Open Thinkering


Month: February 2024

TB872: Overview of different traditions in social learning systems

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

Life is short, and so I have fed all of the blog posts I’ve written over the last couple of weeks into ChatGPT to generate the table below. I’ve linked to each individual post I wrote in the ‘Tradition’ column.

This ‘reading matrix’ was given as part of the course activities. I should, I suppose, have been filling it in as I went along.

A the WordPress theme I’m using is quite narrow, you’ll either have to pinch-to-zoom (mobile) or press CTRL and + (desktop) to increase the font size.

TraditionConceptsLessons about the nature of learningLessons about designing learning systemsOther useful pointsProblems & disagreements
Schön: situations as learning systemsDilemma of rigor or relevance

The stable state

Public learning

Ideas in good currency

Effective learning systems

Dynamically conservative social systems
Learning is about adapting to significant, complex issues in “the swamp” below the rigour of “high ground”.

Public learning is key in adapting to changes, especially in the loss of the ‘stable state’.
Learning systems must enable adaptability, reflexivity, and continuous learning.

They should foster an environment of questioning, experimentation, and application of new knowledge.
Schön’s work underlines the importance of intra-generational learning due to rapid technological and social changes.

Governments should act as learning systems to effectively address societal challenges.
The precise methods for maintaining rigor while addressing complex real-world problems can be contentious.

There might be disagreement on how to implement and balance the elements of effective learning systems.
Vickers: appreciation and appreciative systemsAppreciative systems

Readiness-to-do vs. readiness-to-value

Standards of value

Learning involves both observing and engaging as an agent, valuing and interpreting our experiences.

Learning is a complex activity that goes beyond action readiness to include ethical decisions and emotional responses.
Learning systems should be designed to accommodate changing values and standards, allowing for the representation and rehearsal of possible futures.Vickers emphasises the importance of personal experience in shaping our understanding and the creation of shared ‘appreciated worlds’.

Ethical considerations are expanding, suggesting a need for learning systems that are responsive to evolving ethical standards.
There may be challenges in reconciling the subjective nature of appreciative systems with the objective standards often sought in learning systems.

The concept of ‘harm’ and ethical standards are subjective and can lead to disagreements on what constitutes ethical behavior.
Bateson: willingness to learnDeutero-learning


Learning is an ongoing, lifelong process that should remain flexible and adaptable.

It involves the willingness to modify and integrate new values into existing ones.
Learning systems should facilitate the integration of new understandings and values, reflecting societal changes and diversity.Bateson emphasizes the interconnectedness of life and the importance of understanding complexity.

She advocates for reconceptualising rights and responsibilities beyond the individual to include communities and ecosystems.
The definition and scope of independence can be contentious, as Bateson suggests it is an illusion, which might conflict with some cultural values and ideologies.
Bawden: critical social learning systemsCognition, metacognition, and epistemic cognition

Holocentric, ecocentric, egocentric, technocentric perspectives


Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS)
Learning is a transformative process at different cognitive levels: understanding the matter at hand, the methods of learning, and the limits to our understanding.

Learning should lead to a change in behaviour based on the knowledge acquired.

Living is a constant process of learning and adapting to change.
Learning communities should incorporate experiential learning, epistemic cognition, and a critical evaluation of worldviews.

Learning systems should be designed with awareness of their coherence, diversity, purpose, emotional ambience, and power dynamics.
Bawden emphasises the importance of adapting learning to complex, dynamic, and degrading environments.

The ‘map is not the territory’ highlights the distinction between conceptual models and real-world complexities.
The complexity of Bawden’s integrated CSLS diagram may present challenges in understanding and application.
Wenger-Trayner: communities of practiceCommunity of Practice (CoP)

Legitimate peripheral participation

Learning as a trajectory into a community of practice

World learning system
Learning is social and involves entire communities, not just transactions between a master and an apprentice.

Communities shape our perception and interpretation of experiences.
Learning systems must facilitate social, professional, and personal support through CoPs, particularly in a globalised context.

CoPs should have action-learning capacity, cross-boundary representation, and cross-level linkages.
The concept of ‘world design’ through strategic social learning systems is key.

Brokers play a crucial role in interweaving relationships within and between communities.

