Enabling multiple trajectories in a landscape of practice

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People have a variety of different experiences that lead them to take up the formal study of systems thinking in practice.  They also have different imagined trajectories moving forward.  This is one of the aspects of diversity that makes it so interesting to teach and learn systems thinking in practice.  But it can also be a bit of a challenge, not just for those with formal teaching responsibilities and for all of us who are learning with, and from, others in a community of systems practitioners.  How do we all act and interact in a way that accommodates and facilitates different ‘inward’ and potential ‘onward’ trajectories?

Fenton-O’Creevy et al. (2015) provide a useful way of appreciating the diversity of trajectories through a landscape of practice.  I use this here to understand possible differences in those formally studying systems thinking in practice.

On one dimension, people vary in terms of whether their imagined trajectory lies within a community of systems practitioners or whether they see themselves as passing through that community to develop useful skills and knowledge to apply within a different community of practice.

On another dimension, people vary in terms of the degree of participation they intend to have within the community.   Low participation doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t study hard, just that they are do less of the identity work entailed in becoming a systems practitioner than those with intentions for high participation.

Using the terminology introduced by Fenton-O’Creevy et al. (2015).  This gives four options:

  • marginal – imagined trajectory is at a low participation level in a community of systems practitioners
  • tourist – imagined trajectory is at a low participation level passing through a community of systems practitioners
  • apprentice – imagined trajectory is at a high participation level in a community of systems practitioners
  • sojourner – imagined trajectory is at a high participation level passing through a community of systems practitioners

…and within each of these four options, people can be at very different stages from complete newcomers to those with lots of experience.

(Before I go on, I do want to highlight what I see as a limitation of this idea and its use of metaphors like journey and passing through.  It assumes that you only end up ‘in’ one community (your ultimate destination), whereas multi-membership of different communities of practice is not just possible but common and in many ways desirable.)

Given the trans-disciplinary importance of systems thinking knowledge and skills, all of these trajectories are really important.  In a sense the community of people who come together to educate and learn on a presentation of a systems module are a subset of the nebulous thing called a community of systems practitioners.  For some, this may be the first time they have encountered the language and practices of Systems, for others they may have read about it for years and be towards the end of their MSc.  For some, this may be a way of getting 30-credit points, for others it may be part of the process of developing their identity as a systems thinking practitioner.

The quadrant proposed by Fenton-O’Creevy et al. (2015) can also highlight another set of possible trajectories in those who are formally studying systems thinking in practice.  As these authors point out, in deciding to sign up for a course of study at a university, all students are faced with the language and practices of the academic community.  So another possible set of trajectories could be:

  • marginal – imagined trajectory is at a low participation level in the academic community
  • tourist – imagined trajectory is at a low participation level passing through the academic community
  • apprentice – imagined trajectory is at a high participation level in an academic community
  • sojourner – imagined trajectory is at a high participation level passing through the academic community

For me my early encounters with academic practices was a bit of a shock – I remember wondering why I needed to reference properly and write in a certain way, when my aim was to become better at my job.  Although it didn’t happen immediately I gradually came to appreciate these academic practices and the skills that I developed through using them – I still saw myself as passing through but could see the advantages of being scholarly or academic in my approach to other practices.  Now, looking back, I see how my trajectory evolved from that of tourist to sojourner and then to apprentice (ultimately that is what a PhD is).  It wasn’t an easy journey though – because of the modular structure and my meanders through different academic disciplines – every time I started a new module, I faced slightly different expectations and had to learn to accommodate different ways of learning and being assessed.  Turns out the ‘academic community’ is really a landscape of diverse academic communities!

So within the set of people teaching and learning on any presentation of a module, there isn’t just diversity of trajectories and experience with respect to systems thinking practitioner community but diversity of trajectories and experience with respect to the academic community generally and the Systems academic community more specifically.  What a wonderful opportunity to learn with, and from, each other.

The use of this framework has helped me appreciate how the actions and interactions within a module community can impact on the way in which people feel welcome and can achieve their intended or changing trajectories.  But it’s all very well understanding this, what does this mean for my educating and learning practice?  I am still pondering the specifics but it seems that it is particularly important to pay attention to these diverse trajectories in the early ‘on-boarding’ stages of the module – where educators and students alike are building relationships and becoming the module community.  This is far more than simple introductions, it is appreciating the diversity of imagined trajectories and reflecting on how we can help each other achieve through the way we act and interact.  The key is how we create the conditions where the mix of trajectories work well for everyone’s learning.

Reference

Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Brigham, L., Jones, S. and Smith, A. (2015) ‘Students at the academic-workplace boundary: Tourists and sojourners in practice-based education’, in Wenger-Trayner, E., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Hutchinson, S., Kubiak, C., and Wenger-Trayner, B. (eds) Learning in landscapes of practice: Boundaries, identity and knowledgeability in practice-based learning. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, pp. 43–63.
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