Open Thinkering


TB872: Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS)

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

DALL-E 3 created abstract image in 16:9 format, capturing the essence of Richard Bawden's Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS) in the context of Australian farming. This visualization artistically blends elements of systems thinking with agricultural themes, emphasizing the real-world application of CSLS in sustainable farming practices.

This module loves a good acronym, and the latest I’m being introduced to is Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS). Let’s just pause to consider what each of those mean to me in my usual context:

  • Critical: people call me pretty ‘critical’ by which I think they mean harsh. However, I use the term either to mean something extremely important (“it’s critical than you get this done!”) or in the sense of critique (“there were some good points in what we did, but let’s reflect on what could have gone better, based on this framework”)
  • Social: the opposite of ‘individual’, doing something with others — for example, learning, playing, or conversing. You can be social in a physical group situation, online if you’re in a meeting or gaming session, but also through the sending and receiving of letters. I’m not going to get into the philosophical question of whether to be ‘social’ something has to be reciprocated (e.g. “am I being ‘social’ when responding to something that Plato wrote?”)
  • Learning: an extremely difficult term to pin down, much like the Wittgensteinian notion of a ‘game’. But, for me, it’s something to do with development, with adaptation, and (to quote Stephen Downes) recognition.
  • Systems: this is the hardest thing for me to define, after ‘learning’ as a ‘system’ could be anything. You could have a system of note-taking, or a water system in your house, or a system for getting reproducible builds when developing software. Now that I’ve reflected on the word I’m actually less sure how to define it!

I found the examples in the course materials interesting in terms of farming in Australia, but they didn’t particularly help me in understanding Richard Bawden’s conception of a CSLS. So I turned, as ever, to my trusty robot friend, ChatGPT. It gave a load of information, so I asked it to summarise it all more concisely:

Richard Bawden’s work on Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS) integrates systems thinking with critical reflection in addressing complex social and environmental issues, particularly in agriculture. Key elements include:

  • Critical Reflection: Emphasises questioning underlying assumptions in learning processes.
  • Systems Approach: Recognises the complexity and interconnectivity in social and ecological issues.
  • Participatory Methods: Advocates stakeholder involvement in learning and decision-making.
  • Adaptive Management: Focuses on flexible strategies for dynamic systems.

Applied mainly in sustainable agriculture, Bawden’s CSLS promotes transformative and interdisciplinary learning, especially in higher education, to foster a systemic understanding of real-world problems. His work has significantly contributed to expanding the scope and applicability of systems thinking in ecological and educational contexts.

My understanding based on this is that Bawden is important to the development of Systems Thinking as he integrated critical reflection and participatory approaches. This has made Systems Thinking as a whole more applicable to complex social and ecological issues.

So, let’s imagine I’ve been working with colleagues and considering an appropriate response to a situation we had been looking at together. For the sake of using what I understand about the CSLS approach so far, we’d have to:

  1. Understand the situation: always the first thing to do with a Systems Thinking approach! Getting an appreciation of what’s actually going on, from multiple points of view, is never as easy as it sounds.
  2. Get relevant people involved: some might call this ‘stakeholder engagement’, but either way includes anyone directly affected, as well as anyone who makes decisions about the situation, and people with expertise.
  3. Encourage critical reflection: going back to the definition of ‘critical’ above, different people have different ways of understanding, and so listening to them talk about the situation will reveal not only systemic barriers, but any hidden biases.
  4. Do some system mapping: using diagrams, the Systems Thinker’s favourite thing, the next thing to do is to map out the connections between various aspects of the situation. This might include feedback loops and agreeing on a boundary to what’s being discussed.
  5. Develop a shared understanding: I haven’t got to it yet as part of this module, but I think this is where the P(P(PFMS)) approach comes in: deciding together to use specific frameworks and methods in regards to a situation.
  6. Explore solutions: once we’ve got a shared approach, we’d need a flexible way of dealing with the situation, understanding that in complex systems, things can change often (and quickly!)
  7. Document what we’ve learned: by working openly and sharing both the process and what we’ve discovered, we’re likely to get more people onboard and contribute to better knowledge and understanding of the situation.

I purposely haven’t talked about things like implementation and monitoring here, because within a week it’s quite unlikely that you’d be able to fit that into this cycle. But once you’ve started making a change in a system, I guess a period of ongoing learning and adaptation started.

One thing I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t assume just because there’s a shared understanding at one point in time, that this will last. People change, the organisations they work for change, and people move in and out of roles. In fact, I’d say that the single biggest barrier to positive system change in some sectors I’ve worked in has been the turnover of staff within organisations.

I’ve still a lot more to learn about CSLS, but it’s already evident that the approach is inherently practical, being based on Bawden’s work with Australian farmers. As such, it’s not just theoretical but deeply relevant to real-world challenges. What I like about it is that CSLS doesn’t shy away from complexity, embracing and valuing diverse perspectives, and recognising the need for continuous learning and adaptation. I can definitely imagine using this approach in some of my work, going forward.

Image: DALL-E 3

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