Embedding sustainability through systems thinking in practice: some experiences from the Open University

Blackmore, Chris; Reynolds, Martin; Ison, Raymond and Lane, Andrew (2015). Embedding sustainability through systems thinking in practice: some experiences from the Open University. In: Wyness, Lynne ed. Education for Sustainable Development Pedagogy: Criticality, Creativity, and Collaboration. PedRIO occasional papers (8). Plymouth University: Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory (PedRIO), pp. 32–35.


One initiative that has emerged during the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) through the work of the Open University Systems group has been its postgraduate programme in Systems Thinking and Practice (STiP). Built on some forty years’ experience of systems teaching and research at the Open University (OU), this open learning, distance taught programme is designed to develop students’ abilities to tackle complex messy situations, to provide skills to think more holistically and to work more collaboratively to avoid systemic failures. This paper critically reviews the trajectory of this programme –its past, present and future. It discusses the STiP programme’s many boundaries with other programmes and across sectors. Challenges of epistemology, ethics and purpose are explored, in relation to education for sustainability. The programme’s many and varied teaching and learning processes are explicated. The pedagogy of the STiP programme is grounded in a diverse range of students’ experiences and needs that by no means all focus explicitly, or primarily, on sustainability or sustainable development. Many OU students study part-time alongside their other commitments, both work and community-based. STiP students are all interested in systems and learning. But what STiP is a part of for them varies considerably. Students come mainly from the UK and rest of Europe. Many of their interactions are online through several different fora. A diverse, active and critical OU STiP alumni community has developed, initiated by the early graduates of the programme. Academics responsible for the programme also participate in this community’s deliberations, at the invitation of student alumni. In this paper, the authors build on their various experiences of the STiP programme and re-explore its contexts and boundaries from an ESD point of view. They use some of the systems heuristics that they teach, to critically reflect on both what is being achieved through this programme in relation to education for sustainability and what they and some of their past students and associate lecturers think ought to be occurring in this respect as they go forward.

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