Community Learning and Social Resilience – An Example of its Importance

By James Ekins, Ph.D., University of Idaho Extension

Citizen science workshop participants learning to collect water quality data in a gentle stream.
IDAH2O citizen scientists learning how to collect good stream data. Participants return home with a more sophisticated understanding of stream processes and are better prepared to explain stream health to neighbors and elected representatives, contributing to community learning. Photo: James Ekins.

Understanding and managing natural resources and agricultural processes are complex tasks, especially in a rapidly changing world. Community resilience has been described as the “existence, development, and engagement of community resources by community members to thrive in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty, unpredictability and surprise (Magis 2010).” One important ingredient for achieving community resilience is community learning, the idea that groups of people build and share norms, values, beliefs, and understandings of the world around them. Overall, the better a community communicates, the greater its ability to develop values and norms that lead to adaptive capacity (the ability of people to engage in activities that influence resilience). Different ways of knowing enable different capacities; communities assemble knowledge from multiple sources, along with local (place-based) cultural adaptations, to adapt to change.

As an Extension educator, I wonder how social learning increases a community’s capacity to react and adapt to socio-ecological change. Are we as non-formal educators making a difference? Are our communities more resilient with long term educational processes like multistakeholder collaborative groups, field tours, and public education workshops? How do they result in a community that is better connected, with a broader base of knowledge and common understanding to draw from? To help answer that question, I’ve been working on developing a rubric to articulate how or whether such community-based programs improve societal resilience. I base this work on a mental model:

Communities that are engaged in nonformal natural resources learning are encouraged to develop conservation-oriented social norms and increase their social capitals – that combination of trust, mutual understanding, shared values, and socially-held knowledge that facilitates social coordination of activities. This leads to improved ecosystem services management, which in turn leads to increased adaptive capacity, manifest as improved resilience.

The rubric starts as a questionnaire that program coordinators complete, to learn about contributions to a community’s resilience to disturbances. The questionnaire asks about:

  • Program characteristics (how long the program has been running; how are people selected)
  • Participant characteristics (are participants community leaders?)
  • Participant volunteerism patterns (to what extent do people participate in regular meetings; do participants develop additional programming; do they volunteer in the community)
  • Building adaptive capacity (what is the nature of the group’s learning; how is the learning transmitted within the community)
  • Building adaptive management (how strongly does the program build a shared understanding of the underlying and historical situation; do shared, and disparate, norms and values contribute to developing a range of solutions to a need; the extent to which decision-making processes improve because of the actions of the group)
  • Building community capitals (to what extent does the program increase financial, human, social, produced, and natural capitals?)
  • Building social capitals (to what extent does the program increase bonding, bridging, and linking social capitals?)

Input from respondents will help me create a calibrated scoring framework so that anyone running a community-based education program will be able to measure its positive impact on their community’s resilience. This research so far only tests the questionnaire for credibility, dependability, and pragmatic quality.

Community education programs like Extension workshops, collaborative stakeholder groups, and other longstanding learning programs can be a bridge to new information and build new perspectives on how to apply that information, and through that build social capital, which the rubric is designed to evaluate.

For example, members of the Pend Oreille Nearshore Watershed Advisory Group (WAG) developed and delivered a multi-organization continuing education workshop to Realtors in several north Idaho counties. Discussions within this WAG uncovered the issue of new residents with little experience in near waterbodies moving to areas of north Idaho from more arid, and more urban places. Post workshop surveys indicate that new residents are getting the information that we provided via their Realtor, and that Realtors are doing a better job of understanding septic systems, waterfront setbacks, preservation of riparian buffer zones, etc. These all help to reduce threats to water quality. In this example, social learning is a process of continual learning from adopting and then adapting management practices as a social and historical process.

 Image of a lakeshore being developed, with all vegetation stripped to mineral soil from the upland area to the lakeshore.
One of the Realtor Training slides showing what “not to do” with lakeshore development. Note the lack of riparian vegetation causing severe erosion potential directly into the lake. Photo: Bonner Lakes Commission.

Development of the rubric into a useful tool for people who coordinate educational programs, like this workshop to Realtors, is still in its infancy. A fully developed rubric will make the social learning achieved through those workshops explicit, via responses to the questionnaire. If you administer a non-formal education program (for example, Master Gardener, Master Watershed Stewards, or a longstanding community committee) you might consider giving the rubric a try. Your participation will enhance its continued development, and you will benefit from better understanding how your program improves specific aspects of community resilience. Contact me to access to the rubric, in the form of a Qualtrics survey. Your participation will help me to develop a calibrated scoring procedure to better articulate and understand the power of their community educational programming.

If you’d like to read more details, this project is published with my recent dissertation research (Ekins, 2020), and the Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille WAG experiences in a journal article (Ekins 2018):  


Ekins, J.P. 2018. “Extension Involvement in Collaborative Groups: An Alternative for Gathering Stakeholder Input.” Journal of Extension 56:2, Article 2IAW5. Online Access

Ekins, J.P., 2020. Community Learning in Social Resilience. Dissertation (unpublished doctoral dissertation). 105 pages. University of Idaho, Moscow, ID.

Magis, K. (2010). Community resilience: An indicator of social sustainability. Society and Natural Resources, 23, 401–416. (The definition of community resilience is on p. 402).

Putnam, R. D., & Feldstein, L. M. (2003). Better together: Restoring the American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.


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