Designing and evaluating a conference-based critical social learning system to support systems thinking in practice in PhD research

Blackmore, C. P.; Sriskandarajah, Nadarajah and Ison, Ray (2015). Designing and evaluating a conference-based critical social learning system to support systems thinking in practice in PhD research. In: Proc. ISSS Conference, 2-7 Aug 2015, Berlin.


Systems thinking in practice (STiP) education is poorly institutionalised across the Higher Education (HE) sector though needs to contextualise issues and studies and recognise interconnections are much in evidence across many different sectors. This paper reports on the design and implementation of a course-based initiative for PhD students keen to incorporate systems approaches (systems theories and methodologies) into their research practice. This initiative is of particular relevance to societies like ISSS from the systems and/or cybernetics fields (here after cyber-systemics). The model that has been developed can be used as a ‘wrap-around’ to any conference offering where enhancement of STiP capabilities may be desired or warranted.

The key elements of the learning system design are (i) a sponsoring host University able to offer credits for training; (ii) a process design based on systemic inquiry; (iii) pre and post-conference time dedicated to the participants framing of the inquiry, valuing of prior experience and group-based learning; (iv) dedicated staff immersed in the different cyber-systemic traditions as well as learning system design and facilitation capability and (v) freedom to use the associated conference itself as a source of input as well as being the subject of critical inquiry.

Students work as a critical social learning system, taking stock of their research trajectories and gaining experience in using systems thinking in practice. The course was first developed by the authors and some of their peers alongside the International Farming Systems Association’s European symposia in Arhus in 2012 and in Berlin in 2014. In Arhus the main focus was on making connections among issues of farming, food, rural areas and environment and negotiating boundaries for research in these areas, a process becoming more and more complicated. In Berlin the focus was on working strategically. Both recognised the need to develop particular skills and abilities e.g. in systemic inquiry. In Berlin in 2015, at the ISSS conference, the students’ focus is on “Cybersystemic Possibilities for Governing the Anthropocene” and the course design has been extended and adapted to include new elements and to be of relevance to students working in domains beyond agriculture.

This paper will describe the design process of the course and the theories and experiences that underpin it. The evaluative data available is also reported. One particular challenge in the learning system design has been which traditions of understanding to build on and which systems theories to draw to students’ attention. Overviews have been provided as well experiences of using particular theories, techniques and methodologies. The authors recognise that students face many challenges in identifying and developing appropriate conceptual frameworks and methodologies for their research and try to avoid advocacy of one approach over another. They encourage students to approach the course critically and to take responsibility for their own learning.

The paper critically reviews a range of influences on learning system design and the effects of the course –both intended and unintended. It considers how well the course has achieved its intended learning outcomes to date. Students, presenters and designers perspectives will be included. Issues of facilitation of learning, learning and teaching styles and experiential learning are addressed. The latter has particular significance to the theme of the ISSS conference in that lack of congruence between theories espoused and in use (e.g. teachers not ‘walking their talk’) has been a long-running theme in discourses on education for sustainability. For the authors, presenting this paper at ISSS 2015 provides a valuable opportunity for reflection in as well as on action (after Schön).

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