The future of turf grass education?

Phil Sharplesin Training & Education

The future of turf grass education?

By Phil Sharples

After spending the past 9 years working in the sports turf education arena at instructor, lecturer and head of department levels, and spending 5 years previous to this being educated in sports turf (both full and part time), I now feel in a strong position to make informed comment on the current state of affairs within education. Both positive and negative!

This article has been written not to point any fingers but to state how I see the industry at present. After suffering a near death experience, then, upon my recovery, promising myself to live life to the full without fear of anything. I really do not see how holding back my view points will help the industry (that I love) to progress. I mean, what is there to be scared of for speaking your mind exactly?

I have always been a keen educationalist since I trained and guided school work experience students as a trainee greenkeeper 16 years ago. I grew into wanting to work as a teacher of sports turf and I was always willing to work very hard to achieve this goal.

The route I took was as follows; after 5 years working as a greenkeeper in London and with some NVQ's in my pocket, I had a choice to go for a golf course of my own or go to college full time, I chose the later and went to study a HND in golf course management, I had a thirst for knowledge and this was the highest level course available in the UK at the time (1993). I spent a year at the open championship course 'Southern Hills' in the United States before finishing the HND and starting work as an instructor and NVQ tutor at Myerscough College (1996). Working through the ranks and after one thing and another eventually ended up as a lecturer and programme manager. Moving onto Cannington College in early 2001 and the role of head of department for sports turf and golf greenkeeping, where I developed and had validated the foundation degrees in Golf Course Management and Turf Science before returning north of Watford for a relatively short stint at Reaseheath College in 2003 as the senior lecturer in sports turf and greenkeeping.

As the years passed and I went through (or suffered!) staff development I became more aware of teaching methods, techniques and practices as well as the dynamics needed for teaching on different programmes and at different levels while also continually developing my own sports turf education.

After only a few years in the college environment I began to become more aware on how obsessed our industry was on the NVQ system of qualifications.

Of these National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ's) I found level 2 to be worthwhile (though still in need of improvement) due to the basic knowledge it imparted to students both practically and theoretically, but could never get my head around the real benefits of the evidence portfolio related level 3 and level 4. Why did the industry want these qualifications as its benchmark? Was there or could there be an alternative?

The NVQ standards issued at levels 3 and 4 were confusing and open to interpretation. The basic idea was that the learner was directed to gather evidence while supposedly studying and developing their knowledge base. As things turned out the colleges ended up interpreting the standards for the students by devising a series of assignments to meet these supposed standards. Eventually these qualifications evolved into something just as confusing and introduced a multitude of forms to be discussed, filled in and completed by the college, the learner and the employer.


I think it was the helplessness I felt that eventually led to my resignation from my teaching post last year and to my family and I moving over to Spain (we have since moved back). The thought in my head at the time was: Are colleges (and in the vast majority of cases, not the lecturers within them) and our professional bodies really interested in moving the industry forward and improving knowledge and practice or simply interested in going through the motions and passing the maximum amount of students through the education system? It also seemed to me that our professional bodies were simply jumping on the back of college and industry developments and simply endorsing them rather than pushing the industry forward themselves.

We have somehow found ourselves in an age of convenience. An age where you can achieve a NVQ in amenity horticulture by essentially filling in the blanks in a book, and an age where this type of learning is condoned by professional bodies whom have no experience and, it might be said, no real interest in how people really learn in the first place. We are living in an age where employers can become 'qualified' trainers and verifiers in a one or two day training course by moving some tee markers around! It took me years to learn how to teach and instruct! An age where internet courses are condoned as the 'be all and end all' before anyone has actually passed the qualification, and passing certain courses seems to be becoming easier and easier.

What does a teacher do?

Education is a difficult area of work, generally intensive, but never dull. Education is especially difficult in the sports turf industry where most people have their own ingrained views on how things should be done and all other ways should be ignored! With this in mind it should be comforting to know that most lecturers will always encourage learners to read a number of view points before drawing any conclusions.

