Open Thinkering


Tag: systems thinking

TB872: Choosing between CSLS and CoPs

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

For my End of Module Assessment (EMA) I have to choose between using two traditions. One is Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS) and the other is Communities of Practice (CoPs), with the CoPs being familiar, and CSLS being new to me as of studying this module.

I’m choosing CSLS instead of CoPs for my EMA inquiry, for three reasons:

  1. Familiarity / novelty — as I’ve already mentioned, I’m new to CSLS, so I’m interested in learning more about it. This, after all, is the whole point of self-funding this MSc in Systems Thinking.
  2. Relevance — as I’ll explain below, while CoPs tend to focus on the practical application of knowledge and learning in an informal community, CSLS is more about social dynamics and power relations. I feel like the latter is more relevant for my inquiry, as it involves systemic change within Higher Education.
  3. Challenge — some of what I’m attempting to help change in my inquiry is what some would call a complex situation, or a ‘hybrid matter of concern’ which is messy and global in impact. CSLS seems more suited to this.

Chapter 6 of the course text was written by Richard Bawden specifically for the book (Bawden, 2010). In the introduction to the chapter, he notes that there were five “beliefs or tenets that came to be held collectively” (ibid., p.89) by the faculty at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in Australia, from which CSLS developed:

  • Experience is a critical source of human learning and development
  • Such experiential learning is essentially a multi-dimensional, developmental system of cognitive processing by which we make sense out of the world around us as the foundation for the actions that we take as we live our lives in it
  • What we learn about the world is markedly influenced both by the way we go about that learning and by the limitations that are imposed by the particular intellectual and moral perspectives (worldviews) that each of us (usually tacitly) adopts through which we ‘filter’ our ‘sense-making’
  • Worldview perspectives are themselves capable of development as reflected in transformations of basic value and belief assumptions which are achieved essentially through ‘higher order’, critical cognitive processing
  • The ability to act systemically in the world, with an acute appreciation of ‘wholeness’, ‘inter-connectedness’ and ‘emergence’, is a function of particular intellectual and value assumptions concerning the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge and of knowing, and the nature of human nature.
Bawden (2010, pp.89-90)

Bawden continues by citing the work of Foucault to talk about “epistemic development,” meaning “the transformation of worldviews” which “involves profound changes to the beliefs that we hold about… the world around us, as well as to the values that we cherish, that together constitute our intellectual and moral ‘sense-making’ frameworks”. We are “abysmally ignorant,” he notes, “of the fact that we even hold to particular epistemes or worldviews” let alone be “conscious of the extent to which they influence the way we live our lives” (Bawden, 2010, p.91).

These worldviews “comprise a set of personal presuppositions” about the following:

(a) the nature of nature (or ontology, philosophically speaking),
(b) the nature and origins of the universe, of life itself and, especially, of the spiritual essence of mankind (or cosmology),
(c) the nature of knowledge (or epistemology) and
(d) the nature of human nature especially as it relates to motivations, dispositions
and values, especially ethics and aesthetics (or axiology).

Bawden (2010, p.96)

In Chapter 3 where Bawden (2010b) goes into depth about Karen Kitchener’s model of cognitive processing. I discussed this in a previous post, but didn’t include the following diagram:

A circle labelled 'Learning' nested inside two ovals, the first labelled 'Meta learning' and the second 'Epistemic learning'

Combined with the experiential model of learning developed by David Kolb, the Hawkesbury group created a framework for developing learning practices that focuses in turn on:

(a) learning about the matter to hand and how to transform that for the better,
(b) learning about the learning processes that are brought to bear to learn about the matter to hand (meta-learning), and how to improve them, and
(c) learning about the limitations to learning that are imposed by prevailing worldviews (epistemes) (epistemic learning), and how these can be appropriately characterised, challenged and, where indicated, transformed.

Bawden (2010, p.92)

In terms of the third of these, the epistemic learning, a critical social learning system is ‘critical’ in three areas (ibid., p.95):

  1. Of conditions within the environments within it is embedded (and seeks improvement)
  2. Reflexive (i.e. critically reflective) of its own structure
  3. Critically conscious of the implications of each boundary judgement (i.e. what and who is included/excluded)

Citing Vickers, who I have written about elsewhere, Bawden talks about appreciative systems, and seeing our lived experiences as a two-stranded braiding of events with ideas. As far as I understand it, CSLS takes a step back from even this, to create a three-stranded braid which also includes worldviews. It is all very well understanding the world by linking ideas (including value judgements) with lived experience, but shared worldviews allow us to take action in the world.

I’m choosing CSLS over CoPs, then, for my inquiry, because of the resonance with Bawden’s claims that “we [are] victims of our own, particular, culturally embedded way of ‘seeing’ what is happening about us” (ibid., p.100). Although he was talking in terms of the climate emergency and “the looming global energy crisis” I can see this as well with the focus of my own inquiry.

Useful resources

This is mainly a note to myself, based on the course materials (The Open University, 2021):

Designing a learning systemChapter 4 (Woodhill) – sections ‘Institutional design’ and ‘Facilitating institutional design’

Chapter 5 (Ison) – section ‘Social learning systems in practice’
Practitioner (P)Chapter 3 (Bawden) – sections ‘Worldviews’ and ‘The inspirational subsystem’

Chapter 5 (Ison) – section ‘Becoming aware of our traditions of understanding’

Chapter 6 (Bawden) – section ‘Worldviews and their influence’
Framework of ideas (F)Chapter 6 (Bawden) – section ‘The nature of critical social learning systems’

Chapter 4 (Woodhill) – section ‘Towards a paradigm of social learning’
Methods (M)Chapter 3 (Bawden) e.g. the diagrams
Situation of concern (S)Chapter 3 (Bawden) – ‘Genesis’

Chapter 4 (Woodhill) – ‘Introduction’

Chapter 5 (Ison) – ‘Creating the contexts to foster social learning’


  • Bawden, R. (2010). ‘Messy issues, worldviews and systemic competencies’. In Blackmore, C. (ed.) Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. pp.89-101. Available at:
  • Bawden, R. (2010b). ‘The community challenge: the learning response’. In Blackmore, C. (ed.) Social learning systems and communities of practice. London: Springer. pp.89-101. Available at:
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘3.4.1 Making your choice of tradition’, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 1 March 2024).

Image: DALL-E 3

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.