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Geoffrey Vickers shared many insights through his writing. He declared that his own interest lay 'chiefly in social and institutional relations' and in what he referred to as 'the ecology of ideas' (Vickers, 1978, p. 79). In striving to make sense of his many experiences he analysed situations ranging from planetary through societal and organizational to individual levels. He developed concepts, such as 'the appreciative system' and he focused on history and culture to look to the future. As an academic in the Open University's Systems Discipline I became aware of Vickers' work through my colleagues. He was much quoted in the development of our courses and his picture looked down on our many meetings where we, in Vickers' terms, tried to get out of our own traps in thinking and to appreciate situations, not always to act.
Some of my key interests are in learning systems and in environmental decision making. It was while participating in the process around the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in the early 1990s that I became aware that some of Vickers' work was highly relevant to education for sustainable development, our focus at that time. I read Vickers' paper called 'Education in systems thinking' (Vickers, 1980). In it he argued that systems thinking is needed in nearly all situations and he advocated its teaching in schools. But it was the way he explained how this could be done, by using the water cycle, traffic in towns and the school and its context as many kinds of system, that I found both appealing and relevant.
I found both his explanation of interrelationships and boundary judgements and his questioning of the status quo regarding education in schools exceptionally clear and challenging.
Over time I read more of Vickers' work that I found both insightful and useful: insightful into what had occurred or was needed and why, and useful because he provided some conceptual tools and gave plenty of examples of what he meant.
In this paper I first explain some of the challenges of my research, how I needed conceptual tools to explore and explain some situations and how my search for these tools led me to Geoffrey Vickers' work. I then go on to review some of Vickers' work, indicating what I have found particularly relevant.
THREE NEEDS FOR CONCEPTUAL TOOLS IN RESEARCHING LEARNING SYSTEMS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL DECISION MAKING
I came to academia through teaching and management. As I moved on in my career I also developed my research profile and as part of this process, in 2001, I registered to do my own doctoral research. I am researching learning systems and communities of practice (CoPs) for environmental decision making in some UK and wider European contexts. Examples of my research questions include:
* What and who most support individuals' environmental decision making?
* What is the nature of learning systems for environmental decision making?
By environmental decision making I mean including environmental considerations alongside other factors in decision making. By environment I mean that which surrounds, affects and is affected by an entity, whether group or individual. (I include ecological aspects in my definition of environment alongside other aspects but I stress here the ecological to make the link with Vickers' work on ecological thinking.)
My empirical work is organized as three inquiries relating to my experience. The first inquiry is in the context of the Open University Masters' level course 'Environmental decision making: a systems approach', among people who are directly involved in or facilitating environmental decision making, mainly in the UK. My second inquiry is project-based, among people who have been involved in two European Union funded projects, SLIM (2001-2004) and LEARNing (2003-2005) and who tend to support environmental decision making indirectly. My third inquiry, yet to come, will be at a meta-level, considering some of the learning systems and CoPs that have emerged from the other two inquiries.
Theoretically I am building on traditions of learning systems, environmental decision making, social learning and Communities of Practice and methodologically I am using a range of systems approaches, including some aspects of appreciative systems. I have written more about my research approach elsewhere (Blackmore and Morris, 2001; Blackmore, 2002, 2004). It is work-in-progress, so I will not discuss my findings here, but I will explain why I have found Geoffrey Vickers' work helpful.
By 2003, after I had completed a pilot study for my research, I had three particular needs.
First, how could I conceptualize my various inquiries and link them together as one? While I was thinking of them as one inquiry with different stages and focuses, there were many events and changes occurring in the environments of these inquiries. I was using a framework for environmental decision making, developed with colleagues, to conceptualize my overall inquiry but I felt that some of the links I had made were artificial. For instance, even within part of an inquiry that related to a single project, the SLIM project (SLIM, 2004), I had encountered many different and fast-changing decision situations of participants. These situations were linked by events such as changes in legislation, flooding or diffuse pollution but were working at many different levels--local, national, international--with different timeframes for deliberating and acting. I was aware that I needed to choose how I focused my research but also felt a need to reconceptualize my methodology.
Second, what position would I take on what constituted evidence of learning? Where did boundaries lie? Was I just interested in learning that led to action? Or in other kinds of learning also? Theoretically, I had been influenced by Etienne Wenger's concept of 'learning as practice'. While developing a social theory of learning Wenger found that the claims processors and managers at the focus of his research rarely talked about their job as learning.
They talked about change, new ideas, about performance levels, about the old days. The concept of learning is not absent from the claims processing office, but it is used mainly for trainees.... One reason they do not think of their job as learning is that what they learn is their practice.... What they learn is not a static subject matter but the very process of being engaged in, and participating in developing, an ongoing practice. (Wenger, 1999, p. 95)
Hence, in my research interviews I was focusing not just on learning but on a broader notion and trying to immerse myself in individuals' practices to understand their experience-their contexts for environmental decision making, roles and activities, what had changed, what they had found surprising, what and who were valued in the decision-making processes and what comparisons were made and why. I was conscious both of the language people used to describe their learning, and the boundaries they placed around it. Some of the learning important to individuals' environmental decision making in the longer term had not necessarily been recognized as significant at the time, only later.
Brockbank and McGill (1998) commented that there is …