Making the Case for a Centre for Change Studies


At the beginning of Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens, he makes the point that within universities there is no dedicated area researching and teaching about change,

‘It turns out they [academic disciplines] each operate with separate and often conflicting theories of change and there is no ‘department of change studies’ to sort it out.’  (Green, 2016)

As an employee of Oxfam, he commissioned a report considering how different disciplines understand the nature of change, it is well worth a read. The idea of a Centre for Change Studies makes a great deal of sense.

Green, as with an increasing number of academics, has found the use of complexity theory a useful lens in understanding the emerging processes inherent in change, as well as offering insights in how to influence and affect change. Complexity centres have already started to spring up in various guises within the university sector, the most famous being the Santa Fe Institute. These centres thrive on the interdisciplinary nature of their work, bringing different perspectives to bare on a single area of interest. These different perspectives, coming as they do from disciplinary starting points, offer both mutually supportive expertise and critical insight from many directions.

So why a Centre for Change Studies? Presently, a series of issues and processes are emerging which may fundamentally change the way in which we perceive and act in the world. The classification of the Anthropocene, worsening climate change and its often non-linear consequences, globalisation, social acceleration, the rise of artificial intelligence, medical and genetic advances, socio-economic inequalities within and between countries, the rise of post-democratic political systems, and signs of the beginnings of chronic resource depletion. These processes are suggestive of the possibility of radical and rapid and complex change. Many of the solutions and accommodations to these problems will and must emerge from innovations within specialist disciplines. However, understanding the processes of change and how we can understand and manage them require a specialist field drawing on expertise from many perspectives. We also need to help develop professionals to become sensitive to the complexities and processes of change, understanding these ideas and issues in ways that allow them to work more critically and assuredly within their own contexts.

At a time when the utility of academia is being called into question in some quarters, the development of a medium for researching, understanding and mitigating against the impacts of faster and more acute change processes seems like a good place to start in reconnecting with issues which have major practical and political implications.      


Some Initial Forays into Holiploigic Planning

I’m currently involved in getting ready for teaching two modules on a masters course after the winter break, and given my inability to just pick up sessions and resources from a previous year, I decided to work with a colleague to reimagine and redevelop the module content and approaches for a specialist pathway focusing on Innovation and Reform in Education. Because we are strong believers in praxis, we thought it would be a great opportunity to explore some of the elements of an outline for holiploigic development I have pinged across my twitter stream previously, shown again below.


The thinking behind this schematic is to try to bring a deeper approach, and explicit philosophical perspective, to curriculum planning. Curriculum must be seen as interpenetrating with the other complex systems of teaching, learning and assessment, all of which need to be allied with serious discussion about of elements of the process which revolve around and underpin, such as media of activity (face-to-face, blended, distance). We haven’t been able to spend as much time as we might with a new module, in part because we have little time between now and the start of teaching. However, yesterday we spent an interesting couple of hours developing the front end of the reimagined first module. In a two hour meeting we managed to get as far as a consideration of the interaction between curriculum-teaching-learning. The first 50 minutes were an underpinning discussion of what our aims and objectives are for the module. Usually, we might focus discussion on the learning outcomes, but these are in a sense performative and mechanistic – we wanted to think about what the deeper rationale of the experience should include, and decided that underpinning the module were a desire to help students:

1)     Understanding common/different educational issues which are important around the world

2)     Debate aims/definitions of education

3)     Define innovation as opposed to invention

4)     Understand models and perspectives on change – linked to processes & scales

5)     Further develop notions of criticality – notions of questioning and reflecting about experiences and research evidence

Having considered these, we also went on to discuss what our own values and philosophies are as teachers in our own discipline and what we feel are important approaches to curriculum, teaching and learning. We see this as discussion as crucial, as it stresses and emphasises the authenticity of our practice (see Kreber, 2013 and later posts). Here, after some discussion we decided we want to emphasise:

1)     The importance of disciplinary knowledge and understanding as a basis for developing applied insights

2)     Social learning

3)     Independent study 

4)     The development of a ‘narrative curriculum’ 

5)     Students as emergent researchers 

Having started to develop a foundation for our consideration of curriculum etc, we also wanted to think about the ‘personas’ we might be working with – a simple way of thinking about the variety of experience, expertise etc that students might bring with them as well as the things they might be hoping to gain from engaging with the module. This led to a list, possibly quite simple, but potentially useful for consideration of experiences:

1) Group A – no teaching experience, non-education degrees, experience of education predominantly as students.

2) Group B – previous teaching experience shaped within a particular context, but with little educational theory underpinning experience.

3) Group C – Passionate about a topic they want the programme to address and help them develop as an expertise  – particularly focused on SEND – some have practical experience or even familial/personal experience of their chosen passion.

It was only once we had discussed and captured these starting points that we started to think about the structure, focus and intertwining processes of the curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment (formal and informal). At the end of two hours, we had started to sketch out some of these elements of the process also deciding on some of the environments we would like to use in the module. At the moment we have only sketched out some of these ideas quite loosely as is shown below.


At the end of a two hour meeting, we had started to think about teaching and learning experiences, but assessment had not even been mentioned. We thought about narrative – how do we develop something that emerges, the idea of coherence, i.e. a bounded curricular space with structure whilst allowing enough freedom for individuals to pursue personal and professional interests (based on ideas from Davis and Sumara, 2006).

We still need to go away and work on the detail, we only have a shell of ideas and a loose structure. We are each taking elements of the emerging module to ‘play with’, before bringing them back together next week to begin to ‘stitch’ into a coherent whole. Two further elements we are taking away with us to reflect on and consider – what new elements of practice are we bringing to the discussion and what research evidence will we need to engage with to help develop those new practices, and during the teaching of the module what research insights do we need to help in the process of sensemaking as the module experiences of both teachers and students emerge?


Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Kreber, C. (2013) Authenticity in and through teaching in higher education : the transformative potential of the scholarship of teaching. London: Routledge.