Understanding the environment: Learning and communication
Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

Glossary

action learning
The process of undertaking the steps of planning, acting, observing and evaluating in order to understand and engage with a complex situation.
actuator
In the control model, the part of the system that can effect a change.
analysis
A method of understanding something by dividing it into parts and making sense of the parts.
attributes
The properties of a thing that identify and characterise it.
balancing feedback
Feedback that dampens change. Also referred to as ‘negative feedback’.
boundary
The line or region which distinguishes what is in a system from the wider environment around it.
capabilities
The capacity of an element of a system to affect the wider system.
change
Modification of system structure and/or processes.
channel
In the Shannon–Weaver model of communication – the medium or link through which a message is sent.
chaos
A situation which shows no predictable pattern of organisation and/or behaviour.
closed system experiment
Where an experimental system has to function without any exchange of energy, matter and information with its environment.
communication
The exchange of meaningful information – an important mode of learning in humans, through which experiences can be widely shared.
communication structures
The organisation of communication channels, such as the organisational chart in a company.
comparator
In the control model, a comparator compares the output of a process against a goal such as an indicator.
concept
A coherent idea abstracted from practical situations.
control
Control refers to the function of a system which regulates its outputs or maintains it within certain bounded behaviour. Control can arise from within or without a system.
culture
The explicit and implicit social rules that shape the way people behave.
cybernetic optimisation
Action by a system initiated in order to achieve a particular goal which causes some change in the environment towards achieving that goal. The change in the environment is fed back to the system via information/energy/material flows which in turn changes the way the system then behaves: stronger action if the goal has not been achieved; or the cessation of action if the goal has been achieved.
cybernetics
The science of control from the Greek word for the steersman of a ship.
delays
Where the feedback in a system takes a significant time to reappear as an input. This can have a profound affect on the dynamics of the system.
diagramming
A formal approach to visual modelling using a range of techniques for exploring the organisation of information in two dimensions, e.g. on paper or on a computer screen.
difficulty
Bounded problem with a limited timescale, clear priorities, limited applications. It can be treated as a separate matter, with a limited number of people involved who know what needs to be done, know what the problem is and know what a solution would be (contrasted with mess).
diversity
A measure of the degree of differences between things – for example the number of different species in an ecosystem, or the different types of businesses that a pension fund has invested in.
ecology
The study of the relationship amongst living organisms and between these and their environment.
ecosystem
The organisation of species and their surrounding environment into a self-sustaining whole.
eight intelligences
Howard Gardner’s theory that there are eight different ways in which people develop, communicate and put into practice their understandings.
emergence
Higher-level properties emerge from systems of lower-level components in such a way that the high-level properties could not be predicted from knowledge of the components in isolation.
environment
In systems terms, this refers to those factors outside of a system with which it interacts or which affect how it operates.
environmental footprint
The impact of something (such as a person, a city or a sports event) on its environment. Subcategories of an environmental footprint include ecological, water and carbon footprints.
epistemology
A study of the way we know what we know (how knowledge arises out of a combination of beliefs and facts), its history and its limits.
equifinality
When a system always ends up in a single final state, whatever its starting point.
equilibrium
When system components do not show any apparent change in quality and quantity.
extinction
The permanent and irreversible disappearance of a lifeform.
feedback loop
Where an input of a system is affected by one of its outputs – for example in communication when communicating with someone who is communicating back.
flows of energy, matter and information
This refers to the way that systems interact with their environment and amongst its components – for example a system could be closed in terms of matter, but open in terms of energy. Some components provide other components with energy, matter and/or information.
group think
The tendency for individuals to fall in with the thinking of those with whom they are closely associated, even if they might individually disagree.
hard complexity
Complexity that arises from the dynamics of a situation, where the presence of large numbers of feedback loops and/or variables makes prediction difficult.
hierarchy
The nested nature of systems: systems encompass subsystems while simultaneously being part of supra-systems.
homeostasis
The dynamic equilibrium through which living systems maintain the conditions for their ongoing existence.
