Systems Thinking (CI 2012 MasterClass on the Change Lab)

I can’t quite believe how much mileage I’m getting out of the first masterclass but it’s taking me almost as long to go through my notes as it did to write them! I should be back into a semi-normal posting cycle fairly soon – thanks for any patience that you have chosen to extend. 🙂

Can we see all of a system if we’re only in contact with one part? The Change Lab facilitators used the old parable of the six blind man and the elephant to remind us that we can be completely correct about our perception but, due to limitations in our horizon, we fail to appreciate the whole. Another example that was brought up was the role of the police in the protection of abused women and children. If a police officer can look at a situation and think either “Well, I don’t think thats my problem” or “I don’t know what to do”, it’s easy to see how the protective role of the police officer becomes focused on the acute and the extraordinary, rather than the chronic and the systemic.

(That theme, a change in thinking and support from acute to chronic, showed up periodically throughout the conference and my notes.)

In the area of study, the police were retrained to identify what they had to do if they attended and thought that there might be a problem. The police had to get involved, their duties now included the assurance of safety for the at-risk family members and, if they couldn’t get involved themselves, their duty was to find someone else who could fix it and make the connection. We do have protective systems and mechanisms for abused people in domestic situations but there was often a disconnect between domestic violence events that police attended (acute and extraordinary events) and the connecting of people into the existing service network.

Of course, this was very familiar to me because we have the same possibility of disconnection in the tertiary sector. It’s easy to say “go and see the Faculty Office” but it’s that bit harder to ring up the Faculty Office, find the right person, brief them on what a student has already discussed with you and then hand the student over. However, that second set of events is what should happen if you want to minimise the risk of disconnection.

It’s possible to do a remarkable job in some parts of your work and do a terrible job in others, because you don’t realise that you are supposed to be responsible for other areas. It has taken me years to work out how many more things that are required of me as an educator. Yes, scholarship and the practise of learning and teaching are the core but how do we do that with real, breathing students? Here are my current thoughts, based on the police example:

  1. Getting Involved: If a student comes to me with a problem, then if I can fix it, I should try and fix it. My job does not begin when I walk into the lecture theatre and finish when I leave the room – I do have a real and meaningful commitment to my students while they are in my course. Yes, this is more work. Yes, this takes more time. Yes, I don’t know what to do sometimes and that’s scary. However, I do hope that my students know that I’m trying and, even when I’m moving slowly, I’m still involved.
  2. The Assurance of Safety: Students have a right to feel safe and to be safe when they’re studying. That means a learning space free from discrimination, bullying and fear, working in an atmosphere of mutual respect. If they feel unsafe, then they should feel safe to come to me to talk about it. This also means that students have a right to feel safe in the pursuit of their studies: no indifferent construction of assignment where 60% of students fail and it’s dismissed as ‘dumb students’.
  3. If You Can’t Fix It, Find Someone Who Can: Once you’ve done a PhD, one of the key things you work out is how much you don’t know. My Uni, like most Unis, is a giant and complex administrative structure. I don’t have the answer to all of the questions but I do have a spreadsheet of duties for people in my school and a phone book. However, saying “Go to X” is never going to be as good as trying to help someone by connecting them to another person and handing them over. If I can answer a question, I should try to. If I can’t, I should try and find the right person and then connect the student. The final part of this is that I should follow up where I can to see what happened and learn so I know the answer for next time.

The final point is, to me, fascinating because it has made me aware of how hard it can be to find the answer, even when you’re inside the system as a staff member! I always tell my students that if they need something done and aren’t making headway, get me involved because I have the big, scary signature block on my e-mail. Now, mostly our culture is very good and you don’t have to be a Professor or Associate Dean to get progress made… but it is funny how much more attention you sometimes get. I’m very happy to use my (really very insignificant) mild corner of borrowed status if it will help someone to start on the pathway to fixing a problem but I’m also very happy to report that it’s rare that I have to use it, except for the occasional person outside of the University.

It’s important to note that I don’t always succeed in doing all of this. I’m always involved and I’m always working to guarantee safety, but the work involved in a connected handover is sometimes so large that I don’t actually have enough time or resources to close the connection. This, to me, illustrates a good place to focus my efforts on improving the entry points to our systems so that we all end up at the right destination with the minimum number of false starts and dead ends.

Like I said, we’re normally pretty good but I think that we can be better – and thinking about our system as a system makes me aware of how many things I need to do as well as educate, when I’m calling myself an educator.

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