June 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA10

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Facilitating Conflict-Laden Issues: An Important Extension Faculty Role

Increasingly, Extension educators across the country are being asked to facilitate conflict-laden public issues. Many Extension educators, however, feel there is minimal encouragement and incentive for this educational activity. The author argues that facilitation of this type is not viewed from the proper educational paradigm and this is what creates difficulty in providing recognition for this important work. An argument is made for establishing performance evaluation guidelines that encourage and reward more than the traditional land grant university research and teaching paradigms.

Fielding E. Cooley
Staff and Organizational Development Coordinator
Oregon State University Extension Service
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address: cooleyf@oes.orst.edu

The comment rolled across the audience of Western states' Extension Service faculty in a single wave loud and clear: "Yeah, we can all become better facilitators, but Extension wants us to be educators. Our performance is not evaluated on how well we facilitate community conflicts." Mumblings of confirmation came from the audience of 70 attending a workshop on environmental conflict resolution. They had just been told that as Extension educators in a world of escalating change, their role as facilitators in conflict-laden issues will increase.

Some Extension educators attending the workshop were timid about facilitating community conflicts. Others had experience working with conflicts but wanted performance evaluation criteria that would reward their role as facilitators. Both had good points. Extension's promotion and tenure policies should reward and encourage facilitators who work with community groups. I do not think, however, that we need a special new category of recognition for facilitation. I argue, rather, that we need to change our view of what constitutes Extension education and teaching. If Extension is to significantly impact conflict laden issues at the local level, we must shift our educational paradigm. We can no longer afford to have "teaching" as Extension's dominant educational view. Instead, we must reach out from the educational paradigm of "learning."

Teaching Versus Learning

What, you ask, does the distinction between teaching and learning have to do with facilitating conflict-laden issues? Everything. If you believe you are teaching, that is, you provide knowledge for students to soak up, then the role of facilitator has no place in your view of education. The teaching paradigm, in this case, does not allow facilitation to be considered an educational event. The traditional role of teacher is that of an autocrat in charge of a classroom of students. Teachers choose the texts, design the curriculum and the lessons, and instruct the students. Students in this situation are largely passive. They accept what the teacher presents, ask a few questions, and react to the educational dinner table set by the teacher. The result is students with information that they struggle to apply in the real world.

In conflict-laden situations, all of the people involved have interests at stake and are struggling to apply what they know and can do to influence the outcome. Hence, the problem, conflict, disagreement, or stalemate, where victors and victims whirl in a slurry of issues and values, is created. It is a situation ripe with opportunities for learning and behavioral change that could result in improvement in the performance of community institutions and natural systems. When Extension agents facilitate processes for groups working with conflict-laden situations, and they do so in ways that emphasize learning rather than teaching, education results. The extent to which a teacher sets an educational table that encourages citizens to control what and how they learn shifts the role of teaching toward the learner-centered paradigm.

Conflict-Laden Issues

Let me give some examples of why the facilitator role can be extremely effective in a conflict-laden educational setting. Consider there are three types of conflict: conflicts over values, facts, and strategies (Schmuck & Runkel, 1985). My values may be rooted in religion, yours in science. I believe abortion is a sin. You believe science can determine when life begins for a human and that pregnant women should have the right to choose an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. An Extension agent can teach about those value differences to groups having an interest in this issue, but that teaching is not likely to change their values or result in behavior changes and agreement. On the other hand, if an agent facilitates a process that identifies the larger contextual issue of unplanned pregnancy and helps the interest groups explore the values they hold in common; then real problem-solving, learning, and appreciation can begin.

Each stakeholder group brings their set of facts to the issue of what to do with old growth forests. Environmentalists know that cutting trees contributes to the greenhouse effect and reduces ecological diversity. Industrialists know that old forests are decaying. Old forests cannot be managed for maximum productivity unless they are cut and replanted. Extension specialists can teach all of these "facts" but experience shows each stakeholder group just continues to stack their facts higher and deeper. Again, behavior changes are not likely. A good learning facilitator helps groups sort and categorize facts but also insures the integrity of the process and guides the building of overarching goals. The possibility of learning how to work together (in 8th grade civics we called this good citizenship) is enhanced.