How difficult can teaching be you may well ask? Well, a typical week for a lecturer/manager might consist of the following:

  • Preparation and lecturing for classes from NVQ level 2 up to Degree level - Up to and above 20 hours per week contact (teaching) time

  • Marking and grading of assignments, tests, etc

  • Monitoring of students performance during practicals

  • Attending departmental and cross college meetings

  • Tutoring - One to one individual advice and guidance to students (FE & HE)

  • Report writing - Monitoring of student attendance, progress and achievement across all further and higher education courses

  • Dealing with new course enquiries

  • Interviewing prospective students

  • Working on timetables for the following term/year

  • Working on the multitude of college self assessment reports

  • Monitoring the many college operating policies ensuring good practice is met within your own department

  • Dealing with individual questions and emails from students

  • Monitoring the college sports grounds and golf course

  • Initiating and integrating the seemingly never ending stream of new directives issued from governing bodies such as NVQ and EDEXCEL

  • Monitoring of full time students on work placement

  • Monitoring of quality of teaching

  • Working on your own development and knowledge (Self development)

  • Dealing with teaching and instructing staff issues

  • Meetings and discussions with college senior management

  • Meetings and discussions and monitoring/feedback sessions with the Work Based Learning staff

  • Preparation for future college events

  • Preparation for future weeks lecture materials

  • Organisation of field trips

  • Attendance to after hours careers events - usually at a nearby school or 6th form college

Plus the many more little things that crop up through the week!

There's some responsibility here, and all this with a wage packet lower than that of a course manager of a typical 18 hole golf course!

So, what are the educational needs of the future?

Industry, the key to success?

First, and perhaps the most important first step, is to encourage the employers and industry into the college environment. Not surprisingly, employers have an exceptional sense as to what they require from a fresh faced newcomer to the company at various levels. They can offer invaluable advice to educationalists as to what skills and knowledge they would like new employees to posses, this then allows the training provider to work toward providing these. Here we have the essential beginnings of a new course or series of courses. Industry can also advise on the latest trends in maintenance and management practice. The ideal would consist of a panel with members from the following fields:

  • Golf course managers

  • Head groundsmen/women

  • Educationalists

  • Researchers

  • Greenkeeper/groundsman/woman

  • Members of professional association (IOG etc)

  • Lecturers/training provider

  • Manufacturers

  • Consultants

With the above we have essentially formed an employers 'steering group' to discuss training needs and identify common trends within industry. This steering group could essentially then move onto developing intense short training courses aimed at:

(a)Sports turf management level

(b)Industry management level

(c)Greenkeeper level

(d)Trainee level

(e)Introductory level

The steering group can also be used to verify and develop a college's full-time curriculum. Membership of these steering groups should last no more than two years before a new panel is appointed. This ensures that no one monopolises or hinders the progress of sports turf education with one view point. You tend to become accustomed to seeing the same old faces at these! The panel should constantly evolve as should some short courses offered by the college and employers should remember that colleges welcome all to attend or join in.

Training content & strategy

It is my opinion that the future of education within sports turf can and will only progress when the awarding bodies, training providers (colleges) and professional organisations identify, detail then initiate future planning around the following points:

  • Current and past performance of training programmes (Nationwide - most important!). Evaluation is everything!

  • Methods of delivery and activities within the programme (One learning style can be destructive to the learning process)

  • The personal and professional development of the trainee

  • Duration of training and length of sessions

  • Allocation of teachers

  • Availability and quality of resources

  • Assessment criteria & methods

  • Monitoring and evaluation of training outcomes (ongoing)

Assuming all the above are carried out, we could assume (if not guarantee) that we are providing a worthwhile education, suitable for industry needs. If we don't how do we know the effectiveness or value of anything?

What types of courses are and should be run?

In the future perhaps the educational courses run at training providers, colleges' and universities' should focus on the following

- Reduced contact courses

Based on distance learning but with proven support packages and advanced training materials such as interactive PowerPoint's, DVD Video and scenario work, a web based hub for contact and interaction with an individual full time tutor, e-books, paper back books and automated testing, evaluation and exam software should be developed. In my opinion, delivered correctly this is the way of the future.

It is also my view that reduced contact courses should be well staffed with student support catering for differing needs and abilities and not just for students that have learning difficulties, but for students of high ability also. Organised meetings with teaching staff and other students should be frequent and could we not develop mobile classrooms? Why not collaborate with the already successful Open University?

