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Systems Theory Approaches to Researching Educational Organizations  

Raf Vanderstraeten

In modern society, organizations are present in almost every social domain. From the end of the 18th century onward, education has predominantly taken place in school organizations. Of course, education still takes place within families, but to send a child to school was from around that time onward no longer seen to reflect unfavorably on its family. Schools are no longer a symptom of the family’s failure. The family and the school, rather, have become perceived as different but coexisting settings within which education takes place. Moreover, the way school organizations operate has generally come to be seen as more in accord with the needs of our modern “(post)industrial” society. Educational organizations, such as schools, build upon their own decision-making histories, but the organizational order which they produce is thought to be in line with the kinds of order that dominate in other social domains. More so than families, schools are expected to prepare children for the present and the future. Using systems theory, the consequences of the organizational framing of education can be examined more closely. Developments within systems theory draw particular attention to the relation between organizations and their environment. Informed by this literature, we discuss, on the one hand, how the relation between schools and society can be adequately conceptualized, and, on the other hand, how the growing societal status of school organizations is affecting nonorganized families. Rather than focusing on the ways in which school organizations adapt to their environments, the interest in systems theory approaches is shifting to the ways in which the environments of school organizations must adapt to the expansion of these organizations. Topics that may be fruitfully tackled in future educational research are also explored.

Article

Post-Piagetian Perspectives of Cognitive Development  

Eduardo Martí

Piaget’s constructivism theory influenced deeply the study of cognitive development in the last century. Despite the progressive loss of influence of this theory, some contemporary perspectives have recently extended some of his ideas, enriching the way cognitive development is understood. These contributions face two important questions that remained problematic in Piaget’s theory: how to integrate dynamic aspects and variability of development and how to understand the role of the body and the signs in cognition. Thanks to information processing theory, functional and executive components of cognition have been progressively integrated into Piaget’s theory. Two main perspectives have contributed to doing so. The first one, defended by Pascual-Leone and Case, among other authors, has been called “neo-Piagetian theory.” It offers a more dynamic way to understand cognitive development and present particular solutions to explain the Piagetian stages. The second one, the theory of dynamic systems, has contributed to explaining variability in cognitive development, a central aspect underestimated by Piaget, who was more interested in universal aspects of cognition. Thanks to the perspective of embodied cognition, the main role of action and body has been taken into account to understand the characteristics of cognition. From this perspective, a nuclear idea of Piaget’s constructivism, the importance of action in cognition, has been investigated in a more accurate way. Finally, considering the poor contribution of signs in Piaget’s theory, some authors inspired in Vygotskyan theory have emphasized the role of semiotic systems and social aspects in cognitive development. The research generated by all these theoretical perspectives has had important consequences in education.

Article

Psychological Well-Being and Resilience  

Shelva Paulse Hurley

Resilience is the ability to adapt and thrive despite facing adversity. There are various ontological approaches to conceptualizing resilience, including the pathological perspective, defining it in terms of protective factors, and exploring the impact of intervention in the manifestation of resilience. The pathological perspective defines resilience in terms of risk factors located at the individual level. A second area of research on resilience defines it in terms of protective factors that may contribute to its manifestation. The final area of research takes into account not only individual-level risk or protective factors, but also accounts for structural influence in an assessment of resilience. As an example of the interaction between individual and structural factors, Caleon and King proposed the concept of Subjective School Resilience. This perspective on resilience suggests it is a malleable construct and influenced by factors relating to both intra- and interpersonal processes.

Article

Theories of Complex Systems and Educational Change at Multiple Scales  

Wolff-Michael Roth

Theories of complex systems originated in the natural sciences, where it became necessary to move away from describing systems in simple cause–effect models to using descriptions that take into account nonlinearity, emergence, path dependence, the interrelation of continuous (quantitative) and discontinuous (qualitative) transitions, and the interrelation of phenomena at multiple scales. Although some educators have begun to explore the usefulness of complex systems theories for describing educational phenomena at the different levels of scale, the vast majority of educational research continues to be dominated by simple and simplistic (quantitative and qualitative) models. After definition and discussion of different conceptions of systems, this article presents constraint satisfaction networks, chaos theory, and catastrophe theory, as dynamic models for social processes in education. The different models are introduced with easily accessible phenomena from the natural sciences. The models not only are sources of analogies and metaphors for articulating a variety of phenomena in educational systems, including learning and development, conceptual change, decision making, categorization, and curriculum implication, but also can be used for studying real educational systems. Readers find how these models can be used to think about and predict the behavior of systems at scales as small as student–teacher talk to school systems as a whole. The concepts are used to show why educational systems tend to be stable even when policymakers intend change and why some classroom contexts do not provide the conditions for student development despite well-meaning efforts of dedicated teachers.

Article

Teaching Learners with Vision Impairment: An Analysis of Evidence-Based Practice  

Mike McLinden, Graeme Douglas, Rachel Hewett, Paul Lynch, and Jane Thistlethwaite

