‘Learning how to learn’ is crucial for researchers in the field

Scientists and community members make new realizations about forests and themselves
Mayangna Community
A house in Mayangna Community in Bosawas, Nicaragua. Used under Creative Commons licence. Alam Ramírez Zelaya

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When a team of scientists set out to study women’s participation in community forest management in communities in Nicaragua, they faced a quandary.

Men tended to dominate the workshops and meetings. How could they encourage more equitable participation if the women didn’t attend or speak up?

They found the answer in a cassava field. Women were in their element in their fields and in the forest, measuring tree growth, comparing crop yields, asking questions and drawing conclusions.

Monitoring exercises, the researchers learned, can be a potent path to empowerment for women. Along the way to that discovery, the members of the research team also learned some important lessons about themselves.

“It didn’t start out as part of our project, because we were focused on how the communities learn about gender. But along the way we realized that far more attention should be paid to how the research teams themselves learn,” says Anne Larson, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who led the study of collaborative adaptive management, a method based on continuous shared learning.

The road to that realization was not straightforward, says Kristen Evans, who worked with Larson on the project. The team’s experience is described in a new paper published in International Forestry Review.

What helped most, Evans says, is that after each activity, the team members discussed what had worked and why, and what they could do differently next time.

“It was really eye-opening for us as a team,” she says. “We would start by asking what we had just learned. This led to some really good, really deep reflections about what we did, what was good and what didn’t work. And it prompted some significant shifts in attitudes among the team members.”

Teachers are learners too

The researchers worked between 2011 and 2015 in six communities in Nicaragua’s Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region, where more than half the population consists of Miskitu and Mayangna Indigenous people. The area is among the most remote in the country, and rapid changes in recent years have brought migration, land conflicts and other forms of violence.

The participatory research project, led by scientists from CIFOR and the Nitlapan Institute of Research and Development at the Central American University of Nicaragua, was designed to promote women’s participation in decisions related to community forestry in Indigenous communities.

The Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) approach lets participants master new skills and apply them in a cycle of learning and reflection that leads to new learning.

When they started that process with community members, however, the field team did not realize that they, too, had a lot to learn.

As part of the ACM methodology, the field team members took an active role, not just by providing training, but also by participating in everyday activities alongside community members.

That brought them face to face with some of their own attitudes and biases, Evans said.

One team member who had been raised in a city found it difficult to plunge into everyday community tasks. And Indigenous men on the team had mixed feelings about the emphasis on gender, wondering whether the researchers were imposing outside attitudes on Indigenous societies.

Participatory monitoring is a key element of adaptive collaborative management, but the field team was reluctant to begin it, partly because of a lack of experience, but also because they were not convinced that it would be useful, Evans said.

To their surprise, monitoring — of everything from tree growth to the actions of community authorities — opened the door to women’s participation.

It also changed the researchers’ relationship with community members, making it more collaborative. Later in the process, one male researcher who had grown up in the area, but left to go to university, commented that he thought he had to show that he had all the answers or people wouldn’t respect him.

Monitoring is a conversation

Monitoring begins with questions — it can be as simple as asking why certain tree species grow better than others in a certain place, or comparing crop yields from different garden plots. It can also involve more advanced techniques, like mapping. Often, the only tools required are a notebook and pencil.

“If I were to start a new project, I might actually begin with monitoring,” Evans says. “You start with simple questions that people might like to answer and begin learning together.”

That process “helps break down barriers between the community and team members,” she says. “It also breaks down gender barriers in the community in a non-threatening way. You’re not in a meeting talking about gender. You’re out in the field talking about the community and about what people think, gently encouraging and noting the input from men and from women.”

Monitoring may begin with writing down data, but the real richness is the reflection and discussion that follow, which “feed the social learning curve,” Evans says.

“As one field team member put it, ‘Monitoring is a conversation,’” she adds. “If I had to write a monitoring book, that would be the title.”

The exercises allowed the field team and community members to discuss problems and learn together. As they gained confidence, their willingness to experiment grew.

In one case, a woman spontaneously took the lead in a conversation at the end of a session in which researchers and community members worked side by side planting crops.

But when the group returned to the classroom later in the day, she and the other women who had been so animated in the field sat silently, not saying a word.

Changing attitudes toward gender roles

Some community leaders had told the researchers that women were not interested in participating in community forest management, but the women’s enthusiasm for monitoring showed that was not true. Still, there was a puzzle: Why did women who played an active role in the field monitoring not speak up during meetings or classroom sessions?

The researchers began to realize that the reasons why women do not participate are complex. In some cases, they simply are not given the opportunity. In others, they are threatened or punished, sometimes violently, by husbands or partners who do not want them to participate.

Reflecting among themselves, the members of the field team, particularly the Indigenous men, began to question their own assumptions about the relationships between men and women in communities and understand the obstacles to women’s participation.

The key to the team’s learning was the constant reflection and discussion.

“We didn’t set out to document changes or shifts in attitudes that happened among the team members,” Evans says. “But because we did reflection as a group right after the activities, and we took really good notes, we realized that a social learning process was occurring among the team as well as in the community.”

The team members gained confidence, got over their fear of making mistakes, and discovered that their own learning process was just as important as that of the communities in which they were working.

They applied the same methodology to their own work, “adopting collaborative behaviors, learning and adapting their own behaviors,” Evans says. “In other words, they ‘learned how to learn.’”

The lesson for researchers, Larson adds, is that “it’s just as important to engage deeply with field teams as with the communities we work with. It’s not just about hiring good people. We all have so much to learn.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at
This research was supported by The CGIAR Research Programs on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM), led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
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