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Tuesday, July 26 • 4:30pm - 5:00pm
Developing a Theory of Systems Change Approach to Practice-Based Research in a Professional Public Health Doctoral Program

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2921 At the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, we are developing a distance learning doctoral program in public health (DrPH) focusing on adaptive leadership. Students complete dissertations, some explicitly using action research models, but all in support of the overarching program goal of developing practice based evidence for guiding systemic change. Core principles and skills embedded in our curriculum include systems thinking and systematic reflection. Dissertation research begins with building a problem statement for a “wicked” problem the student wishes to address, with associated initial action relevant broad research questions (how do we solve this problem?). We have required students to articulate their assumptions about what the problem is or might be and critically consider alternative ways of framing their problem statements, and have drawn from soft systems, systems dynamics, and Bob Williams’ syntheses of these and other systems traditions in doing so. As a next step, we require students to develop a conceptual framework and a visual representation of it that draws both from scholarly literature and from reflection on their practice experience. Identifying alternative ways of stating the problem does itself open up the exploration of more possibilities for solutions. Since, however, the ultimate goal of student scholarship is to contribute to solving a problem, not just stating it, developing the conceptual framework or model often involves describing a current state of affairs, selecting and specifying constructs or dimensions relevant to a description of this current state, as well as envisaging a more desirable future state and a pathway(s) to get to the future state from the current state. So there is a “theory of change,” or assumptions about what gets included in a description of the system, and how to get from point A to point B, that is at least implicit in the student’s model or conceptual framework, which we want to see made explicit. Furthermore, students need to develop, and operationalize (be able to apply to data collection and analysis) specific research questions investigating those pathways for change and/or refining the description of the current state. Thus far, not surprisingly, the results of research often include a re- or amended conceptualization of the model with which the student started, which can become the basis for action recommendations for change. In the more participatory action research options taken by some of the students, the student researcher is an active agent in those pathways for change, for instance acting as a developmental evaluator or facilitating community of practice discussions. In a “theory of change” approach one of the sources we draw from is evaluation methodology: evaluators from the Aspen Institute used the term in the 1990’s to discuss a participatory approach to evaluation that directed evaluators to facilitate discussions among stakeholders about what assumptions about how change happens they were bringing to a given intervention and, ideally, come to some consensus about this before finalizing a logic model for the intervention and relevant indicators. This has been further developed in evaluation circles via increasing critical attention paid to program logic and theory and intervention models. Another, more research-based approach to developing ‘theories of change,’ however, has to do with comparing the received ideas of the students as public health practitioners with what is supported in systems and social science literature. We would like to discuss with ISSS colleagues the implications of taking a “theory of change” approach to the development of conceptual frameworks and associated research questions as applied to the “wicked problems” our students select, and to that end will present some examples from our recent work with students.

avatar for Shankar Sankaran

Shankar Sankaran

Professor, University of Technology Sydney
Vice President Research and Publications, International Society for the Systems Sciences.SIG Chair: Action Research (see below for information)Shankar Sankaran specialises in project management, systems thinking and action research. He is a Core Member of a UTS Research Centre on... Read More →

Tuesday July 26, 2016 4:30pm - 5:00pm MDT
ECCR 151