indicator
A characteristic of a system which is used as a measure for control.
information
Matter and/or energy which is not of direct use by a living organism apart from having the potential to change the organism’s behaviour – for example, the triggering of moths’ reproductive behaviour resulting from a full moon.
information and communication technologies
Technologies that allow the recording, storage or sharing of information.
input–process–output
A process-based way of looking at what a system is, concerned with defining a system by what it does rather than the objects it is constituted from.
interdependence
The way that different system components (such as organisms in an ecosystem) play roles that supports other components which in turn support themselves.
internalised model
A model developed by a living system in order for it to cope with its environment without constantly sensing it. It may only be detectable implicitly through the living system’s behaviour.
interpersonal intelligence
The ability to empathise with others by recognising their intentions, motivations and desires. Professions which require a high level of this intelligence include educators, psychologists and politicians.
intrapersonal intelligence
The ability to recognise one’s own intentions, motivations and desires. Professions which require a high level of this intelligence include poets and artists.
kinaesthetic intelligence
The ability to coordinate one’s movements. Individuals which require high levels of this intelligence include athletes, craftspeople, musicians, dancers, surgeons and painters.
learning
The capacity to change or create internalised models in response to experience.
learning cycle
A sequence of steps that describe the different aspects of learning. There are a number of different types of learning cycle, such as Kolb’s learning cycle. Many of them feature observation, evaluation, planning and action, or their equivalents.
linear sequential thinking
Thinking based on a precise sequence of information that goes into greater and greater detail.
linguistic intelligence
The ability to use a coherent narrative to communicate and organise thoughts. Professions which require a high level of this intelligence include lawyers, writers and actors.
logical–mathematical intelligence
The ability to investigate issues deductively and recognise/work with numerical patterns. Professions which require a high level of it this intelligence include software programmers, engineers and scientists.
mathematical communication
Mathematical communication uses quantification (numbers and functions) to share or highlight experience.
mathematical models
Models where the essential dynamics of a situation are represented through numbers and mathematical patterns.
mental models
Essentially the same as internalised models, but referring specifically to humans.
mess
Unbounded problems or sets of problems with: a longer, uncertain timescale; priorities which are called into question; uncertain, but greater implications. It can’t be disentangled from its context, and more people are involved who don’t know what needs to be known, who aren’t sure what the problem is, and don’t see ‘solutions’ (contrasted with difficulty).
metaphor
The use of an unrelated word or phrase to represent and model another object or situation. For example, the term ‘war on terror’ depicts the process of addressing a particular criminal activity as a military intervention.
model
A simplified representation of reality which has a purpose.
Modes
(of delivery) Medium or type of communication.
multiple intelligences
The idea that there is more than one way of solving problems – for example right and left brain thinking or Gardner’s eight intelligences (linguistic/logical-mathematical/musical/kinaesthetic/spatial/interpersonal/intra personal/naturalist-ecological).
musical intelligence
The ability to recognise pitches, tones, rhythms and compose these into recognisable patterns. Professions which require a high level of this intelligence include composers and musicians.
naturalist intelligence
The ability to appreciate ecological interdependence, including the nested nature of our society within the greater Earth system.
negative feedback
Feedback which operates to reinforce stability. Also called balancing feedback.
network
The organisation of components as a system which facilitates the flow of information, matter and/or energy.
object
A discrete entity, or one that is perceived to be so. Used to categorise flows of energy, matter and information. This is especially relevant when these manifest levels of structural and/or process stability. For example, a stone or a flame can be objectified because their material composition, energy levels and capacity to convey information are stable enough over time for categorisation.
open systems
A system which exchanges energy, matter or information with its environment.
oral communication
Verbal communication through sound.
organism
A living system with a distinct boundary which distinguishes it from its environment.
overshoot
The point where one or more of a system's components are using resources over the rate by which these can be replenished. The inevitable consequence of overshoot is the collapse of the component(s), and the potential collapse of the system as a whole if at least one particular component is playing a vital role in system processes.