Trust and conflict resolution within CoPs are important and take time to develop.
CoPs are not a panacea for all world problems but should be part of a broader ecology of structures and systems.

There can be challenges in stewardship within CoPs, especially in addressing civic issues.
Non-Western traditions: UbuntuHumanity to others

“I am what I am because of who we all are”
Learning and identity are communal, not individual.

Acknowledges the importance of social relationships and community in learning.
Learning systems should foster a sense of belonging and collective responsibility.

Systems should encourage sharing and collaboration, reflecting the communal aspects of Ubuntu.
Ubuntu challenges individualistic and competitive approaches, promoting inclusivity and cooperation.The implementation of Ubuntu in diverse cultural contexts may lead to differing interpretations and applications.
Non-Western traditions: PratītyasamutpādaDependent origination

Interdependence of phenomena
Emphasises the interconnectedness of knowledge and existence.

Recognises that understanding is not linear but multidimensional.
Systems should be designed to reflect the complex interplay of multiple causes and effects.

Encourages holistic thinking and the use of tools like causal loop diagrams to visualise interconnections.
Offers a worldview that counters reductionist and segmented approaches.

Supports environmental and social activism by highlighting interconnectedness.
May challenge entrenched Western notions of causality and individualism, creating philosophical and practical tensions.

TB872: Ubuntu and Pratītyasamutpāda

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

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this image as a screenshot on the Fediverse (Athena, 2024):

Screenshot of a tweet containing a photograph from user @samifouad with the caption "explaining what living in the West is like to my African family in one photo"

The photo shows shared steps up to two doorways. The snow has been cleared on one half of the steps, but not the other half.

I think this is somewhat shocking to anyone who perhaps doesn’t live in a city and actually knows their neighbours, but I should imagine it’s incomprehensible to anyone who lives in a tight-knit community.I’m using this as a way into discussing two non-western concepts, the southern African idea of ubuntu, and the Buddhist idea of pratītyasamutpāda.


Anyone reading this with a technical background might recognise the word ‘ubuntu’ as it is the name of a Linux distribution, and in fact that’s where I first came across the word. From the Ubuntu website:

Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. It is often described as reminding us that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. We bring the spirit of Ubuntu to the world of computers and software. The Ubuntu distribution represents the best of what the world’s software community has shared with the world.

About the Ubuntu project (n.d.)

We’re not provided with readings in the course text or module information directly, but rather directed to ‘optional’ readings which I may come back to:

  • Bolden, R. (2014) ‘Ubuntu’, in Coghlan, D. and Brydon-Miller, M. (eds.) The SAGE encyclopedia of action research. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, doi: 10.4135/9781446294406.
  • Mackay, V. (2018) ‘Through the eye of a fly: action research as a support for the South African National Literacy Campaign’, Systemic practice and action research, 31(4), pp. 375–393.
  • Mamman, A. and Zakaria, H.B. (2016) ‘Spirituality and ubuntu as the foundation for building African institutions, organizations and leaders’, Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion, 13(3), pp. 246–265.
  • Woermann, M. and Engelbrecht, S. (2019) ‘The ubuntu challenge to business: from stakeholders to relationholders’, Journal of Business Ethics, 157(1), pp. 27–44.

As I mentioned in my first post about this part of the module, the focus on older white guys is disappointing.

It’s worth noting that the word for the concept usually referred to as ‘ubuntu’ is given a different name in other Bantu languages. Going further than the Ubuntu (software) project’s definition, is one provided in 2020 by the African Journal of Social Work:

A collection of values and practices that people of Africa or of African origin view as making people authentic human beings. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world.

‘Ubuntu philosophy’ (2024)

In our hyper-rationalist, neoliberal, individualistic society, we not only do not foreground this approach to life, but we actively downplay it. Authenticity is couched in the language of ‘free speech’ and what you qua individual have the ‘power’ and/or ‘freedom’ to express. Although it can be traced back further, I’m sure, some of this is due to Enlightenment thinking, which stresses the importance of reason above all else.

It’s perhaps best summed up by the Cartesian statement, “I think therefore I am” which centres the world on the individual and their ability to understand the world. As the late Desmond Tutu points out in the quotation below, ubuntu runs counter to this:

We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people’. It is not, ‘I think therefore I am’. It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than they are.

