Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) within educational research
Dynamic Systems Theory provides a new conceptual framework or 'paradigm' for understanding and researching human and child development in education. For the most part, teacher education and education research is still strongly influenced by the insights of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, with their emphasis on the construction of knowledge,
individually and socially. On one hand, many of the insights of these and other classical theories can be incorporated into the new paradigm of DST. On the other hand, however, DST provides a new set of concepts and often transforms insights drawn from previous theory in new and imaginative ways.
For example, a dynamics approach requires shifting from notions of linear construction to
non-linear self-organising emergence, with a corresponding recognition of variability, (stabilities and instabilities) in each child's individual trajectory of development. This clearly has ramifications for the way in which development is conceived and researched.
All too often, child development is conceived as having pre-determined 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. A dynamic systems approach supposes there is no design,
no stages, no schema, just a process of emergent autonomous self-organisation, operating in response to the contingencies of past experience, context and
With regard to research, much social and educational research employs group-average cross-sectional sampling that compares groups of subjects at a number of different ages. Development is said to have occurred if statistically reliable differences are found in the mean levels of performance at the different age levels. Individual variations are considered to be 'noise' within the system and are ignored or ironed out. From the perspective of DST, this provides a rather limited (if not totally distorting) window on phenomena. In human development studies, such as those conducted in the Kohlbergian approach to moral development for example, a group-average methodology provides an averaged-out picture of ongoing development through discreet stages.
Thelen and Smith (1994) called this a 'view from above' (as in an aeroplane), operating at low levels of magnification. Come in closer, however, increasing the levels of magnification, one begins to see a very different picture. The seascape that looked so blue and tranquil from high above, can take on a darker appearance with large waves and much turbulence as the plane descends. In developmental studies, what looked like discreet stages at a group average level of magnification now reveals much individual variability. Thus, individual variability, which is considered to be noise in conventional research takes on high significance in DST, where it is often associated with transition points in a developmental trajectory.
A dynamics approach is posited on the assumption that: 'Developmental pathways can only be deconstructed with individual data, collected longitudinally…, using 'frequent sampling points that will track the state of the collective variable in individual subjects over time' Thelen & Smith, 1994, p.100). The dynamics approach 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. When interpreting this data, development is viewed as the perturbation of an individual's behavioural attractor states.
From a dynamics perspective, stabilities and instabilities in each child's trajectory are therefore to be expected, and can be explained in part by
the neurobiological processes occurring in the child's brain, particularly as a result of synaptic generation and pruning. Hence the importance, within
the context of DSA, of relating the study of development to the biology of the brain, while avoiding the misrepresentations of neuroscience
(neuromyths) regrettably found in some education literature and the mass-media.
However, having mentioned the importance of neurobiology it is equally
important to note that processes that reside 'within the organism' (electrochemical and hormonal processes within the brain, for example) are not more foundational than those that reside outside the organism, in the
physical and social environments. DST is opposed to reductionism of that kind - reducing everything to single causes, to genes or biology of the brain right down to the laws of physics. Instead DST emphasises emergence and multi-causality and refers to the many different causes as 'softly-assembled', not fixed or hard-wired, but always in flux and highly variable in their influence, moment by moment.
Clearly, the shift to DST as the guiding metatheory in human and child development, has considerable implications for research design and practice, as it does for teachers and parents grappling with the development of real children in real classrooms and homes. The general research programme of this Centre is concerned with exploring these many different implications.
A focus on moral development research
The current focus of this Centre on moral development in education is a direct result of the widespread recognition within the field that half a
century of Kohlbergian and Neo-Kohlbergian dominance is at an end. What is needed is a new paradigm in understanding and researching moral development. The suggestion is that this is best provided by Dynamic Systems Theory.
For example, in the September 2008, in a Special Issue of the Journal of Moral Education, Daniel Lapsley and Patrick Hill argued that, from the perspective of developmental psychology, the Kohlbergian 'Standard Model
now looks a bit shop worn' and 'there is increasing recognition that the field of moral development is at an important crossroads…' (p.314). In that same Special Issue, a
paper by Jeremy Frimer and Lawrence Walker noted that 'moral psychology is between paradigms' and requires 'a new
paradigm of moral personhood' (p.333); a point taken further by Reed and Riley Stoermer who suggest that what is needed is indeed a new paradigm;
one 'that encompasses not only personality but, also, on the one hand, the brain and central nervous system, and on the other hand, interaction
and culture' (p.419).
One year after the Special Issue the paper by Kim & Sankey argued for DST as a productive new paradigm or metatheory. It should be noted, however, that in this 2009 paper moral development is not singled out as in any way special, or different from all other aspects of human development. All are conceived, within the framework of DST, to result from the same process of emergent self-organisation that permeates the development of all life on this planet and, indeed, the development of the universe as a whole.
Additional Current Research Topics
Interface between Rationality and Intuition
Empathy and Prejudice in Social Context
Dynamics of Second Language Development
Emotion, Attachment and Early Year's Learning
Development of Ethical Awareness in Professional Education
20 January, 2015