positive feedback
Positive feedback reinforces change.
process
The way in which information, matter and/or energy flows through, and are modified by, a system's components.
purpose
An anticipated outcome that directs system structure and processes.
quality of life
Quality of life indicators widen attention beyond monetary wealth to health and happiness.
quantitative (mathematical) models
Models where the essential dynamics of a situation are represented through numbers and mathematical patterns.
rates
The measures of changing system component quantity or quality relative to time.
receiver
The means by which communication is received.
reductionist thinking
Thinking based on the idea that a thing can be characterised by the attributes of its components.
redundancy
Multiple complementary components or functions such that removing one instance does not result in system failure because the others can keep going. For example, the removal of one kidney out of the two will still allow the individual to continue a healthy life.
regulating
Taking control of something.
relational logic
Reasoning based in the relationships between things which are disciplined, rule-bound and repeatable so that decisions are defendable and explainable.
relationship
Interaction between components within a system.
resilient
Able to cope with stresses and shocks by recovering readily.
resistant
Able to cope with stresses and shocks by not being affected much in the first place.
roles
The typical functions that system components carry out - for example a species in an ecosystem.
selective perception
A phenomenon where people pay attention to things they are familiar with or to evidence that supports views they already hold.
sensors
The means to detect signals or a change in state. In the control model, a sensor monitors the outputs of a process.
shared models
A common interpretation that enables effective communication.
sign graph diagrams
A diagram that represents the operation of causality in a system’s dynamics.
simplification
A model is a simplification of reality that does not pay attention to all the aspects of a situation, but is relevant to understanding and engaging with the situation.
soft complexity
Complexity that arises from a lack of certain information about a situation – for example when there are intractable differences in the way that a situation is perceived by those involved in it.
spatial intelligence
The ability to recognise visual patterns and relationships. Professions which require a high level of this intelligence include artists, designers, and taxi drivers.
stability
Unchanging system structure and/or processes, usually applied in situations where the system's environment is changing.
status
A measure of a system, its structure, processes and/or components with the aim of identifying change or stability.
stocks
In a model, a quantity of something that can increase or decrease.
subsystems
Components of a system, which are themselves systems.
supra-systems
The systems within which your particular system of interest is nested within.
survival of the fittest
Continuation of a particular component within a system which through competition and cooperation can access enough resources to maintain itself or replicants of it, while other components become extinct through lack of resources.
synthesis
Trying to understand something by considering its relationship to other things. Also the process of making a whole out of parts.
system dynamics
The study of the patterns of feedback in complex systems.
system dynamics diagrams
A diagramming methodology used in system dynamics modelling.
system performance
A comparison between the behaviour of a system as detected through an indicator and what is expected.
systems
An interconnected and interdependent set of components with coherent organisation, often characterised by nested subsystems, emergent properties, communication, and control which is dynamic, adaptive and self-preserving.
systems thinking
A style of thinking that balances rational and intuitive, synthetic and analytic, thinking.
technique
Standardised and formal approaches for executing certain tasks.
thinking trap
A learned and/or biological limitation in the way that we model and act in the world which does not result in the best outcome for addressing a particular problem.
tipping point
This is where small changes within a system result in no notifiable overall change until a certain threshold is reached, after which the system changes radically, and sometimes, irreversibly. A simple example of a tipping point is the boiling of water – very little happens as the water temperature rises, but once the 100°C threshold is reached, there is a sudden transformation of liquid water into vapour.
transmitter
The means by which communication is sent.
unit of measurement
A standard measure in which something is quantified.
variables
Independent and distinct factors which influence the rate of change of a stock's level as represented through a system dynamics diagram.
verbal models
Models where a situation is described in written or spoken words.
viability
The capacity for ongoing existence.
visual communication
Visual communication uses two-dimensional pictures, three-dimensional objects and spatial representations to communicate experience.
visual models
Two or three dimensional forms where a situation is described through graphical symbols and spatial relationships.
written communication
Written communication uses written words to communicate experience.
T214_3

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371