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

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Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

1.2 Readings

In considering the environmental and social challenges that we are currently facing, we are clearly dealing with so-called 'wicked' problems: the 'problems' manifest themselves only as you try to engage and change society and the environment, and in doing so the problems in turn change; there is no definite solution that we could aim at; no case history to draw upon; no right or wrong approach to take which would make everybody equally happy; and there is no way to anticipate the consequences of working through the issues. There is therefore no template for getting us out of this mess. Instead, many systems thinkers figured out that living organisms adapt to changes in their environment by a process of trial and error ('cybernetic optimisation' to use the appropriate systems term). For social systems, this cybernetic optimisation has often been recast as action learning. This action learning process can be broken down into four distinct phases: planning, acting, observing, and evaluating. Putting into practice these four distinct phases can therefore be seen as one of the most basic frameworks for understanding complex situations.

In the first course of study, your main task was to identify your particular cognitive style – i.e. the way you prefer to model your plans, actions, observations and evaluations – and then explore the implications of your particular cognitive style. Most organisms encode this model within their physical structure, so that any external stimulus that has a correspondence with the internal model results in a reaction. We humans have evolved the ability to extend the modelling process through abstract conceptualisation which can transfer the lessons learnt from one context to another. This has made humans one of the most adaptable multicellular species on Earth. Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that different parts of the brain specialise in distinct forms of conceptual modelling. The activities in the first course of study should have allowed you to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your own modelling process. But how do our mental models change and evolve? Reading 2.1 introduces you to the role of learning in changing both our individual and shared models.

Readings 2.2 and 2.3 introduces you to the process of communication and the various forms through which this can occur. The main message here is that learning is often impeded by the inappropriate communication of one's mental models. Then Reading 2.4 (verbal communication), Reading 2.5 (visual communication), and Reading 2.6 (mathematical communication) define the three main communication techniques for conveying mental models. The integrated use of all three techniques constitute the approach taken by many systems approaches – system dynamics in particular – which you will be introduced to in the fourth course of study.

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