The first module I’m taking as part of my MSc is TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. I had my first tutorial earlier this week, and today is the first day I’ve managed to set aside some dedicated time during my working week to get to grips with the initial tasks. We’re encouraged to journal either offline (paper, etc.), within the Learning Management System (LMS), or by posting publicly, as I’m doing now on my blog.
Perhaps the first thing it might be useful to state is my purpose for studying this module. As I’ve already indicated, my intention is to continue to achieve the MSc, which would be my fourth postgraduate qualification (in addition to my MA in Modern History, PGCE, and Ed.D.) The first two postgrad courses I did were specifically to get a job, whereas my Ed.D. and now this MSc, although very much work-related, are for my own interest. I want to be more effective at understanding and intervening in systems.
The image at the top of this post shows the structure of the module, a spiral to a vantage point which helps students reflect on their own practice. PFMS stands for Practitioner, Framework, Methods, and Situation. The idea is that reflexivity increases as we come to realise and consider our own ‘tradition of understanding’.
I’m really pleased that I’ve made this choice to study Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) as it seems to fit well with my background in studying Philosophy and Education, as well as recent work I’ve done around Communities of Practice. In addition, the reflexive element of it, and understanding my own role in changing things around me, seems to fit well with my experience of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The module seems to be very much practice-focused. The following is taken from the module guide.
You will have the opportunity to:
- develop your appreciation of situations where managing systemic change is needed
- experience systems thinking in practice in your own context
- develop and deepen critical understanding of systems lineages and concepts
- set up and find out how to pursue a systemic inquiry
- develop understanding of social learning systems
- undertake a case study on critical social-learning systems or communities of practice
- appreciate what taking a design turn in your STiP means and evidencing this by generating a learning system design for a situation of concern.
The module has three parts, which build on one other:
PFMS – Part 1 …..a heuristic model of practice
P(PFMS) – Part 2 …..a practitioner thinking about a heuristic model of practice – being reflexive about one’s own practice
P(P(PFMS)) – Part 3….a practitioner aware that they have to manage change with other practitioners who may, or may not have an appreciation of the elements of PFMS or will have different understandings based on their unique traditions of understanding.
One of the things I need to get my head around from the start is the difference between systemic thinking and systematic thinking. I didn’t find the module glossary particularly helpful, so I asked ChatGPT:
- Systemic thinking is an approach that considers the complex interactions within a whole system. It recognises that changing one part of a system can affect other parts and the system as a whole, often in ways that are not immediately apparent. This kind of thinking is holistic and focuses on patterns, relationships, and the dynamics of systems.
- Systematic thinking, on the other hand, is a methodical and structured approach to problem-solving. It involves following a step-by-step process or a set of procedures to arrive at a solution. It’s more linear and analytical, focusing on order, sequences, and detailed analysis.
To use my own words, systemic thinking is to do with a more human, emotional approach than systematic thinking, which is more cold and analytical. I wish these kinds of terms weren’t so similar (it’s a bit like ‘million’ and ‘billion’ which are also unnecessarily similar).
The three books from the module are, perhaps unsurprisingly, authored or edited by the course leaders. We were sent the first two as physical copies, whereas the third, Systems Thinkers is a PDF or ePUB download.
As an aside, having worked for Moodle, I’ve been really impressed with how the OU use that LMS for distance/online learning. Although at first sight it looks quite… a lot, it’s pretty intuitive and well organised when you get into it.
The module guide makes it clear that all practice is situated, which means that we should be using ‘I statements’ a lot and relating what we’re learning to our own practice. That should be reasonably straightforward for me, given I wrote my thesis in the first person!
There is some talk in the module guide of developing a ‘systems literacy’ which I find interesting, especially given my previous work on digital literacies, web literacy, and recent work on the future of media and information literacy.
