Systems Thinking in Educational Psychology

IFSR Newsletter 1984 Vol. 4 No. 1 Spring
Looking Across the Specialists’ Fence
This is the first of a series of contributions by specialists telling others something about their own field.
by Dr. Bernard Scott, London, UK.
In a series of initiatives, in both the U.K. and the U.S.A., concepts and approaches drawn from systems theory are finding application in the field of educational psychology. In his traditional role, the educational psychologis has not only tended to work with individual children but has also adopted, and been perceived by others as adopting, a clinical role modelled on that of the medical practitioner, in which problems are treated as being intra individual. Systems theory teaches that the child is a self-organizing system embedded in other such systems (schools, families). In human systems, an individual cannot be viewed in isolation from the large whole of which he or she is a part. Each individual is more or less informed of that larger whole, as he/she attempts to maintain and construct a viable self image and (hopefully) an adaptive repertoire of behaviours.
To understand a child’s “disruptive behaviour” or “poor emotional adjustment”, it is necessary to identify and model the system of roles, relationships and associated settings with which the child is being invited to comply. Helping the child may mean explicit intervention with the larger systems. There is a long tradition of systems oriented family therapy, dating from the early formulations of Bateson, Haley, Jackson and others. Similarly, there are fruitful traditions in organizational and ecological psychology that conceptualize behaviour as behaviour in a setting”. Behaviour modification paradigms have long stressed the function of environmental variables in determining and maintaining behaviour. Systems theory offers a unifying conceptional framework for these diverse approaches. The school and, indeed, the community are systems. Logically, one cannot interact with a part without affecting the whole. For the educational psychologist, this means recognizing and responding to the systemic dimensions of individual referrals – always having an eye for the larger whole. It further means developing new ways of working in which the school is invited to investigate and, if need be, modify its modus operandi. It means educating teachers, parents and other professionals in the tenets of systems thinking and the pragmatics of human communication.
In Waddington’s phrase, systems have “soft spots”. In context, the right touch of word or gesture in a five minute interview with parents or teacher may achieve as much or more than prolonged therapy or action research. “Only variety can control variety”, says Ross Ashby. Information is power. Abstracting general models of functioning on the basis of relatively brief concrete encounters is the psychologist’s stock in trade when working with individuals. The systems revolution merely invites him to apply these skills, recoursively, to larger wholes.
The next article will deal with “Cybernetics and Design”.

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