Cow Up a Tree – Collaborative Learning

A key argument within this theory is that the current extension situation has changed since the linear model of extension (adoption and diffusion model) was adopted worldwide after WWII.  Cow up a tree argues that new issues are emerging such as: 

  • Environmental crises
  • Food safety and quality
  • Rural and urban relationships, and 
  • Multi-functionality of agriculture

With this in mind, it concentrates on agricultural extension in industrialised countries, (Cerf et al,. 2000).

This theory recognises a need to embrace new extension approaches and practices to support collective action from not just researchers/scientists and extension professionals. The new approach involves a wide diversity of new actors and place farmers, such as farmer associations and industry service providers in the knowledge system.

The theoretical and methodological responses to the change in the agricultural extension context need to embrace concepts of knowing and learning.

“New modes of collaborative adaptive management among farmers, scientists, consumers and other stakeholders in the rural world need to be developed.” 

Collaborative learning and action is recommended as the new approach, and a group of scholars/practitioners formed a collective called LEARN (Learning in Agriculture Research Network) to keep the conversation going.

The authors accentuate that a model of a system does not exist in the real-world and is different to the everyday experience of the ‘system of interest’.

The overarching framework is a ‘learning process approach’ “a learning process approach is appropriate for most areas of human activity.  It presumes that neither the ends nor the means of social interventions can be fully known in advance, and that understanding and consensus on them must be built up through practical experience. Mistakes are unavoidable and some failures are bound to occur, but with ongoing evaluation, results can be improved.” Uphoff (1992):

Moving from debate to dialogue processes
Part of the learning system design is to encourage dialogue by respecting individuality. This involves:

  • Taking the time to build trusting relationships
  • Entering into the learning space with no preconceived ideas about the other learners
  • Learning in an atmosphere of safety, and
  • Encouraging learners to think beyond public discourse.

The authors distinguish between first- and second-order change. RD&E that aims to bring about change as ‘more of the same’ (Ison and Russell, 2000) is considered first-order change without critically reviewing the extension theory and practice.

Critical engagement with the RD&E system is considered second-order change (i.e. change that seeks to modify the whole system).  Second-order change is emergent or surprising rather than purposeful/managed change in first-order change.  A key point is: It is hard to measure if and when learning has taken place. Learning is observer-dependent however learning can be considered as knowledge (the product of learning).

Content sources and further information

Cerf, M., D. Gibbon, D. B. Hubert, B., Ison, R.,  Jiggins, J., Paine, M., Proost, J. and N. Roling, N. (Eds.) (2000) Cow up a Tree: Knowing and Learning for Change in Agriculture, INRA, Paris

Ison, R. and Russell, D. (2000) Agricultural Extension and Rural Development: breaking out of knowledge transfer traditions. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Ison, R.L., Wallis, P. Bruce, C., Stirzaker, R. and Maru, Y. (2013) Enhancing learning from AFSI research: Notes for the Field . MSI Report 13/10, Monash Sustainability Institute, Melbourne, Australia

Uphoff, N. T. (1992). Learning from Gal Oya: Possibilities for participatory development and post-Newtonian social science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press