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An overview of collaborative learning

By Allyson Muth, Ed.D., Forest Stewardship Program Associate, Pennsylvania State University

Collaborative processes of learning can enhance the conversation between Natural Resource Professionals (NRPs) and Private Forest Landowners (PFLs). In our work with PFLs, we are increasingly finding merit in the idea of promoting an interaction that creates civility, fosters productive conversations, and builds on common ground. These strategies have been examined in grassroots literature and collaborative forestry literature, but, for many, are not yet part of a natural resources practice.

Collaborative processes help build social agency. That is, people build the capacity to meet their own needs and to work together to find solutions that work for them. Ownership of the process, and of the solutions formed, fosters a commitment to seeing those solutions implemented. Through this collaborative process, a community with shared interests forms and begins to address environmental, social, and economic issues simultaneously. The relationships formed here, built on confidence and understanding, will endure and serve to address future resource and community questions.

Bringing groups of people together can encourage these types of constructive interactions. Doing so forms a “local” community with a shared desire to influence the protection and use of natural resources. Through participatory decision-making and collaborative processes, communities of PFLs can focus on and affect natural resource management issues on their own lands.

However, there are risks inherent to such an approach; NRPs are not in charge. Individuals and the community more broadly are making the decisions. The decisions made may not necessarily be the “right” or “best” decisions from a purely resource orientation; but, perhaps are “good” decisions that consider the well being of all, including the resource. This approach does not deny the importance of the technical, experiential, and academic resources that NRPs bring to the conversation. We have a responsibility to share this information with decision-makers; however, our primary role may more appropriately be to facilitate decision-making, create learning and ownership for the PFLs, and help the community make the best decisions possible.

Collaborative learning is a tool that promotes learning and the creation of social agency. Its focus is on interactions among people that often foster extraordinary creativity. Peters defines collaborative learning as “to labor together in order to produce knowledge, and frequently, to take action on the basis of new knowledge” (1995, p. 269). Collaborative learning is people – PFLs and NRPs – working together to create new understandings. To accomplish this we need to:

  • Establish dialogue
  • Focus on construction
  • Recognize multiple ways of knowing
  • Create cycles of action and reflection
  • Promote fellowship and build trust


Dialogue is an open conversation in which meaning flows through and between the participants, and new understanding emerges (Bohm 1996). To enhance our dialogue with PFLs, we need to inquire into the things they say, to reflect upon our assumptions, and create a new interaction. By modeling this behavior for PFLs, we create a space in which they feel comfortable sharing in a similar manner.

Focus on Construction

A focus on construction encapsulates two ideas: the creation of new understanding and the recognition of the importance of relationships to the creation of those new understandings (social construction) (McNamee and Gergen 1999). In a collaborative learning event, the NRP and the PFL construct new understandings out of the experiences and knowledge each brings to the group. By focusing on creating something new in our conversations, or simply becoming aware of that possibility, we take our interactions to a new level and reflect new possibilities.

Multiple Ways of Knowing

In our interactions with PFLs, each person in the conversation brings with them a unique set of experiences and knowledge. The lived experiences of PFLs are equally important as the technical resources NRPs can contribute. Allowing people the opportunity to share their learning gained through life experience empowers them to participate fully. By making space for different types of knowing to come to the table, we create a more equal and respectful interaction through which PFLs are more comfortable contributing to the interaction and committing to the solutions formed.

Cycles of Action and Reflection

Reflection serves to redirect actions and provides a way to examine and challenge assumptions guiding the actions. Through this process refinement, new ideas emerge. In a collaborative learning interaction with PFLs, this means we keep checking in with each other, talking about what has changed, and deciding together how to move forward. This is difficult to do when writing a management plan for one PFL property, but should be part of our efforts across the landscape to encourage continual growth and interaction with PFLs.


Finally, collaborative learning involves creating fellowship and building trust. People must be comfortable enough with each other to be open and willing to try new ideas, and they must feel that others have their best interests at heart. For things to work best, group members have to relate to each other. The building of trust between PFLs and NRPs is a time intensive process, but remains necessary to our interactions. These informal connections set the stage for further efforts and conversations that will create new understandings.

In practice, we propose that NRPs be intentional about creating relationships wherein these actions can occur. By remaining open to the possibility, we create the space for a change in our interactions with PFLs. We allow them to become a contributor to their understanding about the land, and with that new understanding (of which they have more ownership through their contribution) reach good decisions.

Selected References:

  • Bohm, D. 1996. On dialogue; L. Nichol (ed). Routledge, New York. 101 p.
  • McNamee, S. and K.J. Gergen. 1999. Relational responsibility: Resources for sustainable dialogue. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA. 236 p.
  • Peters, J.M. 1995. Good question! Collaborative learning and the intentional stance. P. 269-274 in Proc. of conf. on Educating the adult educator: Role of university, M. Collins (ed.). Canmore, Alberta, Canada.

Other Resources:

  • Isaacs, W. 1999. Dialogue and the art of thinking together. Doubleday, New York. 428 p.
  • Parker, J.K. 1992. Hanging question marks on our professions: Addressing the human dimensions of forestry and natural resource management. J. F. 90(4):21-24.

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