‘Design turn’ and the systematic review protocol

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This is one of those blogs that I am starting with no way of knowing where it will go.  It follows on from my recent post on practising systematic reviews systemically.  It was prompted by re-reading an old post on the ‘design turn’ (which my blog stats tell me someone looked at today – if it was you, thanks 🙂 ).  So, I’ve re-opened Ison (2010) to the two-page long section on ‘Systemic Inquiry and the ‘Design turn’ (pages 260-262).

First sentence “There is no prescription for a systemic inquiry, they have to be designed” (page 260).  That’s where I am getting to with my understanding of the ‘landscape’ of systematic review practice.  There are a range of tools, techniques and approaches available to me I need to ‘craft’ together the most appropriate blend for my inquiry.  The issue of contextualising is important – if I take as the ‘situation’ a messy world of literature with its various histories and traditions – then I need to contextualise my tools, techniques and approaches to guide me through that territory.  There is no ‘off the shelf’ method once you move away from the rigid ‘prescription’ of the Cochrane review which works with the data drawn from equally rigidly prescribed RCTs (that’s important in the right place, I do, after all want to know if a medicine works or not and is so for whom).  So, my protocol reflects my ‘in advance’ design for the inquiry (aka review) but I worry that putting that in writing then creates its own rigidity – is it a plan to be adhered to or a guide/compass through the terrain?

Later there is a quote from Glanville (I must follow up this reference) “all research and all knowing/knowledge is a matter of design” (page 261).  That reinforces my thoughts above further.  It makes me feel more comfortable with drawing parallels between ‘systemic inquiry’ and ‘systematic review’ – framing ‘systematic review’ through the lens of ‘systemic inquiry’ could well be helpful to me.

So as something that is intended to generate ‘new’ knowledge, I could see my systematic review as a ‘learning system’.  Okay so there may be the opportunity to produce a nice little article to share with the wider world, but I see the primary motivation as about me learning – developing my own knowledge of my field of interest – through a process I have ‘designed’, rather than the more ad hoc random way in which I read literature at the moment.  It can add rigour to my learning – and help me be more purposeful.  Temporarily drawing some boundaries may actually be helpful.

Later on page 261 “we have made the shift described as Bopry [another ref to follow-up] as moving from prescription of instructional methods and means to the development of cognitive tools to provide support for the activity of the learner”.  If I think of my intended ‘systematic review’ as a learning system could I shift from seeing the protocol as prescribing my method to using the authoring of the protocol as a process to help think through the cognitive tools I may need on the learning journey (- kind of like packing to go on holiday!).  As a bit of an aside, I think this is one of the struggles I have had with this module – I feel as though I have been instructed in a method rather than equipped with the cognitive tools.

Okay, then the section goes into the ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order’ distinction that I still struggle with….paraphrasing from the text itself…  The first-order logic makes it possible for me to act purposefully to design a systematic review.  The second-order logic appreciates the limitations of that – the systematic review only exists after I have experienced it, after it has been enacted.

Now a big chunk of text from page 262 “First order designing is synonymous with first-order cybernetic understandings, in which goal seeking behaviour is the norm, control is considered possible and designs have a blueprint quality.  This parallels systematic, or goal seeking, ‘hard systems’ approaches, rather than systemic practice”.  This picks up on the distinctions I made in the previous blog linked to above.  Goal seeking – seeking the ‘truth’ from drawing together the findings of different RCTs using a blueprint design collectively agreed by Cochrane collaborators could well be the way to go with some research questions.  But does that universally apply?  The paragraph continues “Second-order designing arises when the designer acts with awareness that they and their history are part of the design setting.”  Okay recognised.  And finally “First-order design delivers an output, second-order design delivers a performance”.  Not sure about the word ‘delivers’ there – doesn’t a performance emerge?  Anyway point is taken – that my systematic review will be a unique performance arising from the interaction of me (and my histories and traditions); the literature (and its histories and traditions) and my tools of exploration/synthesis (and their histories and traditions).  What I struggle with is that what others (with their histories and traditions) judge as a ‘good performance’ i.e. the appropriate combo of tools, questions etc may not be the same as my own judgement.  Will it be recognised as good practice/accepted by the academic community?

The penultimate paragraph of the section highlights that first-order and second-order design considerations apply in any area of practice, so I take it that includes systematic review practice – or more specifically at this moment in time – the practice of writing a systematic review protocol (for assessment, rather than for real).  So “the practice setting can trigger a first-order response (utilitarian or instrumental learning […]) or a second-order response – creating the circumstances whereby the learner/stakeholder in context is able to take responsibility and orchestrate their own evolving practice”.  So far, the practice setting created by my module has been triggering that first-order response in me.  I keep touching on stuff which makes me nearly ‘escape’ to the second-order land (which generally involves me blogging), but when I focus my energy on trying to do the assignment the prescriptive, blueprinty, recipe like feel leads me to slide back and think I just need to get through this.

Can my history and traditions help me move beyond the default?  I hope so.


Ison, R. (2010), Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

4 thoughts on “‘Design turn’ and the systematic review protocol

  1. Hi Helen,
    Thanks for the insight into your processes. It’s clarified some systemic language I’ve been struggling with.
    I’m still not entirely sure about first and second order responses. You appear to be saying that your first order is “doing”, where as you escape to second order land, and maybe blog.
    Is it possible to “do” with an awareness of your history, position, context and judgement? Ie second order doing?

  2. Hi Mike

    Thanks for your comment and the opportunity it creates to make myself think about this some more.

    I think that Ison’s text draws on the distinction between first and second order cybernetics. Second order cybernetics was a concept introduced by Heinz von Foerster – he said in a speech “the cybernetics of observed systems we may consider to be first-order cybernetics; while second order cybernetics is the cybernetics of observing systems”. So it is using the cybernetic principles of feedback, information and communication and applying them to the observer as much as to the system being observed*.

    Getting back to the question you pose – I think that in whatever practice (designing; learning; teaching etc) you can be very instrumental (or first-order) about it – focussing on procedure or technique. But as soon as you are aware of history, position, context etc of yourself (the designer; the learner; the teacher) then that is what makes it ‘second order’.

    Does that fit with your thinking?

    * See Ramage and Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications

  3. Hi Helen,
    I share understanding of first and second order thinking.
    I was thinking of what, for me, 2nd rider thinking would look like in practice, and your comment below struck me as suggesting that second order thinking was rare?

    “I keep touching on stuff which makes me nearly ‘escape’ to the second-order land (which generally involves me blogging)”

    I’m not sure if this is the general case, or specific to your systematic review inquiry?


  4. Hi Mike
    Mmmm, speaking from my experience I think it is common for something to be ‘taught’ in a instrumental manner and therefore easy to remain in the ‘default’ mode of first order thinking. I think that the OU’s TU811 and TU812 are the rare exception to this – where a lot of thought has been given to how to create the conditions for students to use (and therefore develop) the second order.

    I find that in the pace of the modules I am doing at the moment it is quite hard to stop, take stock and be more reflective – I think that is what I am referring to as ‘escape’. It is that moment when I feel as if I am using my skills as a reflective, systemic practitioner.

    So I suppose I’d say from my experience that it is more general than just my current inquiry into the practice of systematic review.



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