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The School of System Change: Designing a learning system as a system change endeavor

Format: Papers, RSD6, Topic: Learning & Education

Corina Angheloiu, Laura Winn and Anna Birney

System change
Learning systems
Community of practice
Design thinking


The Western education system has long been diagnosed as not fit for purpose for a post-Industrial Revolution world. Since the 1980s, attention has turned to the evolution of design education as exemplary of thinking and learning processes which enable future practitioners to deal with complex problems and uncertainty (Lawson, 1980). This has led to the development of design thinking as a field and the advent of ‘designerly ways of knowing’ (Cross 1982). Cognitive psychologists have argued that these represent the interplay between binary processes of convergent thinking (which asks ‘what comes next in this logical sequence?’) and divergent thinking (which asks ‘what might this mean?’); of rational, deductive thinking and intuitive, open-ended processes of thinking (Lawson 1980).
On the other hand, sustainability educators have called for ‘the necessary transformation of higher education towards the integrative and more whole state implied by a systemic view of sustainability in education and society’ (Sterling, 2004). New approaches to problem solving and problem setting are required to enable fundamental change at every level of society if we are to tackle interconnected “wicked-problems” such as climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality (Worldwatch Institute 2013, Capra and Luisi 2014).
Over the last decade, calls for ‘earth-literate leaders’ (Martin and Jucker 2005) have intensified given the recognition of the complexity and interconnectedness of sustainability issues which span beyond the triple-bottom line of social, environmental and financial systems and are closely intertwined with issues of governance, decision-making (Adams et. al 2017) and ultimately, with seeing sustainability as the ‘ability to sustain ourselves’ (Birney, 2015).
But how to achieve such a transformation?
Across formal education disciplines the teacher-centred pedagogy is still the dominant paradigm. Students and teachers still follow the learning patterns of the apprentice – master power dynamic (Souleles 2017). This is in antithesis to notions of empathy, the ability to develop deep human-centred understanding, to adopt different viewpoints and to develop a mutual understanding. However, these capabilities are key to equipping future generations of ‘earth-literate’ practitioners and leaders.

New challenges, new ways of learning: The School of System Change

Forum for the Future, an international non-profit working with business, government and civil society to solve complex sustainability issues, has been a pioneer in this field by setting up the first ever Masters for Sustainable Leadership in partnership with Middlesex University. By 2015, after 20 years of running the Masters course, over 150 students went on to become successful sustainability leaders. Recognising the challenges pointed out above, we set off to redesign the Masters programme, guided by the following inquiry questions:
How might we equip people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability issues?
How might we grow a global community of practice connecting existing networks of ‘change agents’ who want to shift whole systems?
How might we intently design a learning system which doesn’t reinforce the prevalent master – apprentice dynamic?
Our long term vision is to create a global community of practice (Wenger, 2010) for people who are catalysing the system-level change we need to achieve a sustainable future.
The School of System Change will:
equip people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges
offer flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, and case studies from the field of system change
grow a global community of practice by connecting existing networks of ‘change agents’ who want to shift whole systems.
We are calling the people who benefit from the School and who join our community, ‘change agents’, as they will be working to create change the world over. The ultimate outcome of the School will be the impact of the work that these change agents go on to do – finding ways forward on a range of global problems across the economy, the environment and society.

Prototyping a learning system: Basecamp#1

We are taking a system change approach to our own endeavour, through building an emergent strategy towards our vision as we go along; trying out different approaches that deliver change in their own right, but enable us to understand the ecosystems and markets (geographies and communities) we are entering into; and growing the necessary “connective tissue” to run the School effectively and build relationships to create development capital, market reach, delivery capacity and a sustainable viable operational and financial model over the long-term.
Basecamp#1 is a successful pilot learning experience, and also a “test bed” for the community of practice we want to build, bringing together participants and contributors from different parts of the world and enabling them to learn together and support their work facilitating systemic change for sustainability on an ongoing basis.

Early findings from running the pilot have shown us that, to deliver the wider impact we are aiming for, participants (and contributors) need support to continue to develop their skills, experience and network.

Indicative bibliography:

Birney, A. (2014). Cultivating System Change: A Practitioner’s Companion (1 edition). DoSustainability.
Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.
Lawson, B. (2005). How Designers Think (4 edition). Amsterdam: Routledge.
Martin, S., & Jucker, R. (2005). Educating Earth-literate Leaders. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 29(1), 19–29.
Sterling, S. (2004) ‘Higher education, sustainability and the role of systemic learning’, in Corcoran, P.B. and Wals, A. E. J. (eds) Higher Education and the Challenge of Sustainability: Problematics, Promise, and Practice, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 47-70.
Sterling, S. (2001) Sustainable Education—Re-Visioning Learning and Change (Dartington: Green Books).
Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the Career of a Concept. In C. Blackmore (Ed.), Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice (pp. 179–198). London: Springer London.




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2017
Title: The School of System Change: Designing a learning system as a system change endeavor
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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Symposium Dates:
First published: 12 October 2017
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