Steven Daniels and Gregg Walker, "Collaborative Learning: Improving Public Deliberation in Ecosystem-Based Management,"

Environmental Impact Assessment Review 16 (1996), pp. 71-102.

Summary by Tanya Glaser.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


Natural resource management agencies are increasingly moving toward an ecosystem based management (ESBM) philosophy. The authors note that "constructive approaches to conflict, with the best science discussed within a fair and just political process, are essential to good ESBM."[p. 72] Daniels and Walker propose collaborative learning as a model for effective public participation in ESBM planning and policy-making.

Public Participation as a Learning Process

Any public policy-making necessarily involves learning. This learning process involves much more than the mere dissemination of information from the experts to the public. The authors observe that, "constructive public deliberation is the means by which 'opinions can be revised, premises altered, and common interests discovered.'"[p. 74] Conflict should be appreciated because they can lead to deeper understanding and reveal common interests.

Learning is particularly important within ESBM. ESBM tries to respond to both scientific and political realities, and deals with inherently complex issues. Since "no single party, agency, organization or discipline holds the key to understanding a particular resource management situation," it is crucial that the various participants learn from one another. The public participation process in ESBM should then be designed to foster learning.

The authors describe some basic assumptions about the learning process. A effective learning- centered public participation process will need to incorporate these basic elements. First, people learn better in active situations than in passive situations. For example, people generally learn more by participating in a discussion or debate than by hearing a speech or seeing a video.

Second, the learning process involves four different modes of thought: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Different learners combine these modes in different ways.

Third, given these various modes of thought, it follows that different people have different learning styles. No one style is clearly superior to another. Learning-centered processes need to be flexible enough to accommodate various learning styles.

Fourth, learning is improved by systems thinking. The task of learning, particularly for the purposes of ESBM, is to think about "interrelated parts, holism, and emergent properties," in an effort to reach a coherent structured view of a complex situation.[p. 77] Systems thinking supplies the needed conceptual tools for the task.

Learning-Centered Public Participation as Negotiation

While learning is an important feature of public participation in ESBM, the public must also be seen as negotiating in its own interests. The authors define negotiation as "joint decision-making among parties with interdependent yet incompatible interests."[p. 79] Such negotiation will require that the parties become competent communicators. The public participation process in ESBM should then also be designed to foster the parties' development of and use of competent communication skills.

Agency personnel may not have particularly good negotiation skills either. The authors cite research showing that a set of negotiation errors is typical of the population as a whole. Unless the other participants in the ESBM policy-making process have had specific training, they also will need to develop competent communication skills.

Collaborative Learning

Daniels and Walker argue that public participation modeled on collaborative learning will meet the needs identified above. The collaborative learning approach "emphasizes activities that encourage systems thinking, joint learning, open communication, and focuses on appropriate change."[p. 81] Collaborative learning combines features from both soft systems methodology (SSM) and alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

SSM researchers explore applications and examples of theoretical findings from systems and learning theory. "The systematic learning process aims to create a temporarily shared culture in which conflicts can be accommodated so that action can be taken."[p. 81] Collaborative learning draws its emphasis on learning and systems thinking from SSM.

ADR research contributes its expertise on value differences and bargaining strategies to the collaborative learning approach. Collaborative learning facilitators draw on mediators' transformative techniques to foster mutual understanding,and to promote integrative negotiation.

In addition to the material drawn from SSM and ADR, the collaborative learning approach stresses communication competence. It seeks to enhance parties' competence in such skills as listening, questioning, clarifying, giving feedback, social cognition, sustaining dialogue, and collaborative arguing.

The collaborative approach also emphasizes the goal of improving the situation over problem solving. This sets a more realistic standard for successful participation, given the complex and ongoing nature of resource management issues. It also opens up a broader array of possible responses, and makes issues more approachable.

In practice, the collaborative learning process emphasizes communication and negotiation over concerns and interests in order to improve a situation, rather than bargaining over positions to solve a problem. It emphasizes making progress toward desirable and feasible change, rather than on achieving a particular set of future conditions. Finally it stresses the need for systematic learning in order to make good policy.

Case Study and Conclusions

The authors describe in some detail a set of collaborative learning workshops held as part of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area planning process in 1993. When surveyed, participants generally gave positive evaluations of their experience with the workshops.

Based on their research, the authors argue that three factors make the collaborative learning approach particularly well-suited to ESBM policy-making procedures. Collaborative learning entails systems thinking, which is most appropriate to ESBM subject matter. Collaborative learning stresses the goal of situation improvement, which is more appropriate to the ongoing nature of the ESBM task. Collaborative learning processes are designed to accommodate a broad array of perspectives and strategies, such as are found in resource management situations.