Using constraints to change student behaviour
Chaordic design, Collaboration, Complexity, Emergence, Featured
Our Complexity Inside and Out course is now in full swing and after 3 of 7 sessions we have covered some of the basics that make up our understanding of complexity theory and some of the core practices to affect change in complex systems, both inner and outer.
One of those strategies of course is through shifting constraints. To work with self-organization and emergence in a system, finding the constraints that enable behaviour and creating different ones can have the effect of shifting the behaviour. Not always of course – we have to pay attention and monitor what we are doing – but these are the promising places to get a start.
Based on work from Dave Snowden and Glenda Eoyang, the constraints I work with are these, listed in order of ease to work with:
THe Connecting constraints of
- Connections between agents in a system
- Exchanges that flow across those connections
And the containing constraints of
- Attractors around which behaviours or actions coalesce
- Boundaries that define the context for actions
There are two other constraints which come to us from Snowden’s field of anthro-complexity and they are Identity and Dark constraints, both of which are a sort of subclass of the above. Identities create or maintain coherent connections or containers and the Dark constraints are simply the nones we don’t know about and which only reveal themselves in real time.
It’s not always easy to spot these in the wild as you are learning about them, but this article in The Conversation is a good example of thinking about managing complex behaviour. Every October in Ontario there is a traditional homecoming week at universities in which former students return and current students party. The flocking behaviour of students in these times creates emergent behaviours at the grouplevel that are not immediately present at the individual level, and the authors provide a handy link to one research paper that explains this.
The response to behaviour like this is typically banning certain kinds of activities, which, in Cynefin terms, is a misapplication of governing constraints aimed at control to self-organizing behaviour. What is needed instead are constraints that enable the emergence of different behaviours. It is hard to spot these because with events such as the ones described in the article, the tendency is to want to squash the problem.
But a harm reduction approach first begins by identifying the fact that there will always be these behaviours and always be these problems, and the way to address them is to create adjacent possibles (a Stuart Kauffman term) which invites the system to an alternative state. Such possibles cannot be too far away from the current state, but they must not be too close to the current state to be rendered ineffective. For example, proposing that students only consume alcohol in sanctioned places with oversight from police and campus security is likely to fail. Few students will love to party in such a heavily surveilled way. On the other hand, allowing students to party anywhere and then providing a ntip line for any issues that might come up is a weak response that is unlikely to affect the behaviour.
So the authors propose an oblique strategy, which is an excellent approach to complex problems. First, the say that students need to be empowered to co-create harm reduction approaches to these issues to create safety in a public health and gender-violence context. It is unlikely that on their own students will come to a meeting to co-create these, or if they do, their authority to enact the approaches may be compromised by their perceived identity of “goody two-shoes.” So instead the authors propose a new attractor in the field, a for credit course that is about generating harm reduction approaches but which alos teaches skills needed to address and manage public health issues:
Conversations are a good start, but a systemic approach that integrates understanding of these events and taking action through curriculum is essential.
One of these strategies could be creating a university credit based multidisciplinary course that is aimed at proposing solutions for how students could gather and celebrate in a safe — including COVID-19 safe — manner that reflects their own, and community values.
The students would learn (among many things) how to address diffusion of responsibility and gender-based violence. It would provide them with opportunities to learn about city bylaws, police costs and potential challenges to the health care system of large student gatherings.
The instructors could be an advisory team of mentors including members from the city, police, first responders and university experts. This initiative would challenge students to research the problem and be an active part of the solution.
Co-creating solutions with students by providing them with opportunities to lead with support and guidance will empower them to take ownership and responsibility when it comes to implementing positive change. If they lead the new way forward, students will come and be together in a way that meets their needs.
Backed with the power of the university to sanction this approach, makes this new attractor for action stronger. REQUIRING students to participate in this exercise would be too rigid a boundary, but for students that are charged with under age driking violations for example, they may be required to participate in these discussions in a restorative process designed to using their lived experience and also having them make amends.
Working with constraints gives us lots of ideas about how to shift things. The key is implementing what you can and watching for change. As for this example, what a great case study. I will see if I can follow up with Craig and Kolomitro about what happens with their ideas.
Very interesting. This seems like a good opportunity for a PNI project, doesn’t it? As part of a course the prof could ask students to submit their own frosh stories and collect stories from other students in their network to then identify other attractors and adjacent possibles.
Yes indeed. Doing collective sensemaking together expands the ability of people in the system to create different ideas that has an impact.
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