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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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3.6 Learning and effective action

I claim that learning is about effective action. It is distinguished when I, or another observer, recognise that I can perform what I was unable to perform before. Following Reyes and Zarama (1998), I am going to claim learning is an assessment made by an observer based on observed capacity for action. From this perspective, learning is not about ideas stored in our mind, but about action. So what makes an action effective? Reyes and Zarama (1998, p. 26) make the following claims:

Assessments change through history.[…] A major blindness we often observe in people is the almost exclusive attention they pay to learning particular skills as a way to become effective and successful in the future. However, they do not pay much attention to the fact that the standards to assess effectiveness in the future may be very different from the ones used today.[…] Actions by themselves never generate effectiveness. Only actions that comply with existing social standards can produce it.[…] A good example […] is the importance granted today to ecological concerns. Based on historical changes in standards of effectiveness, procedures that were considered extremely effective in the past are now discarded because they do not meet ecological standards.

This historical pattern of changes in what constitutes effectiveness is made in our social communications – it is referred to as discourses in the social sciences. Making judgements about effectiveness is something we do every day when we say, ‘He is a good footballer’, or, ‘She is a good manager’. Implicit in these statements are some measures of performance against which we judged effectiveness. I know from my own experience that my own standards of effectiveness are different to my daughter's when, after listening to a CD, I say, ‘She is a good singer’!

To be highly competent in practice, any practice, requires learning to be embodied – incorporated in the body itself. This is clear if we watch an Olympic hurdler or any other consummate athlete or performer. Every learning involves an alteration of the learner's body to perform the newly learned actions. Thus, practice must happen. If I have an aspiration it is to be able to embody my systems practice. I think I have a long way to go, but I have experienced systems practitioners who meet many of the criteria of my ideal. There is, however one further element of being a systems practitioner that requires juggling.