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

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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

2.3 Taking responsibility for your own learning

Not much of this unit conforms to the traditional pattern I 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 (Churchman (1971) The Design of Inquiring Systems, Basic Books, New York), 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 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 (for example, see Using Experience for Learning (Boud, D. Cohen, R. and Walker, D. (eds) 1993, Open University Press, Buckingham)) 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.

All this means learning Systems is an intensely personal business. Don't worry if you're not used to reflective learning, you will be able to develop your capacities for learning this way, as you go. This is why it was important to think through what you want to achieve from the unit. It can operate at a level beyond acquisition of skills and knowledge. Because it is about different styles of thinking, the process of thinking systemically can itself give rise to new forms of learning. It has the capability of bringing understanding into being from sources inside oneself. This is the process known as reflective learning.

For some people, systems thinking will be something they practice from time to time. It will be a set of tools-for-thought they use when the need arises. This is a powerful and important potential outcome from the unit. The unit can also lead you towards becoming systemic, as well as being about systems. You can use it to become a different sort of thinker.

Either way, I strongly urge you to tackle the activities. They are designed to enable you to discover your own learning by experience. They are much more important than practice-makes-perfect activities. They will support you in making systems thinking and systems practice your own. Without them, systems thinking and systems practice remain ‘out there’ – something you may know about (description) but not know how to use (competence). This unit has aspirations beyond that, which I hope you will come to share; to support you in becoming a systems thinker and a systems practitioner. This is why the activities so far appear to be focused on you. You might see them in terms of preparing the soil in which skills, competencies and confidence can grow.


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