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PhD Course

Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research: Working strategically with Farming Systems Research (4 ECTS) Date: 30 March – 5 April 2014 including 4 days of IFSA Symposium


Working strategically to negotiate boundaries for research in a meaningful way in the areas of farming, food, rural areas and environment requires particular skills and abilities: It is necessary to be able to make relevant connections and to contextualize research activities without becoming overwhelmed by potential complexity and uncertainty. The context of the increasingly multifaceted complexity of issues of sustainability and climate change in relation to food production and consumption is particularly challenging for PhD research. It is a context that is however a core part of the IFSA community’s experience. The purpose of this course is to help you, the PhD student, develop your skills in contextualizing your research, to make connections among issues using systems thinking and to so improve your ability to work both strategically and purposefully. The course is also designed to help you build on what other researchers have done.


Through joining this course you can expect to:

  • gain an overview of the intellectual traditions of Farming Systems Research,

  • make links to the history of IFSA,

  • strengthen your research through developing understanding of systems theories and methodologies

  • have opportunity to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of different systems approaches and methodologies in relation to your own PhD research

  • get added value from your participation in the Berlin Symposium by also becoming part of a parallel critical learning systems community that has a PhD research focus

  • critically review potential contributions of your research to help meet global challenges

  • develop appreciation of multiple perspectives on contemporary issues

  • work across multiple disciplines



The course will be held in connection to the 11th IFSA Symposium and draw on the gathering of specialists and researchers within this field. Its design draws on tried and tested ways of experiential learning. The course will be grounded in a project of your own choice, preferably based on your PhD work. In your time in Berlin you will participate in an inquiry with three main parts - before, during and after the symposium. It will also involve some preparation and submission of a final reflection.


  1. Before the course, you will be asked to complete an assignment in which you describe and reflect on either (i) your understanding and use of system theories in your project; or (ii) the rationale you have followed, or would follow, in making a choice to include, or not, systems theories in your PhD research


  1. The pre-symposium part of the course will be offered in a workshop format consisting of a mixture of student presentations, lecture inputs and group work. It will take place over two and half days starting on the morning of Sunday 30th March and finishing at mid-day on Tuesday 1st April.


  1. The part of the course that runs in parallel to the symposium will provide mentorship and help you plan your attendance at the most relevant workshops for you at the IFSA symposium. It will also provide an opportunity for joint reflection and feedback as the symposium progresses.


  1. After the symposium, on Saturday 5th April, you and the other students will gather for half a day to recapitulate and work in groups, and complete the assignment that has been agreed, on possible improvements of your own PhD study design, or future research trajectory, linking it to systems thinking and practice. The course will end at mid-day.


Background and resources

This PhD course will benefit strongly from the fact that many outstanding researchers within farming system approaches will be gathered at the Symposium of the International Farming Systems Association. Contributions specifically to this course will come from experienced researchers who have been a part of the IFSA community for many years. They will include lectures and/or workshops that

  • introduce systems theories;

  • consider different systems approaches and methodologies suitable for researching issues of farming, food, rural areas and environment:

  • bridge the different systems approaches – soft, hard, critical, viable etc.

  • explore how to deal with handling of complexity and the role that modeling can play

  • critically review focuses on action, learning and reflexivity

  • explicate social systems and learning systems approaches

  • explore the relationship between systems approaches and transdisciplinary research

The key literature for the course will be:

Ika Darnhofer, David Gibbon and Benoit Dedieu (2012) The farming systems approach into the 21st century: The new dynamic. Springer, Berlin.


The following references provide additional background

Blackmore, Chris (Ed.) (2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. Springer: London. (For online extracts see:

Ison, Ray (2010) Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World. Springer: London. (For online extracts see:

Ramage, Manus and Shipp, Karen (2009) Systems Thinkers. Springer: London.

(For online extracts see:

Reynolds, Martin and Holwell, Sue. Systems Approaches to Managing Change. Springer: London. (For online extracts see:


Course Assessment

To obtain the course certificate you will be required to:

  • complete the assignments as outlined above

  • participate in the lectures and group discussion.

  • participate in one of the relevant working groups of the IFSA symposium.

  • after the Symposium, discuss improvements to your own PhD study, or future research trajectory design linking it to systems thinking and practice.


Registration for the Course

Contact: Dr. Thomas Aenis, Extension and Communication Group

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Luisenstr. 53, D-10099 Berlin, Germany

Phone: +49-(0)30-2093-6511


Course Team:


Dr. Thomas Aenis, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Prof. Dr. Nadarajah Sriskandarajah, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Prof. Dr. Andrea Knierim, University Hohenheim, Germany


Guest lecturers:

Professor Ray Ison, The Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK and Monash University, Australia

Dr Chris Blackmore, The Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK


The IFSA 2014 is hosted by


Action and Research for Climate Change Adaptation in Land Use
Tuesday, 1 April 2014, 16:00 h
Senatssaal Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Download programme (pdf, 551 KB)

Book of Abstracts now available

The IFSA team is pleased to present the book of abstracts for the IFSA 2014. It comprises the abstracts of all presentations that will be given in Berlin. Even more important it contains all necessary information about the conference itself (maps, workshop locations, complete programme etc.).
You will be handed a printed copy upon signing in.

Download pdf (8,4 MB)

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