Collective Learning Agreements as Democratic Practice and Joint Empowerment

Published date01 March 2014
Date01 March 2014
Collective Learning Agreements as Democratic
Practice and Joint Empowerment
Patrick G. Coy
When decision-making power about what happens in a classroom
is rarely shared with students, hierarchies are reinforced, knowledge is
static, and learning becomes passive. Learning agreements and learning
contracts can undercut these dynamics, modeling democracy while pro-
moting cooperation. Analyzing collective learning agreements in under-
graduate confl ict management courses, this article explores what students
perceive to be productive learning methods and argues that collective
learning agreements facilitate active learning, self and class governance,
and shared responsibility for individual and collective success. Jointly con-
structing collective learning agreements disrupts traditional power rela-
tions while engendering creativity in students and professors alike.
Good education is always more process than product.
Parker J. Palmer,
The Courage to Teach
There are many ways to restructure classroom processes to increase stu-
dent learning and meet the goals of both a liberal and a critical educa-
tion.  e list of possible approaches is long and varied, with some techniques
able to assist student learning in one dimension but not another. Although
no single approach is capable of doing everything, there is an approach that
C R Q, vol. 31, no. 3, Spring 2014 229
© Wiley Periodicals, Inc. and the Association for Confl ict Resolution
Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI: 10.1002/crq.21087
I thank Vasili Rukhadze and most especially Amanda Clark for their assistance on this article.
I am also appreciative of the hundreds of students who have experimented with learning agree-
ments with me in our courses over the years.
230 COY
C R Q • DOI: 10.1002/crq
is rooted in fi nding out from students themselves what will help all of them
individually to learn in a shared classroom and then collectively committing
to do those things.  is approach thus acknowledges that the educational
experience belongs as much to students as to teachers (Hansen 1991). It also
recognizes that learning is a subjective, dynamic, and highly individualized
process, even when it occurs within an institutionalized educational setting
(Murphy 1999). More important, this approach blends the individual with
the collective in creative ways, becoming an experiment and a lesson in dem-
ocratic practice.  at approach is a collective learning agreement process.
A collective learning agreement is best defi ned as a participatory and
democratic process that leads to the creation of a collective document that
describes those preferred actions, processes, behaviors, and methods for
both student and teacher in order to best facilitate learning. A useful short-
hand way to think about a learning agreement is that it supplements the
traditional content-focused plan with a process-focused plan (Knowles
1986). It is used to inform the choices made in the planning and structur-
ing of the learning process and in the subsequent monitoring and evalua-
tion of the same by both students and teachers.
In this article, I ground the collective learning agreement process in the
theory and practice of cooperative and transformational learning and review
the literature on learning agreements. I briefl y explain the data set of fi fteen
collective learning agreements, providing a detailed explanation of the class-
room processes used for creating and implementing the collective learning
agreements that make up the data for this article. I next present and discuss
the fi ndings arising from the analysis of the learning agreement data and
end with a conclusion. I demonstrate in this article what undergraduates in
confl ict management courses think productive learning environments and
practices look like and are made up of. I blend data-driven analysis with
descriptions of and personal refl ections on a particular pedagogical praxis.
Theory and Literature
Participatory learning processes are more advantageous than simply lectur-
ing in part because they contribute to learning the valuable cooperation
skills that are at the heart of confl ict resolution and ultimately of demo-
cratic practice (Hedeen 2003). Consequently, the process of creating col-
lective learning agreements and incorporating the varied teaching and
learning processes that they invariably call for is both good pedagogy
and good citizenship. Learning agreements have proven to creatively engage

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