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Enhancing Systems Thinking in Practice at the Workplace

Project leader(s): 
Martin Reynolds

The eSTEeM project was an 18-month systemic inquiry beginning January 2014 initiated by a core team of 5 academics associated with the production and presentation of the postgraduate programme in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). The inquiry comprised a series of online interviews over two phases, and a workshop held in London Regional Office in May 2015.  There were 33 interviews in total, including interviews with 10 postgraduate students undertaking core modules associated with the  STiP programme, 8 STiP alumni, 8 employers of STiP alumni, and 7 Associate Lecturers teaching on the STiP programme.  The one-day workshop involved 41 participants including members of the core eSTEeM team, all interviewees from both initial phases,  along with other special guests invited on the basis of their involvement, support and interest for the STiP programme.

The project aimed to design a learning system for transforming the ‘threats’ of a gap between postgraduate study experiences and post-study work experiences into ‘opportunities’ for radical pedagogic adaptation and (re)design. One such course where the gap is evident is with the postgraduate suite of qualifications in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) launched at the OU in 2010.

The primary aim of the inquiry was to seek ways of bridging the gap between the largely ‘conceptual’ world of distance teaching and learning at postgraduate level, and the more ‘practical’ world of applying learning experiences in the workplace. There is perhaps an assumption in postgraduate provision that PG qualified students have the capabilities of applying their PG skills to their workplace. The assumption might be reinforced at the OU where PG students tend to be mature-age and part-time.  From the standpoint of many PG students who are professionally work-based whilst studying, the divide between the two worlds can often be experienced as an ‘either/or’ dualism - either they are studying or they are working – with there being a clear perceived boundary between the two worlds.  For others, the two worlds might more helpfully be experienced as an interactive duality. Here, the learning activities are in continual interaction with workplace activities, where changes emerging in one world inform changes to the other world through a virtuous feedback pathway. Such interactive processes might be regarded as constituting praxis (theory-informed-action, or thinking-in-practice).

Arguably though, our pedagogic models of design and delivery of learning reinforces a dualism rather than promoting the duality of praxis.  Since the first presentation of core modules in 2010, the STiP programme has endeavoured to address this pedagogic dilemma through enabling students to practice their learning through workplace-oriented activities and assessments, and through reflective conversations amongst students sharing experiences of using module materials in their activities and assessments through vibrant student forums. The STiP programme has registered significant success in achieving praxis during core module presentations, but there remain challenges at a higher level in bridging the divide between STiP study experiences, and post-study workplace experiences.

The eSTEeM inquiry provided an opportunity of, firstly, taking stock of claims towards bridging the gap between systems ideas and (work) practice, and secondly, exploring opportunities for engaging students, alumni, employers, and educators, for (re) designing more innovative models for pedagogic praxis.  Such praxis invokes the need for promoting ‘conversation’ - engaging dualities rather than reforcing dualisms - at different levels; individuals, communities of practice, and institutional workplaces.  Whilst focusing on one PG programme, the overall rationale is based on the need for the Open University to become more responsive to changes in the environment, and adaptive to postgraduate needs more generally, and particularly in making learning more relevant to the workplace.

To read more about phase 2, please see Systems Thinking in Practice Phase 2 (STiP-2)

Related resources

Reynolds, M. et al (2016) Enhancing Systems Thinking in Practice at the Workplace. eSTEeM Final Report.

Reynolds, M. et al (2014-2016) Presentations from the 3rd, 4th and 5th eSTEeM Annual Conferences, 6th May 2014; 16th April 2015; 14th April 2016, The Open University. (Appendix C)

Reynolds, M (2014) Thinking differently about sustainability: experiences from the Open University. Paper presentation from the conference on World Sustainability and Tertiary Education, September 2014, Manchester Metropolitan University. (Appendix D)  

Blackmore, C., Reynolds, M., Ison, R. and Lane, A. (2015) Embedding sustainability through systems thinking and practice - some experiences from the Open University. Paper presentation from the conference on Education for Sustainability, January 2015, Plymouth University. (Appendix E) 

Reynolds, M. at al (2015) Mind the Gap. Developing systems thinking in practice at the workplace. Workshop for the OU Regional Office, 8th May 2015, The Open University

Shah, R., Wedlock, E. and Reynolds, M. (2015) Bridging the Gap: Spanning the distance between teaching, learning and application of systems thinking in the workplace. Presentation from the 59th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, 2nd - 7th August 2015, Berlin. (Appendix F)

Shah, R., Wedlock, E. and Reynolds, M. (2015) Bridging the Gap: Spanning the distance between teaching, learning and application of systems thinking in the workplace. Draft paper from the 59th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, 2nd - 7th August 2015, Berlin. (Appendix R)

Scholarship Shorts - video which explores employability themes for postgraduate students in systems thinking.

Video length: 4 mins 20 secs

Download transcript