The Open University (2021)

Seeing such a rich and important concept as ubuntu be relegated to a page on ‘non-western traditions’ in the course materials feels akin to a hand-waving mention of cooperatives as ‘other forms of organising’ when talking about businesses. Almost 1.5 billion people live in Africa, and at least 12% of the world’s population is a member of one of 3 million cooperatives. When we choose to prioritise and focus on one kind of approach to life and organising, we are choosing to de-prioritise and take focus away from others.

In terms of social learning systems for managing change, ubuntu is probably exactly the kind of approach we need to engender. Helping people realise that they belong to a group is an extremely powerful way to engender a sense of responsibility and therefore to enact change.


Whereas ubuntu is a familar concept to me, the Buddhist idea pratītyasamutpāda is entirely new. It’s a Sanskri word usually translated as “dependent origination”, or “dependent arising” meaning that everything depends upon everything else: “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist” (‘Pratītyasamutpāda’, 2024)

As the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh is quoted as saying, unlike the Humean notion of cause and effect, this approach considers cause and effect together, as “everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions”:

Pratītyasamutpāda is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading. because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect … [instead] cause and effect co-arise and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions. The egg is in the chicken, and the chicken is in the egg. Chicken and egg arise in mutual dependence. Neither is independent.

The Open University. (2021)

Again, the notion of pratītyasamutpāda is known by different terms in various cultures and languages. For example, Joanna Macy, the American systems thinker and environmental activist refers to it as paṭicca samuppāda which is the name for the same idea in the Pali language. One obvious example of where this is relevant is in the ‘causal loop’ or ‘multiple cause’ diagrams which are common in systems thinking and which I’ve included in previous posts.

Macy explains how her buddhist beliefs, systems thinking, and environmental activism all come together in the following quotation, taken from the course materials:

Systems science goes farther in challenging old assumptions about a separate, continuous self, by showing that there is no logical or scientific basis for construing one part of the experienced world as “me” and the rest as “other.” That is so because as open, self-organizing systems, our very breathing, acting, and thinking arise in interaction with our shared world through the currents of matter, energy, and information that move through us and sustain us. In the web of relationships that sustain these activities there is no line of demarcation. As systems theorists say, there is no categorical ‘I’ set over against a categorical ‘you’ or ‘it’.

The Open University. (2021)

If ubuntu is “I am because we are” then pratītyasamutpāda can be seen as widening this to “I am because the world (or the universe) is”. It’s a somewhat mystical and spiritual approach to life, but then perhaps seeing everything as anything other than indivisible is at the root of our problems. It has a number of philosophical implications, from the ontological (i.e. “all phenomena arise from other, pre-existing phenomena, and in turn current phenomena condition future phenomena”), to the epistemological (i.e. “there are no permanent and stable things”) (‘Pratītyasamutpāda’, 2024).

In passing, I note that this reminds me somewhat of the fragments that we have of Parmenides, who introduces two paths, or ways of inquiry; one being the way of ‘What Is’ which is “now together entire,/ single, continuous” Palmer, J. (2020). He continues, citing the ‘goddess’ to which he is in conversation:

Nor is it divided, since it is all alike;/ and it is not any more there, which would keep it from holding together,/ nor any worse, but it is all replete with What Is./ Therefore it is all continuous: for What Is draws to What Is.”

Palmer, J. (2020)

It would be interesting to look for approaches to systems thinking and social learning in pre-Socratic texts. But in terms of applying the concept of pratītyasamutpāda to social learning systems for managing change, what has struck me is that it provides a rationale for using causal loop / multiple cause diagrams, not just because they’re useful but because they introduce a different, more integrated, and more connected way of looking at the world.


TB872: Wenger-Trayner and communities of practice

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

A kaleidoscopic image visualizing the fractal-like expansion of a community of practice from a central core to a broad network, depicted through symmetrical, repeating patterns that reflect the intricate growth and diversity within the community.

Étienne Wenger-Trayner is someone whose work I’ve come across on multiple occasions over the last 15 years. When I worked at Jisc, he was cited in meetings and reports and, these days, we use his concept of communities of practice in the co-op. For example, we ran some online Community Conversations sessions where we discussed his ideas around ‘value cycles’.

For this module, we’ve got the recording of the first part of a presentation he gave at the University of Brighton in 2013 entitled ‘Learning in landscapes of practice: recent developments in social learning theory’ (The Open University, 2021) and a chapter in the book Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice (Blackmore, 2010).

I hadn’t realised that he coined the term ‘community of practice’ (CoP) to describe the social structures observed around traditional apprenticeships. Wenger-Trayner observed that learning is not simply a transaction between a master and an apprentice but involves the entire community.

Image entitled 'Studies of apprenticeship - legitimate peripheral participation'

The image shows different layers and a wiggly line journey from the outside to the inside.

Other text reads 'Learning as trajectory into a community of practice'
Screencap of slide from Wenger-Trayner’s presentation

During the presentation, he tells an anecdote about wine-tasting. A friend of his talked about a wine having a ‘purple nose’ which, because he was (and is) not a member of a wine-tasting community, he didn’t really understand. The same is true of other CoPs: they shape our perceiption and interpretation of experiences. What was just a ‘decent glass of wine’ is all of a sudden a much richer interaction if you have the language and understanding to appreciate it.

In her introduction to the section on CoPs, Chris Blackmore suggests why reference to them has “mushroomed” since Wenger-Trayner’s first book on the subject:

[D]ownsizing of companies in many parts of the western world and increased mobility of people from job to job has led to a need to find other ways to continue in professional relationships. The increased development and use of information and communication technologies, particularly the Internet, has generally made it easier for many to find out about and communicate with others beyond their own geographical areas. In responses to complexity, needs for different kinds of support have arisen – social, professional and personal. Business and industry imperatives have changed with increased globalisation with a range of new economic and ethical dilemmas to be addressed. Calls for sustainable development and concerns about climate change have presented new challenges in doing and learning with others, some of them undoubtedly addressed by CoPs praxis.

(Blackmore, 2010, p.103)

The chapter written by Wenger-Trayner with William M. Snyder (2004) addresses global challenges, suggesting that we require a “world learning system”. This, they suggest, should have the following “three basic specifications”:

  • Action-learning capacity to address problems while continuously reflecting on what approaches are working and why – and then using these insights to guide future actions.
  • Cross-boundary representation that includes participants from all sectors – private, public, and nonprofit – and from a sufficient range of demographic constituencies and professional disciplines to match the complexity of factors and stakeholders driving the problem.
  • Cross-level linkages that connect learning-system activities at local, national, and global levels – wherever civic problems and opportunities arise.
(Blackmore, 2010, p.108)

The chapter calls for an evolutionary approach to building a world learning system, and explains the role of communities of practice can have in creating a discipline of “world design” focused on strategic social learning systems. This involves a fractal approach, to make it possible to “significantly increase the scale of a community-based learning system without losing core elements of its success” (ibid., p.120).

One thing that CoPs struggle with, especially in the civic arena, is stewardship. Coalitions “do not take sustained responsibility for stewarding a civic domain or for bringing together the full array of stakeholder constituencies to identify and address short- and long-term priorities” (ibid., p.113). Instead, some individuals or organisations may participate “in multiple communities in ways that help interweave relationships in the broader community”. Consequently, “they become brokers of relationships between levels in equivalent types of communities” because “I trust people trusted by those I trust” (ibid., p.121).

Importantly, the authors point out that “the evolution of a learning system must… be paced at the time-scale of social relationships, not according to an externally imposed objective to achieve short-term results” (ibid.). Some of these social relationships will involve conflict, especially when the aim of the community is to try and solve previously-intractable problems. Dealing with conflict helps build trust, which again, takes time.

A community of practice approach, while useful, is not “a silver bullet for solving the problems of the world” but rather a way to align “community activities within a broader ecology of formal an informal structures – institutions, cultural groups, laws, and social networks” (ibid, p.123).


  • Blackmore, C. (ed.) (2010). Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. Available at:
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘3.3.5 Wenger-Trayner: communities of practice, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 25 February 2024).

Image: DALL-E 3