Facilitating Participatory Modeling

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Mar 17, 2016
Rebecca Jordan

Article published in Integration and Implementation Insights. 


Facilitate: “To help (something) run more smoothly and effectively” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

Like many practices in life, there is an art and a science to facilitation.  Certainly, best practices in facilitating processes within participatory modeling mirror many of those practices highlighted in guides to other participatory approaches.  It is of critical importance that the expectations around the word “effective”, as taken from the definition above, are identified and negotiated. How can an individual or team of individuals help the process if expectations are unmatched?

Given that resources exist to encourage facilitation, the question that I struggle with is how is participatory modeling different?  What does the addition of a model (i.e., an abstract representation) mean for facilitating participation?  I argue that the benefits of using a model as a boundary object (i.e., a static representation that is jointly created but differently interpreted) about which stakeholders can discuss, are manifold.

Models provide:

  1. A common space for negotiation, often regardless of expertise
  2. A means for individuals to offload difficult thinking tasks
  3. An opportunity for computation, simulation, prediction, etc., and
  4. A representation for communication.

While these benefits can be great, extra attention to facilitating the process of evaluating these dimensions is necessary.

The introduction of the model to the participatory process needs to be handled in a manner that moves the process forward. If mishandled, the model can serve as a source of frustration or worse, alienation.  I try to ensure the model space is one that is open, accessible, and safe for honest discourse.

I acknowledge that the background of the involved participants is important in guiding their initial and continued perceptions of the model and its value in the process. Understanding the affordances and constrains of the specific modeling approach is critical at this juncture. The better the facilitator comprehends the approach and its mechanics, the better the introduction of the participants to the process.  I continually remind myself that the way experts approach a novel context is very different from how novices may approach the context.

Is there an art to how one accomplishes successful facilitation?  I believe so.  Is there a common understanding of this art? I believe not.  For me, the central element in any context is empathy.  If we are genuine in wanting to help, as the definition above implies, then taking the time to gain perspective on how others might feel, think, or interpret the world around them is paramount.

This said, empathy can be one of the most difficult pieces of the facilitation puzzle.  Putting yourself in another’s shoes can be extraordinarily tough, especially when you assign reasons behind others’ actions.  These attributions can be false, and play a significant role in miscommunication, which can stymie the participatory process facilitation, and overall learning.

I recommend approaching the facilitation process as one where you regard others as legitimate and valuable contributors to the development and growth of the model and associated processes and outcomes. How do you approach facilitation? Are there other key principles that you employ?

Biography: Dr. Rebecca Jordan is Professor of Environmental Education and Citizen Science in the Departments of Human Ecology and Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University. She is the director of the Program in Science Learning, where she devotes most of her research effort to investigating public learning of science through citizen science and participatory modeling. She is a co-Principal Investigator of the Participatory Modeling Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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