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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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4.2 Taking responsibility for your own learning

Not much of this course conforms to the traditional pattern mentioned earlier – the theory-example-exercise pattern. In particular, you will find you are expected to discover much of it for yourself. Why is this? This is a legitimate question and deserves a full answer.

One year, a student at a residential summer school complained I had not taught him properly. I was, he told me, an expert and so why did I not demonstrate how to tackle the problem he was working on and pass my expertise on to him. He felt the tutorial was ‘a wasted opportunity’. I could understand why he felt aggrieved. But I think he had missed an important feature of learning a skill such as systems thinking.

More and more, I’ve come to realise that whatever expertise I may have in systems thinking and practice, it is my expertise and it only works for me. In this I find myself in agreement with C.W. Churchman (1971), who was one of the first people to write about what systems thinking might mean in practice, when he said ‘there are no experts in a systems approach’. When I look at the people whom I believe to be experts in this area, I realise there are many ways of being good at systems thinking and many ways of being good at systems practice. Each systems thinker seems to be good in their own way. I believe this is because systems thinking in practice is about ways of experiencing the world, ways of thinking, and about ways of dealing with the complex situations I encounter.

Consequently, systems expertise is unique to each person. I cannot tell you how it’s going to work for you or how you should understand it. You have to find your own ways. All I can do is to invite you into experiences that are likely to help you create your own meanings from the material. As well as being the only logically consistent way of learning systems thinking, there is plenty of research evidence to show that understandings and knowledge that one acquires through discovery is retained and developed much more readily than the understandings one acquires through being told, or even shown.

Taking responsibility for your own learning in this way is challenging but it need not be difficult. It requires a preparedness to experiment with ideas and styles of learning that may not initially feel right or comfortable.

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Figure 6 Life is complex.