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

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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

3.2 Learning by experience

It's a familiar idea but it implies two activities: learning and experiencing. Both activities need to happen if I am to say that learning from experience has happened. Experiencing seems to have two components. The first is the quality of attention that allows me to notice the experience and its components. The second is memory. Calling experience to mind allows me to examine the experience and to think about it in ways that were not possible at the time. Learning is what I take away from that process that influences my behaviour or thinking in the future.

But huge amounts of experience escape without being consciously experienced; I am insufficiently aware at the time to notice what's going on. Later I am too busy to recall the experience and so little conscious learning takes place. Of course, it's useful to carry out familiar activities ‘on auto-pilot’ – without conscious attention. It's easy to miss out on important learning from unfamiliar activities too. I may become wrapped up in the activity itself or simply not notice the range and quality of the experience. Either way, a conscious attempt to recall the experience and to think about it, gives the opportunity to learn from the experience.

So, what was my purpose in asking you to do Activity 1? I wanted you to experience the starting of this unit as richly as possible. I was asking questions that I hoped would prompt you into awareness of what you were experiencing. It may be you discovered something new about yourself; your expectations of the unit; what you hope to gain from studying it; or about your capacity to succeed in it as a result. If not, don't worry. The point of the activity was raising awareness rather than discovery; and recording material that will be useful in future learning and reflection.

Spend a total of about 15 minutes on the next two activities.

Activity 2

What do you understand the unit title to mean?

The title of this unit is Managing complexity: a systems approach. Before you go any further, and so your Learning Journal contains a record of your starting point, make notes about what you understand by the term ‘managing complexity’.

What do you understand by a systems approach? Don't worry if you feel you only have vague ideas at this stage, record all your ideas as fully as you can by listing all the things you think it might mean. You may also wish to distinguish ideas you feel confident about from those you are not sure of.

Activity 3

Add any further thoughts about your expectations.

You may feel some of the expectations you had have already been changed. Add any postscripts about this to the notes you made earlier. Make it clear in your notes these are postscripts and what has happened to change your views.

This is an advanced level Systems unit. This carries certain implications about its level and its likely content. You are likely to have drawn some conclusions about what these implications are. Recognising explicitly the presuppositions and assumptions you carry into a situation allows you to examine them. Presuppositions can get in the way of understandings. For example, if I assume a book is just about koalas, and don't notice it's about koalas in their eucalyptus habitats, I am quite likely to experience the text about eucalyptus forests as a distraction. This might lead me to misunderstand what the text is saying about eucalyptus habitats and, almost certainly, I would misunderstand its importance to the koalas. At the very least this will make me an inefficient reader and may make me an inefficient learner.

The next activity will help you to think through your expectations, assumptions and presuppositions about this unit.

Allow yourself about 30 minutes to do Activity 4, making notes as before.

Activity 4

What activities do you expect to undertake in studying an advanced level unit?

You may already have some experience of Open University courses. You may have other experiences of studying. What sort of activities do you expect to engage in when you study a course? What sorts of activities have in the past been most effective in enabling you to learn? These questions are easier to answer if you think back to a specific course or other learning experience. What did you actually do? What were the components of that course? What was their relationship to each other? If you have studied only intermediate level courses before, what differences do you expect in an advanced level unit? If you have studied at an advanced level before, can you identify any differences between those courses and other, lower level courses?

Which components of your previous learning experience have you enjoyed most? Why?

Some people enjoy the initial meeting with new material most. Others enjoy testing their newly acquired understandings in exercises. Still others enjoy their new perspectives on things quite external to the course that their new understandings give them. Do any of these match your previous experience? If not, what was it for you? You may also like to explore the question of what you didn't like. Have you changed in ways that might make your experience of this unit different?

What were you, as the student, expected to do as you worked through previous courses?

Many courses follow a fairly steady pattern of a bit of theory, followed by an example of what the theory means in practice, followed by an exercise where the learner applies what they have just learned to another situation. Do you recognise this pattern? Have you experienced it? Have you experienced variations on this theme? What were they? Have you experienced alternative approaches? How successful have these patterns been for you? Success, in this sense, might mean examination success or it might be a success criterion you have set yourself, or one you want to apply now. It may parallel the criteria for success you identified for this unit.

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