The university as a flock of birds? — learning our way forward together to promote wellbeing

    Written by Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer, Associate Professor Design for Social Innovation at Delft University of Technology

    “The world is changing so fast that no one can be an expert in anything” (John Seely Brown)

    In 2017, John Seely Brown — former chief scientist and director of the Xerox PARC centre presented a fascinating keynote lecture at the Ingenuity conference about how ‘we live in amazing times’, times that are characterised by exponential change. He explains how ‘the world is changing so fast that no one can be an expert in anything’, and ‘every one of us will always be a newbee.’ I have watched the talk many times because he explains very well that we need a fundamentally different way of thinking and learning if we want to adapt to uncertain times.

    Today this talk is more relevant than ever. Sometimes it feels like the COVID19-crisis has moved the world up into a higher gear. In my context, the university, it has implied many radical changes to education and research, and we still see continuous changes in government and university measures that affect us. This has greatly impacted student wellbeing and learning and together with Rebecca Price and other colleagues, we have been trying to work out what we can do to promote wellbeing in an educational context. In a previous blog post I explained what the nature of this challenge is, and that wellbeing, learning, and human connection are intrinsically connected. In this blog post I will describe a systems perspective on what we might be able to do about this challenge when we are working in a context that still changes every day.

    In the first week of the ‘intelligent lock down’ in the Netherlands, we came together to explore what we could do about student wellbeing. I had worked on a couple of projects about student wellbeing before, but I am no expert in student wellbeing during a COVID19 outbreak (no one is!) and I don’t have the solution even though I wish we had. What we do have though is a process to tackle complex challenges. My research expertise is in transdisciplinary social innovation methods and practices. Transdisciplinarity implies that we don’t just use our academic disciplines, but that we use and combine any way of knowing that is relevant in the context of the challenge. Rebecca and I share an interest in systems thinking and design approaches, so those were the first methods we started applying.

    In this blog post I will share a systems perspective that is based on complex adaptive systems and evolution. Our key insights from this perspective are:

    • If we don’t have any ‘evidence’ that guides what we should do, we can learn our way forward by running multiple experiments
    • We need to do that together, by meaningfully connecting university staff and students. Not just because that is good for our own levels of wellbeing, but, more importantly, because these connections are the only way that organisations can adapt continuously to this uncertain situation
    • Shaping such meaningful human connections is an experiment in itself and we need to find a way to embed these ways of working in the university

    Promoting wellbeing is a complex challenge that cannot be solved with expertise alone

    So first let’s look a bit into the types of ‘solutions’ we might be looking for to promote student wellbeing. I am writing solutions between quotation marks because technically a complex challenge cannot be ‘solved’. Complex challenges consist of multiple interrelated problems. If you think you have solved one part of the problem, another problem might be amplified or emerge. In social innovation we therefore talk about ‘problem situations’ and ‘shifting the systems from which these problems emerge into desirable directions’.

    In the previous blog post I described different intervention levels to promote student wellbeing, ranging from curesupportconnect, to teaching & learning. The ‘cure’ level is the specialist level of psychologists and other experts that provide care for students with mental health issues. Those experts have been able to build advanced expertise in how to provide this care, which has also been essential during the COVID19 crisis. We can also use our wellbeing expertise to develop one-size-fits-all or generally applicable solutions that are suitable for many students and teachers. For example, I was part of a central university working group, that developed guidelines for teachers on how to respond to students who appear unwell. On the other end of the spectrum we have the teaching & learning level where we shape education in such a way that we can promote student wellbeing and learning during the COVID19 crisis and mostly in an online mode. At this level we don’t have the expertise that we have at the cure and support level. COVID19 has resulted in a radically new educational situation that is still changing daily. On this level we see that many teachers are trying out more localised interventions. For example, in our faculty our colleague Marieke Sonneveld started an experiment to get students to choose their own deadline so they would have more flexibility in their learning programs, our colleague Stella Boess gave students the option to research ‘student wellbeing during the COVID19 crisis’ in her course on research methodology, and our colleague Derek Lomas developed a ‘wellness check’ to monitor student wellbeing.

    These local interventions can be considered ‘experiments’. This is an approach that forms an important element of complexity thinking. Complexity thinker David Snowden developed a model which distinguishes simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic contexts, each with their own response strategy. In a complicated context, you can solve a problem if you have enough expertise. In a complex context, no expert can give you an answer, because there is no way to predict how this context will behave. The only way to learn about a complex context or system is through experimentation. Snowden calls this to ‘probe, sense, and respond’, meaning that you run an experiment, amplify it if the outcome is good and dampen it when it is not. In this way you ‘learn your way forward’ through continuous experimentation.

    So when we look at student wellbeing, there are parts of the problem situation that are complicated, and can be tackled by using our expertise. But there are also parts of the problem for which we have no expertise that need a different approach. This applies particularly to how we shape education to promote wellbeing and learning. Both approaches are valuable, but we often feel less comfortable with the complex, experimental approach. Another issue is that the experiments now happen in isolation. We don’t know what is happening where in the university. We don’t know how these experiments are impacting overall student wellbeing. We don’t know if they have any impact on longer term student wellbeing. So how can we benefit most from the bottom-up work that is already happening?

    The university as a flock of birds

    To contribute to answering this question we have been using another idea from the field of systems and complexity thinking, namely that we need to increase our capability to adapt. We therefore look at the university as if it were a complex adaptive system. To explain that approach I’d like to introduce the metaphor of a flock of birds for the university.

