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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

TB872: The people of the PFMS heuristic

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 DALL-E 3 created abstract image, conceptualizing the PFMS heuristic in a collaborative learning context, is now available. It visually represents the integration and interaction of the four elements of the PFMS heuristic: Practitioners, Framework of Ideas, Methods, and Situations of Concern, within a vibrant and dynamic setting.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, the PFMS heuristic is at the core of the TB872 module I’m currently studying:

Practitioners (P) Which other practitioners do you work with?
Framework of ideas (F) What ideas are informing your practice? Do you have a shared set of ideas or are you all working with different ideas? Are there particular ideas you have heard about that you would like to explore further?
Methods (M) What methods and tools are you using?
Situations of concern (S) Do you have a shared situation of concern? If so, what is it?

The next activity on my list is to fill in what seems like a straightforward 2×2 table, based on the work of De Laat and Simons (2002). The idea, I think, is to introduce the idea of social learning to those who are perhaps only really conceptualise the kind of individual learning done on traditional university undergraduate courses.

Outcomes
ProcessesIndividualCollective
IndividualIndividual learningIndividual learning processes with collective outcomes
CollectiveLearning in social interactionCollective learning

Taking both the PFMS model and the table together, it’s clear that in my day-to-day work through the co-op of which I’m a founding member, I engage in all four of the kinds of learning:

  • Individual learning: all knowledge and belief is contextual and theory-laden, so much of what I learn is based on my own personal experience, observation, and internal reflection. For example, I might learn what to say or not say to a colleague in a given situation. Or I might find out about something from a client who works in a slightly different way to me.
  • Individual learning processes with collective outcomes: although learning often occurs at an individual level, the knowledge or skills we acquire can contribute to a larger group’s collective goal. For example, we can pool the expertise we have as a cooperative, and the experience for clients is greater than if they engaged us as individual consultants. In this quadrant, there’s a symbiotic relationship between personal development and collective advancement.
  • Learning in social interaction: I’d say about half of my working week is spent ‘co-working’ with members and collaborators of the co-op. As such, learning happens through these interactions by sharing, discussing, and negotiating knowledge. This happens within Communities of Practice (CoP) we’re part of but WAO itself is a CoP, and a place for learning and development as well as for doing business.
  • Collective learning: although individual people learn, so do groups, communities and organisations. This goes beyond the simple aggregation of individual learning experience to include the creation of new knowledge through collective effort. To achieve this, there needs to be shared goals, co-creation of knowledge, and mutual engagement. In my working week, this happens most often through networks of co-ops we’re part of (e.g. workers.coop) and CoPs (e.g. ORE).

I’ve been working on the Open Recognition Toolkit this week, and during our working group call we discussed the Plane of Recognition we’re using on this page. Although, like De Laat and Simons’ grid, it involves quadrants, what’s really happening is a continuum. In the former case it’s from traditional, formal recognition to non-traditional, non-formal recognition. In the latter, it’s a continuum of learning that mvoes from the individual to the collective, emphasising the connections between personal knowledge acquisition and social, collaboration knowledge creation.

So, in my Situation (S), the Practitioners (P) I’m working with are primarily Laura, and then on few with John and Anne. In the past there have been other members and collaborators involved, too. The Framework of Ideas (F) that we implement has been negotiated over time, but was helped by us all working together for a few years at the Mozilla Foundation. At our monthly co-op days, we reflect on different aspects of our work together, for example creating pages such as Spirit of WAO which allow us to say together things like:

We believe in:

  • Placing ourselves and our work in historical and social contexts so that we can make thoughtful decisions about our behaviours and mindsets.
  • Seeing ourselves as part of nature not the rulers of it and acknowledging that there is a climate emergency. We are conscious of the lost lessons and spirit of the indigenous and strive for climate justice.
  • Sharing resources to help combat prejudice wherever we see it (including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and hostility relating to education or socio-economic status).

In terms of our methods (M) we try and make these as explicit as possible. So we’re currently using software tools such as Trello, Google Docs, and Whimsical. But we’ve got a Learn with WAO site where we share tools and approaches, which include the templates we use with clients on a range of activities. These are all Creative Commons licensed, as we walk the talk of openness.


In considering the Situations (S) of concern, our work at the co-op often revolves around diverse and sometimes complex projects. Each project brings its own set of challenges and opportunities for learning. Returning to my earlier example of the Open Recognition Toolkit, there were some new things we had to learn about using MediaWiki, even though it’s a tool we’ve used before. Likewise, there was a time when I had to send a somewhat awkward, but necessary, email, to a contributor who was engaging in a way that wasn’t entirely pro-social. As such, the project has required not individual learning but also collective effort to bring together different expertise and perspectives.

A really interesting aspect of thinking through my practice using the PFMS heuristic is how it enables a fluid transition between individual and collective learning processes. For example, I often find that my own, individual, learning about Open Source technologies contributes significantly to the collective knowledge base of the group.

Social learning is essentially learning in practice. It’s not just about exchanging information, but full-bandwidth collaborative experience that inform and shape both our understanding and approaches to work. For example, I’ve seen many instances when people have taken things that they’ve seen us used (and which we learned from others), and then use them in their own practice. Sometimes they even verbalise it: “Oh, I’m going to steal that!”. This encourages a culture of continuous learning and adaptation, which is important in any kind of work environment.


I’m part of the Member Learning group of workers.coop, and in a meeting this week I was trying to explain the value of regular community calls. I was trying to get across the point that the kind of learning we want to foster in the network is not a series of transactional experiences, but rather building a constituency of people who are learning and growing together. It’s not something confined to formal training sessions or workshops. Instead, it’s embedded in our interactions, projects, and shared culture.

As I get further into the TB872 module, I am increasingly appreciative of the way that WAO works internally, with clients, and with other cooperatives. We’ve essentially set up a learning organisation. What’s useful to me is that the PFMS heuristic provides a really valuable lens through which to view and understand these processes, and I’m glad I’m forcing myself to blog all of this so that I can come back to it later!


Image: DALL-E 3 (it reminds me somewhat of a Doom painting you might find on the wall of a medieval church!)

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