Journal of Forestry (August 1996), pp 4-9.
Summary by Tanya Glaser.
Copyright ©1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium
The authors describe their use of collaborative learning workshops to facilitate public participation in the Wenatchee National Forest fire recovery situation.
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. SSM "stresses that learning and thinking systematically are critical to planning, making decisions about, and managing complex situations."[p. 7] 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.
In practice, the collaborative learning process emphasizes communication and negotiation regarding parties' 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.
The Project proceeded in four stages. Stage One emphasized the education of the collaborative learning facilitators and the National Forest personnel. Facilitators investigated the burned areas, and met with rangers and management teams. The facilitators also supervised a survey of the affected communities. Forest personnel underwent a two-day training course on the collaborative learning approach. The course emphasized systematic thinking, situation mapping, and learning in an active learning environment.
Stage Two was comprised of a series of citizen workshops. These workshops were intended to generate citizen input before Forest personnel developed any specific recovery proposals. The workshop series opened with an "issue presentation evening," where experts presented information on such issues as fire ecology and tourism. These were followed by day-long public workshops designed to raise and explore the public's concerns. Forest personnel also participated in these workshops.
The authors describe the collaborative learning activities by which concerns were identified and explored. First, all participants were asked to describe, in writing, their best and worst case scenarios. "This activity demonstrated that most people's interests in the fire recovery situation are far more compatible than either their prior experience or expectations may have indicated."[p. 6] It also focused participants' attention on their basic values.
Participants then worked together to build a situation map, which represented the complex web of factors and concerns which are involved in the situation. This task encourages systematic thinking and discourages oversimplification of the situation.
Next, participants were asked to identify those aspects of the situation were they saw room for improvement. Participants were first paired off to discuss their concerns, and then the pairs were combined into larger groups for discussion. Discussion moved from exploring concerns to discussion of specific improvements.
In Stage Three the project level interdisciplinary teams drew upon the suggestions and concerns developed in Stage Two to formulate specific fire recovery proposals.
In accordance with EPA guidelines, the recovery proposals had to be submitted to the public for comment. Stage Four solicited public comment on the proposed projects for fire recovery via another set of collaborative workshops.
Participants' evaluations of the workshops were generally positive. The authors noted signs that some participants had revised their earlier positions. They also observed that the workshops "engaged long-time opponents in discussions that were more constructive than typically occur." Progress in this regard was present, but limited, however.
The authors themselves draw three main lessons from their experiences. First, they observe that "we have found it more useful to seek progress rather than a full solution."[p. 8] This sets a more realistic standard for successful participation, given the complex and ongoing nature of most issues. Second, building collaborative processes takes effort over time. And thirdly, the authors report pleasant surprise at how well participants adapted to systems thinking.