Human And Moral Development In Education

Centre for the Study of
Human And Moral Development In Education

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Centre for the Study of Human And Moral Development In Education
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Dynamic Systems (Complexity) Theory (DST)

The science of dynamic systems has its roots in mathematics, physics and chemistry, but has since been widely applied to many phenomena that are both complex and exist far from thermal equilibrium as non-linear, self-organising, 'dissipative structures'. This term was used by Ilya Prigogine (1996, p.66) to describe systems that draw on a high-energy source to do work before giving back (dissipating) energy to the environment. These are 'open systems' in which, with a sufficient injection of energy, new and ordered structures and patterns of behaviour may spontaneously emerge. All living structures are emergent, dissipative, self-organising systems; from the dynamic patterns of gene activities in developing organisms (Kauffman, 1995) to the behaviour of ant colonies and the functioning of human brains (Solé & Goodwin, 2000).

Aspects of dynamic systems thinking entered developmental studies with the seminal work of Alan Turing on morphogenesis (how the complexity of the human embryo develops from a single fertilised cell) and in psychology with pioneers such as Eleanor J. Gibson in her work on ecological psychology. In 1994, Esther Thelen and Linda Smith produced their ground-breaking book A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action, which laid firm foundations for the adoption of dynamic systems theory, with its key concepts of emergent self-organisation, within developmental psychology. As they noted in this book: 'The cornerstone of a dynamics theory of development is this emergent nature of behaviour' (p.73).

More specifically:

  • All living creatures, including human beings are self-organising systems, in which new patterns of behaviour may emerge without being pre-programmed.

  • Groups of living creatures (ant colonies, ecosystems) and human beings (societies) are also self-organising systems, in which new patterns of behaviour may emerge without being pre-programmed.

  • And, brains are dynamic, self-organising systems in which new patters of neuronal maps emerge without being pre-programmed.

 

Key points in the Dynamic Systems Approach to Human Development*

  • All too often the developmental thesis has been analogous to the claim that 'from small acorns mature oak trees grow', with predetermined starting points and teleological ends; the result of some overarching design built into the organism or the internalisation of external forms, following stages, responding to schema of one kind or another. But suppose there is no design, no stages, no schema, just a process of emergent self-organisation. This is the thesis of the Dynamic Systems Approach.

  • Though sometimes linear and quantitative, human development is also non-linear and qualitative, continually in flux, changing and stabilising in response to experience and situation.

  • Behavior is the product of multiple, contributing influences or causes (seldom a single cause) and these multiple causes are said to be ‘softly assembled’, meaning that they are not fixed or ‘hard-wired’, but are variable in the impact they have in relation to the other contributing causes on a moment by moment basis.

  • Each component and influence has a history; the history of the organism (e.g. child or learner) matters in its development.

  • There is no distinction between real-time behavior and lifetime processes that contribute to it.

  • Form (what we become) is a product of process.

  • Thelen and Smith used the notion of an ontogenetic landscape, adapting C. H. Waddington's (1966) metaphor of an epigenetic landscape of hills and valleys, where the valleys represent 'attractor states'. We can then imagine the developmental trajectory rather like a journey of balls (perhaps glass marbles) across this constantly shifting landscape of deep and shallow behavioural attractors.

  • Development can thus be defined as an individual's trajectory of stabilities and instabilities through a constantly shifting landscape of behavioural attractors.

  • This is possible because neuronal, synaptic mapping in the brain is 'degenerate' (open to change), to the point that it allows for considerable flexibility and plasticity, but not such that it excludes specification or constraints.


Key points in the Dynamic Systems Approach to Moral Development**

  • Kohlbergian stage theory described moral development as an orderly, progressive and incremental process, whereby the infant mind is drawn onward and upward, progressively stage by stage towards the goal of adult moral reasoning.

  • A dynamic systems approach suggests, on the contrary, that at a greater level of magnification, moral development is messy, unpredictable, individually variable, context-sensitive; the result of emergent self-organisation, as the organism interacts with the environment.

  • Though sometimes linear and quantitative, moral development is also non-linear and qualitative, continually in flux, changing and stabilising in response to experience and situation.

  • In terms of C. H. Waddington's (1966) metaphor of an epigenetic landscape, moral development may be viewed as an individual's trajectory of stabilities and instabilities through a shifting landscape of behavioural attractors. On this model, development is viewed as the perturbation of an individual's attractor states.

  • Understanding moral development requires that we track the stabilities and instabilities of an individual subject's attractor states over a longitudinal time-scale that is appropriate to the scale of ontogenetic change.

  • As with all human development, moral development is possible because neuronal, synaptic mapping in the brain is 'degenerate' (open to change), to the point that it allows for considerable flexibility and plasticity, but not such that it excludes specification.

  • According to Gerald Edelman, the brain's degeneracy allows value to be imposed in the brain by the brain, through ongoing synaptic generation and pruning.

  • Moreover, all animals discriminate between the odour of food and the odour of a predator. Without this ability, none could survive. Kim and Sankey refer to this as a 'predilection to value' (value bias) that is manifested throughout the natural world. Thus they say: 'making rudimentary value judgements is the most natural thing in the world' (p. 294).

  • In terms of the brain, the ability of organisms to categorise perceptions, coupled with an in-born predilection to value, in response to salient experiences laid down in memory, provides the neurobiological rudiments for morality and moral development

  • Or, in terms of an individual child on a trajectory towards increasing moral maturity, we can say: from the initial predilection to value represented by a diffuse attractor landscape with a few deep attractor basins, the child, through repeated interaction with multiple environments develops a more complex, differentiated and stable set of attractor basins. That process is the basis of a child's moral development.


* See: Thelen, E., & Smith, L.(1994) A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

** See: Kim, M., & Sankey, D. (2009) Towards a Dynamic Systems Approach to moral development and moral education: a response to the JME Special Issue, September 2008, Journal of Moral Education, 38(3), 283-298.



20 January, 2015

 
2015 Centre for the Study of Human And Moral Development In Education