Vision impairment is a broad term that captures a wide range of reduction in visual function and includes ocular and cerebral conditions. Learners with vision impairment are a heterogeneous population within which there is a wide spectrum of characteristics, ability, and needs. The profile of these characteristics, including the nature and cause of the vision impairment, varies between countries: in high-income countries it is common for childhood vision impairment to coexist with other disabilities, including learning disabilities; in many low-income countries, higher numbers of children with vision impairment (where known) have either conditions associated with poverty and poor public health or refractive errors that could be corrected with corrective lenses. These differences have an important bearing upon the appropriate educational, social and/or health intervention. Childhood vision impairment is associated with particular developmental and educational needs which are primarily linked to reduced access to learning opportunities, such as limited opportunities to explore their environment, learn through incidental experiences, and develop motor skills by observing and copying others. Key educational responses to these access needs suggest that educational input tends to be in two complementary forms: (a) access to learning emphasizes environment adjustment and accessible/universal approaches to teaching; (b) learning to access emphasizes targeted teaching provision supporting the child or young person to learn independence skills and develop personal agency to facilitate independent learning and social inclusion (and this includes specialist interventions such as mobility training, access technology, and low vison training). It is recognized that practitioners involved in supporting this educational access must pay particular attention to balancing these approaches. Therefore, they must seek to target longer-term educational outcomes (associated with learning to access) as well as immediate access needs (associated with access to learning). Equitable teaching approaches for learners with vision impairment should explicitly focus on promoting a “balanced curriculum” throughout a given educational timeline to ensure that learners can participate within education as well as have opportunities to develop educational outcomes needed to succeed later in life. Specialist practitioners have a central role in overseeing such development, facilitating the progressive nature of curriculum access with an increased emphasis on promoting learning to access. A bioecological systems perspective provides a powerful lens through which to analyze the various influences on achieving such a balance within different national and societal contexts. This perspective provides opportunities to consider implications within, and between, contexts and settings to ensure all learners with vision impairment have equitable opportunities to education through a holistic and lifelong learning perspective and are therefore suitably prepared for life within and outside school.

Article

School-Based Family Counseling  

Brian A. Gerrard and Gertina J. van Schalkwyk

School-based family counseling (SBFC) is an integrative systems approach to helping children succeed academically and personally through mental health interventions that link family and school. SBFC may be practiced by any of the mental health approaches and is best viewed as a supporting approach to traditional mental health disciplines. An important precursor to SBFC was the guidance clinics attached to schools that were developed by the psychiatrist Alfred Adler in Vienna in the 1920s. A core assumption in SBFC is that the two most important institutions in the life of a young child are the family and the school and that an effective way to help children is by mobilizing both family and school resources. SBFC has eight strengths: school and family focus, systems orientation, educational focus, parent partnership, multicultural sensitivity, child advocacy, promotion of school transformation, and interdisciplinary focus. Despite its early origins, SBFC remains a new approach that challenges traditional mental health disciplines that focus on either school or family, but not both. There is moderate evidence-based support (EBS) for the effectiveness of SBFC, but further research is needed on different approaches to SBFC.

Article

Contingency and Situational Approaches to Educational Leadership  

Athanasia Tsolka

In the context of educational leadership, the application of contingency and situational theory underlines the importance of analyzing the current situation and the variables that affect the organization’s framework so that a manager can be effective. Whichever education system we are referring to, it is virtually meaningless to study leadership styles without recognizing the significance of the school context. School is a complex organization, an open system which appears to be a very uncertain environment. In order for leadership to be effective in this uncertain environment, the leaders should adopt a holistic approach. Many leaders avoid high uncertainty by applying standard operating procedures and making traditional bureaucratic responses in every case. Contingency and situational theory could give school leaders the opportunity for a solid basis in further refining management policies and practices. Contingency theory is based on the assumption that no single leadership style is appropriate in all situations. According to this theory, leadership style is quite inflexible. Thus, organizational effectiveness depends on matching internal organizational characteristics with environmental conditions. Therefore, effective leadership depends on whether the leader’s style matches the needs of the individual case. This theory applies better to educational systems where principal selection is done through an open recruitment process. One useful tool of this theory is contingency planning or forecasting. On the other hand, situational theory dictates that leaders adapt their style to match their staff’s characteristics and requirements. In education systems where the recruitment and selection of school principals lies with central government, situational theory can be a useful tool for the principals. When principals are placed in a new school, they should choose the best course of action based upon the current circumstances. Flexibility is key in managing a team effectively. The main difference between the two theories is that in the first case we put the right person in the right job while in the second leaders adjust their style depending on school context.

Article

Youth- and Peer-Led Sex Education  

Alanna Goldstein

Peer-led and youth-led sex education primarily involves young people teaching other young people about sex, sexuality, and sexual health. This approach gained in popularity during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s–1990s, as community organizations sought to address the unique sexual health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth, many of whom had been underserved in traditional sex education spaces. Since then, peer-led and youth-led sex education pedagogies have been implemented by researchers, educators, and community organizations working across a range of sites around the globe. Peer-led and youth-led sex education generally draws on assumptions that young people are better situated than adults to talk to their peers about sexual health and/or to model positive sexual health behavior. However, some have noted that this perspective constructs young people as a homogenous group and ignores the ways in which sexuality and sexual health intersects with other social factors. Furthermore, there is a general lack of consensus across interventions around who constitutes a “peer” and what constitutes “peer-led” sex education, resulting in the development of interventions that at times tokenize young people, without engaging them in meaningful ways. As a result, evaluations of many peer- and youth-led sex education pedagogies suggest that even as these pedagogies improve young people’s knowledge of sexual health-related topics, they often don’t result in long-term sexual health behavior change. However, many evaluations of peer- and youth-led sex education pedagogies do suggest that acting as a peer educator is of immense benefit to those who take on this role, pointing to the need for program developers to reconsider what effective sex education pedagogy might look like. A “social ecology” or “systems thinking” approach to youth sexual health may provide alternative models for thinking about the future of peer-led and youth-led sex education. These approaches don’t task peer- and youth-led sex education with the sole responsibility of changing young people’s sexual health-related outcomes, but rather situate peer-led sex education as one potential node in the larger confluence of factors that shape and constrain young people’s sexual health.