When a community faces the issue of a fruit fly infestation, interest groups quickly start suggesting strategies for solving the problem. Conflict over process results. One group might say, "We should first contact all the residents and ask them what they would prefer." Another group might want to spray a biological control agent from helicopters. A third says, "We should first inform residents of the threat to our agriculture industry and then spray chemicals door to door." An Extension educator could teach all of these techniques and a host of proper strategies, but the community will likely remain in a stalemate over which to choose. The teacher sets the table with one dish stacked on top of another until there is no room for the learner's plate. The ensuing confusion over strategies causes our public to either abdicate decision making in favor of stalemate or to make a forced choice among undesirable alternatives. A good Extension facilitator of education helps groups seek creative solutions and build sound decision making criteria and processes for priority setting. Learning to think creatively, analyze and make choices in a community of different interests is one of today's biggest challenges (Weisbord, 1992).

Evaluating Faculty Facilitation

Facilitation of problem-solving is a learning rather than a teaching paradigm. A simple choice of words, "learning" versus "teaching," can launch a shift in educators' viewpoints. I knew that in Oregon our promotion and tenure guidelines ask for dossiers with examples for the category of "teaching." I wondered how other states recognized and rewarded facilitation as an educational activity. I asked Extension administrators in eight western states (California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Hawaii, Utah, Wyoming) about their promotion and tenure system and how it encouraged and rewarded facilitating education on conflict-laden issues. In addition to the category of "teaching" other state administrators mentioned "education," "program," "endeavors," and "impact" as categories where Extension faculty could list work in conflict-laden issues. In no case did their guidelines for promotion and tenure define activities related to facilitation of conflict-laden issues. Three mentioned problem solving but did not elaborate. Administrators from five states encourage Extension faculty to engage in educational activities on conflict-laden issues and said that the number of such faculty activities is increasing.

This survey indicated that while our land grant universities in the West use promotion and tenure systems tied to the campus peer review process and encourage Extension faculty to educate in conflict-laden situations, the guidelines for rewarding such performance are not clearly stated. Moreover, six state administrators agreed that the educational paradigm for their university campus-based faculty was "educators are experts and successful researchers who teach students what students, according to educators, should know." When it came to Extension faculty, six administrators described a vastly different educational paradigm. They agreed that Extension "educators work with students to design the most effective learning experiences; they act as guides in a learning process not bound to classroom traditions." No wonder the Extension faculty at the workshop on environmental conflict resolution were concerned about being recognized for their work as facilitators; many of them know they will be judged by campus peers who do not share the same educational paradigm.

Need to Reward Facilitation

I could understand the lack of specific performance evaluation guidelines for working on conflict-laden issues if Extension were new to this kind of education. Actually, Extension agents have long been involved in conflict-laden community problem-solving. In the early part of this century, after Seaman Knapp created the Extension education method (North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, 1988), agents were not telling farmers in their communities how to get better results. Farmers, like the rest of us, do not like to be told. Rather, successful agents took a problem-solving approach, worked with farmers to set up demonstrations and facilitated processes that pulled community bankers, politicians, and other interest groups together to work things out. Agents did not worry about whether to call that process teaching or learning. They just did it.

If we limit ourselves to being purveyors of "researched" information, what then distinguishes Extension from community colleges, libraries, and the electronic media? We cannot allow ourselves to be forced out of our educational niche by classroom bound campus educators who do not understand community problem-solving education.

Why do we continue to insist on smashing the round peg of Extension's educational method into the square peg of the university classroom teaching model? Perhaps it is because the university's performance evaluation guidelines do not address the right paradigm or that the professors and administrators who judge promotion dossiers do not understand when facilitation is education. Extension education must attend to the learning rather than the teaching paradigm and we must make sure that evaluators understand the difference between chairing a meeting and facilitating a community educational process involving conflict -laden issues. Better yet, land grant universities should establish clear guidelines that encourage and reward more than the research and teaching paradigm. The guidelines should not be established just for Extension faculty. When all faculty experience the value of helping groups with conflicting interests come together for mutual learning and problem solving then all will appreciate and honor the learner-centered paradigm inherent in Extension's work.


North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service (1988). Working with our publics, module 1: Understanding cooperative extension. Raleigh: North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service.

Schmuck, R. A., & Runkel, P. J. (1985). The handbook of organization development in schools. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

Weisbord, M. R. (1992). Discovering common ground. San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler.