Open Thinkering


Tag: Learning Contract

TB872: My learning contract as a designed system of interest

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

Abstract image depicting a fluid transition from a structured learning contract to a dynamic, interconnected system. On the left, a monochromatic, orderly table with words and linear elements gradually blends into a vivid, complex network of interconnected nodes and colorful pathways on the right. This seamless transformation symbolizes the evolution from systematic to systemic thinking, highlighted by the subtle shift in color palette from muted tones near the table to vibrant hues in the network, representing the growing complexity and depth of understanding.

It’s time to revisit my learning contract, that document that I’m encouraged to keep updated during this module, and turn it into a ‘designed system of interest’. In other words, I need to take something which is currently a table with words in it and transform it using the I’ll be building on the diagram I created in this post and also this one.

It seems as if about half of the students on this module have previously studied TB871. Although it’s not a pre-requisite, it seems like there’s a lot of knowledge and understanding that, if not assumed, would be extremely helpful in knowing what’s actually going on at various points of this module.

If it weren’t for fellow student Paul Phillips sharing his diagram for this activity in the student forums, I’m not sure I would have known what to do. Thank you Paul 🙏

As a reminder, my learning contract when I last touched it looked like this:

Updated learning contract

The idea is to turn it into something that looks like this:

Diagram included in TB872 course materials (The Open University, 2021)

The idea in doing this is to move from systematic to systemic practice in a way which represents the stage I’m at in the module. I’m not going to lie, this is hard. I’m new to the concepts involved, the diagrammatic approach, and juggling both my S1 and S2 at the same time is confusing.

Nevertheless, I persist.

The diagram below is my attempt at taking the information from the learning contract and turning it into a model:

Learning contract translated into SSM activity model

I have to say that I’m finding this part of the course particularly difficult. There are sections explained in painstaking detail, followed by parts akin to the meme about how to draw an owl.


TB872: Revisiting my learning contract

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.

At the end of November, I was asked to come up with a learning contract. You can see my post about it here, and the table I produced can be found below. I’ll call this one Version 1 (v1).

Original learning contract

As part of the learning process, we’re asked to go back and revisit this based on what we’ve learned since doing this. So below is my updated version (v2), with new additions to the ‘Notes’ section in bold, a new colour to differentiate it, and strikethrough formatting on words I’ve removed.

Version 2 of my learning contract

I’ll admit to being quite confused by the difference between S1 and S2. I still am to some degree, although I’ve got more of a grip on it than before. As you can see, my S1 in v1 applies to a client situation, which is actually an S2. In v2 of my learning contract, I correct that.

The words in bold that I’ve added show my additional learning over the past month or so. In particular, what I’ve learned from Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act about systems thinking as a social dynamic and as a process. I’ve also realised through some of the readings just how important it is to take a holistic view of a particular situation of interest. This is crucial for those in leadership positions, but it’s also important for everyone in an organisation to have some kind of understanding of the whole.

One of the things that’s fascinating is to see how my own understanding of “what I do when I do what I do” has developed over the weeks since I started this module. As my (second) rich picture shows, I’ve been reflecting on tendencies that I have to fight against in terms of perfectionism and control.

What I’ve noticed is how I have come to learn about STiP at pretty much an ideal time in my life. As I was explaining to someone recently, if I had studied systems thinking earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready; I need the lived experience for it to be worthwhile. Coupled with the academic study I’ve done and the approach I took to my doctoral thesis, what I’m doing here feels like a logical extension.

I’m particularly interested in leverage points, and have come to realise that it’s only really possible to identify them once you’ve spoke to plenty of people within a particular situation of concern, and (visually) mapped it out. I’m really looking forward to doing more of this, both for the course, and in terms of my work with clients.

Towards the end of Chapter 3, in a footnote, Ray Ison discusses Max Weber’s concept of an ‘ideal type’:

An ideal type is formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena, but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. It is not meant to refer to perfect things, moral ideals nor to statistical averages but rather to stress certain elements common to most cases of the given phenomena.

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. p.56. Available at:

In that regard, an ideal type is not a Platonic form, but rather something which is more akin to the Pragmatic idea that something is ‘good in the way of belief’. That is to say that it’s an approach to situations which lead to good outcomes, rather than being a template for all outcomes. At least, that’s the way I’m thinking about this at the moment, before moving on to the next section of the book.

TB872: Learning contract and preparing for first assessment

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.

The final thing I need to do before working on TMA01 (i.e. my first tutor-marked assignment) is to complete a learning contract. The things I’ve worked on so far build towards the assignment, so it’s like a coral reef, with my learning and understanding building up through accretion.

Screenshot of table entitled 'Focus for systemic change through my learning'
(tap to enlarge)

The above table is based on a template made available in the module resources section. It covers the elements of the PFMS heuristic, asking which of them I’m focused on. It’s a worthwhile thing to do, although oddly framed as a ‘learning contract’ (that framing seems to be a dead metaphor along the same lines as a ‘skills passport’)

The table is to be completed in the first instance by ranking your current priority (nil, low, medium, high) against the possible sites for change in the left-hand column. Do one entry per line and use a Y (yes) or N (no) to indicate your current priorities. You can make this framework more illuminating by adding short notes to key cells explaining your priorities.

When you have completed [the table] use it to make some preliminary notes about the sorts of changes you would like to see as a result of having studied the module.

As you can see by the way I’ve completed the table, I’m really interested in all of it. Although I’m not specifically doing this MSc (and therefore this module) for work, I do expect Systems Thinking to be an important part of the way I interact with clients and networks I’m part of, going forward.

I haven’t adapted the table as I don’t have any ‘reporting requirements’, such as justifying my organisation’s spend on my fees (as I’m self-funding it), nor do I have to prove/demonstrate the impact of my learning to my boss (as I don’t have one).

Part 1 of the module closes with a fantastic quotation from Stafford Beer, which I hadn’t come across before, so I’m going to share it here:

It is not the living, breathing human being who resists change in [their] very soul. The problem is that the institutions in which we humans have our stake resist change (…) The power has remained where it resided. (…) Every time we hear that a possible solution simply cannot be done, we may be sure on general scientific grounds that it can. Every time we hear that a solution is not economic, we ought to ask: “for whom?”- since it’s people, just people who will have to pay. Every time we hear that proposal will destroy society as we know it, we should have the courage to say: “Thank God, at last.” And whenever we hear that it will destroy our freedom we should be very cautious indeed. (…) This is the simplest method that the powerful have to cling to power: to convince people that any other concession of that power would be unsafe.”

Beer, S. (1974) Designing freedom. Toronto: CBC Learning Systems.

I won’t be sharing my TMA01 assessment submission, for obvious reasons, but given that it will be based on what I’ve already shared here, you’re not missing out! I have to do things like: update and comment on my trajectory diagram, assess my systems literacy, and share/explain the above learning contract. The main part of it (45%), however, is to use the PFMS heuristic to reflect upon and explain an example of my current or past practice.