    The flock of birds is an often used example of a complex adaptive system. The flock exhibits dynamic and often beautiful shapes in response to its environment, for example a change of wind, or the approach of a predator. None of the individual birds is in control of the flock. There is no bird that says ‘hey, there’s an eagle, let’s all hide in this tree’. The flock responds through the interaction and communication between the individual birds. Without these interactions it would be impossible to adapt. This concept of a complex adaptive system has also been applied in the management field, for example as described by Margaret Wheatley in her classic “Leadership and the New Science” and by Frederic Laloux in “Reinventing Organisations”. The essence of such management approaches is to promote health relationships between staff members.

    In addition to healthy relationships, we know it is important for adaptation to a new and unknown context to apply a principle from evolutionary thinking, namely to vary, select and amplify. Scholars in the social innovation field have suggested that to address complex challenges we need to run multiple experiments at the same time, and select and amplify those that work well. We already have the diversity of experiments about wellbeing happening in the university. But do we have the required connections to select and amplify?

    Let’s use the concept of a complex adaptive system and the metaphor of a flock of birds to look at the university in times of COVID19. Universities are traditionally hierarchical systems. Hierarchies can be very useful to optimize and coordinate work in an organization. In most universities these hierarchies are well integrated with relatively high levels of autonomy for academics. Now let’s look at the interactions between staff members and between students. This is where it starts to become problematic. Increasing pressure on performance and competition have already reduced collaboration in many places, but the COVID19 crisis has dramatically exacerbated our ability to connect as we are now all in our home office and mostly interacting online.

    So here’s the challenge: while the COVID19 crisis requires increased levels of adaptability, it at the same time limits our ability to adapt by decreased opportunities to connect.

    How do we become more adaptive instead of less? And how does that help us in increasing wellbeing?

    We work in a large faculty with over 200 teachers and 3000 students. Before the pandemic it was already challenging to know all of our colleagues, but in an online environment the interactions are reduced to a very small number of colleagues. We are very aware that our small team is in no position to redesign the whole university to increase adaptability and as a result wellbeing. So we have started with some smaller and local experiments to start reconnecting staff and to start reconnecting students.

    Learning together

    It is not so difficult to bring people together, and that we benefit from learning from each other might be a bit of a no brainer. But it is important that we find a way to make such connections meaningful so we actually learn our way forward together. What’s interesting is how, at the start of the outbreak, we almost forgot about how we learn. The main tool to share learning was by sharing information. Particularly popular were (and are) overviews. Overviews of online meeting tools, overviews of online creativity tools, overviews of wellbeing tools etc. And they have proven useful to get started in doing our work in a completely different way. But every teacher knows that experiences and reflection on experiences are key to learning, not just sharing information. For example, as teachers in a design faculty, we all know that you can’t learn design from a book. You have to do it, experience it, and reflect on it. Learning from each other then requires bringing people together, and getting people to share experiences and reflect on those collectively.

    Another advantage of bringing people together over just sharing written information is that new knowledge and ideas can emerge from such interactions. But this only happens when we engage in conversations or dialogue that promotes such emergence and creativity. Such dialogues require specific structures and skills. For example, a conversation format that allows everyone to contribute, and specific listening and questioning skills to have productive conversations.


    • Complex issues such as promoting wellbeing in higher education require experimentation. They cannot be solved with expertise alone.
    • When the world changes fast, we need to adapt
    • Adaptation requires diversity of experiments which we select and amplify
    • Adaptation in organisations requires that we connect people who are experimenting bottom up
    • Such connections become meaningful when we make them experiential and we allow and promote emergence of new ideas from those interactions and conversations

    How we applied this systems and learning perspective in our work

    With these ideas in mind, we started to experiment with formats to support collective learning and emergence. Our first initiative was to bring a small ‘working group’ of staff and students together in fortnightly meetings, collectively trying to make sense of the situation. Last month we organized a more structured online workshop for teachers in our faculty to get them to share their ideas and their experiences about wellbeing in their teaching and learning. We facilitated a similar session around the theme of supervision of graduation students. And last week we were involved in a faculty-wide session where teachers and students came together to talk about student wellbeing during the COVID19 crisis. We tried to make these session as ‘human’ as possible, applying principles of humanizing online learning, peer learning, and experienced based learning. For example, in the workshops we facilitated multiple activities in smaller break out rooms so everyone could contribute, and we got students and staff to share experiences with each other to learn from each other’s perspectives.

    The results so far have been that a very broad range of experiences and ideas have been shared, from simple things like including personal check-ins in online sessions, to more specific practices on how to promote student peer interactions to prevent that they get stuck in decision making in their design projects. New ideas have also emerged, for example in the graduation session a student mentioned how she felt like graduation day (when individual students graduate by presenting and defending their thesis) felt like being ‘severed’ from the university. A teacher then suggested that when we moved to an online mode of final graduation we did not think about the rituals that we perform in a face to face mode of graduation to celebrate and say goodbye to students. We are now thinking of designing new online rituals for graduation.

    While we are happy with the mostly positive experiences of participants, others have also questioned the format and design of our workshop sessions. In the end, these ‘adaptive sessions’ are experiments in itself, from which we need to learn. Important questions for us that remain are:

    • how do we create a safe-space to share experiences and challenges? which people should be invited in such spaces to enable a trusted environment in which people feel safe to share their experience? when should we bring students and staff together? when should we work with specific target groups?
    • who should facilitate these adaptive sessions? As this is an experiment in itself it is in no one’s job description or role to host such workshops. How can we recognise this work? how do we ensure this becomes business as usual, rather than one-off sessions?
    • what should be the scope of interactive sessions? which themes should we be working on? how narrow or broad should these themes be?
    • how do we ensure that colleagues and students have appropriate skills to productively participate in collective learning sessions?

    And while we are experimenting with these ways of working, we also need to connect to our colleagues at other faculties and universities. We’d love to know more about how you are tackling wellbeing in education challenges and how you do this in an adaptive way. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more or if you have any suggestions.

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