Systems literacy is defined in the glossary as:
The extent to which systems concepts, traditions, methods and approaches are appreciated and understood by a practitioner…
Drawing on systems thinking in practice (STiP) as a transdisciplinary endeavour, a systems thinking literacy involves not only understanding concepts but conveying that understanding to other practitioner communities and wider civic society.
Literacy is always about power, as I said in a recent podcast episode about AI Literacy: who gets to define it, who gets to be considered ‘literate’, etc. so this is something to bear in mind as I work through this module.
The module guide also gives prompts for reflection. One these asks: where in the PFMS heuristic model might there be possibilities for learning and change? I think they exist at every juncture:
- Self-reflection as a practitioner
- Changing, or iterating a framework
- Using different methods
- Considering the situation differently
One way of considering the situation differently is to zoom in or out to consider smaller or larger elements. For example, in my work, I could consider the ‘situation’ as being a particular piece of work, the wider project, or the whole relationship with the client. At the end of the day, it’s the relationship between me as a practitioner and the framework, methods, and situation, as well as how all of those interact.
We don’t interact with situations individually, but relationally. That brings with it additional complexity and opportunities for learning.
One simple framework for distinguishing different kinds of individual or collective learning processes and outcomes was developed by Maarten De Laat and Robert-Jan Simons in 2002. Individual learning processes with individual outcomes can be thought of as individual learning. All the others can be thought of as social learning, individual learning processes with collective outcomes, learning in social interaction, collective learning.
I don’t have much to say about this other than it seems… obvious? But then I’ve spent quite a lot of my career in and around social learning
When it comes to STiP, what I find fascinating is the way that different approaches and traditions of understanding can get in the way of true collaboration. Choosing to work together as practitioners using agreed, defined frameworks and methods is extremely productive, but sometimes happens by accident, or only after a lot of friction.
For example, in our co-op, we’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking about frameworks and methods, although perhaps not explicitly using those names. We also have a lot of overlap in terms of the traditions of understanding we bring to bear, despite these not matching exactly. By being explicit about frameworks and methods, as well as a shared understanding of the situation (size, relevant characteristics, etc.) we can move forward quickly and effectively.
In my next study session, which I’m also planning to write about, I’ll be focusing on generating a systems map of TB872. This won’t be like the Seven Samurai model I used in a recent post, but probably a lot more basic!
The references for this module, which might be of interest to others:
- Australian Public Service Commission (2007) Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective. Canberra: Attorney-General’s Department, Australian Government. Available at: www.apsc.gov.au/ publications07/ wickedproblems.pdf (Accessed: 8 April 2010).
- Caulkin, S. (2008) ‘Labour’s public sector is a Soviet tractor factory’, Observer, 4 May. Available at: www.guardian.co.uk/ business/ 2008/ may/ 04/ economics.labour (Accessed: 8 April 2010).
- Hunting, S.A. and Tilbury, D. (2006) Shifting towards sustainability: six insights into successful organisational change for sustainability. Sydney: Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability. Available at: www.aries.mq.edu.au/ projects/ insights (Accessed: 8 April 2010).
- Ison, R.L. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. in situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world. 2nd edn. London: Springer..
- Ison, R.L. and Straw, E. (2020) The hidden power of systems thinking: governance in a climate emergency. Abingdon: Routledge.
- National School of Government (2009) www.nationalschool.gov.uk/ about_us/ index.asp (Accessed: July 2009). Note that the link will take you to an archived webpage. The National School of Government closed on 31 March 2012.
- OSPI/OECD Observer of public sector innovation. Available at: https://oecd-opsi.org/ (Accessed: 25 May 2020).
- Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2020) Systems Thinkers, 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer.
- Tamkin, P., Pearson, G., Hirsh, W. and Constable, S. (2010) Exceeding expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership. London: The Work Foundation. Available at: www.theworkfoundation.com/ assets/ docs/ publications/ 232_leadership_execsummFINAL.pdf (Accessed: 8 April 2010).