinking is used to analyze the patterns and relationships found within the problem situation. Improvements come from discussion and debate among impacted groups.4 Total systems intervention (TSI), the latest systems methodology to evolve, uses a range of systems metaphors to encourage creative thinking to bring about social change.5

Because current reductionistic program planning methods have failed to solve those intractable societal problems that have been so clearly articulated in national and state Extension plans for years, it would seem that Extension is ready to explore new ways of approaching old problems. Extension prides itself on being an organization that uses research-based information to help others deal with change. The research base in problem- solving and improvement methodologies has grown in sophistication and application over the last 20 years. Extension's switch to issues-based programming was a small step in the right direction. It's time for Extension to take a giant leap and make the paradigm shift to include more holistic ways of approaching today's and tom-orrow's complex problem situations.


1. These assumptions are derived from an article by Richard Bawden, "Systems Thinking and Practice in Agriculture," Journal of Dairy Science, LXXIV (No. 7, 1991), 2362-2373.

2. Tony Buzan, Use Both Sides of Your Brain (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974).

3. Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart, The Action Research Planner (Geelong, Victoria, Australia: Deaking University Press, 1988).

4. For more information on SSM, see, Peter Checkland, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981) and Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes, Soft Systems Methodology in Action (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1990).

5. Robert L. Flood and Michael C. Jackson, Creative Problem Solving (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991).