- Part time courses

Run through day release, block and intensive short courses - offering something for everyone. Part time courses ensure student contact with colleges and each other. This, in my view, is an essential as we all know that our industry works on knowing people and contacts. Generally, you and your class mates take the first step in this direction with any full or part time course.

Distance learning can, to a certain extent, socially exclude and prevent development of team and common skills. Part-time courses should cater for the experienced and the inexperienced. Evening classes should be looked at as possible new areas for expansion. With the few evening classes I taught, I found them to be well attended by keen and enthusiastic students.

- Full time courses

Traditionally based on modular learning whose values should include the latest scientific principles. Great strides have been made over the past 5 years in terms of full time courses. We now have BSc and MSc courses that cater for those students with a real thirst for knowledge. These full time courses should become more interactive with industry and industry events, have frequent study tours and have a variety of modules and teaching styles that cater for all learning styles and needs. But with new higher level taught courses must come a new style and type of teacher.

The teacher/curriculum manager of the future!

The teacher of the future! Yes, just as the industry and sports turf managers progress and evolve so should the that person charged with enthusing the students studying turf.

Some thoughts on the role:

- Essential they should have previous vocational experience with sports turf and a sound understanding of basic simple soil and plant biological principles.

- Qualified or very experienced in teaching environment.

- Needs an in-depth and working understanding of IT, as all people should in this day and age.

- In touch with the latest trends occurring within the industry.

- Close contact with the industry's professionals and professional organisations.

- Forward thinking.

- Aware of the background and history to the trade we work in.

- Analytical mind.

- Understanding and an involvement of the processes involved in research.

- Belief in the career path he/she sells.

- Belief in the benefits of education.

- Ideally this person should be a leader within the industry.

Quite a list I think you'll agree, but all the qualities above will be needed to help develop the next generation of greenkeepers and groundsmen/women. Well, they'll be needed if we want to move forward and develop as an industry. Not needed if we think things now are the best they will ever get! I firmly believe that as technology keeps progressing so should we. And believe that, with the help of research and education, we can develop some fantastic new products and practices to help us all in our jobs.

To conclude then!

Many people may well simply browse this article without really reading or absorbing what is being said. Many may take offence or think I am talking from my, perhaps more attractive, rear end and many will ignore what's being said all together as this is a lot to take in! Perhaps most will never read these words! I don't know, but hopefully some will appreciate what I am trying to get across.

How are we devising new courses, is it hit and miss, are they worthwhile, needed, current and really relevant? Who is teaching on them? Do they understand the learning process? Are the long and short courses run by so many effective? If they are, how do we know and can we improve them?

I think now is the time to evaluate the effectiveness of part-time, distance and work based learning. How are these programmes helping the industry? Are they effective learning methods? Are the learning materials used beneficial to the industry or simply beneficial to colleges as they allow high pass rates with minimal input to be achieved? What are the real student perceptions to current greenkeeper distance learning programmes and what is it that the students have actually learnt? How do the professional member bodies such as BIGGA and the GTC propose to develop greenkeeper education in the future? Do they have plans or are they waiting for others to take the lead? If there are plans, are they available for viewing and discussing and who actually does debate these issues?

Are the current internet based learning materials really the way forward? If so, why are tutors on these programmes stating that learners wishing to join the programme need to be fully committed? Are the current materials and methods difficult to use and understand? Or are they simply ineffective?

Today there are many positive aspects to sports turf education where we are making great strides in the right direction. Just look at the line up of speakers at the National Turf Foundation's Conference year upon year; the number of higher education courses available for study; the amount of smaller local trade shows occurring around the country. Look at the multitude and availability of information available on the internet and look at some of the great short courses offered by various bodies.

Finally, learning is something that we can all do, and I strongly believe that no-one is any smarter or cleverer than anyone else, and whatever you wish to achieve you can achieve if you put enough of your energy into it. However, learning and progress can be made to be quick, fun and very effective or slow, boring, ineffective and laborious. Which is it to be, and do we really care anyway?

As for me, what does the future hold? There were many people who thought I was a useless teacher, and some people who thought I was a good one. Who was right is subject to opinion. I don't know, what I do know is that I gave 100% to the welfare of my students and at least tried to guide them in the right direction. Whatever I do next though I will guarantee it will involve turf management, receive 100% of my energy levels and there will be no holding back…. I may even return to teaching in twenty or so years!

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