The Classroom as a Social System

This essay is a somewhat revised version of the Introduction to Part 1 of A SOCIOLOGY OF CANADIAN EDUCATION, a textbook written in the early 1970s from what I then identified as an "evolutionary interactionist" perspective. A couple of years later I was able to further integrate my ideas by studying systems theory and interdisciplinarity while researching the literature on the socialization process for my doctoral dissertation. The historical roots and cultural evolution of evolutionary naturalism -- the philosophy underlying my conceptual framework -- was subsequently traced in my 1996 book, LEAVING THE CAVE. In my recent book (BUILDING CHARACTER AND CULTURE) I continued this twenty-five-year project by endeavoring to explain the crucial character-and culture-building role of socialization, in terms of what I now refer to as the "evolutionary systems" model of human development. In many ways, the following selection is an early indication of both the practical orientation and theoretical direction of my life's work.

At first glance it may seem trite to maintain that a classroom could be regarded as a network of interrelationships in which group members participate more intensely than they do in the interaction occurring at the same time beyond their classroom doors. On second thought, however, one might recognize that it is indeed a new and initially rather disconcerting way to look at a group of learners and teachers. We are in the habit of thinking of them as a number of individuals, merely gathered together momentarily within a particular room. A class is a group, we might want to insist, or a class represents a room in a school plant. Both these definitions are obvious. Of what possible use is it to confuse the obvious by defining a class as a "system"?

But is the concept of "system" really that difficult? We encounter it often in our daily experience. We say that a football team has developed a system of working together in particular ways to foil its opponents. We worry about our digestive system when we suffer from stomach pains. We are familiar with the solar system. We argue about the public transportation system of our city, or the telephone system connecting remote corners of the country.

What is common to all these usages is the idea of a pattern of interdependent relationships. A telephone system is characterized not so much by those little boxes scattered across the nation as by the interconnecting communication linkages or pathways that the technology makes possible. A solar system is not merely an aggregate of heavenly bodies; it represents bodies interacting in regular ways, on the basis of certain principles of relationship.

Whenever people studying a collection of entities discover a pattern according to which each entity relates to the rest, they are beginning to see the group in terms of its systemic properties. Hall and Fagan define a system simply as a "set of objects together with relationships among objects and their attributes." With this perspective comes the realisation that fully as significant as the attributes of the parts is the nature of the relationships that bind the parts together into a functioning whole.

This interrelationship and interdependence among the parts in a system appears even more complex when we realize that all systems are subsystems of the larger encompassing systems comprising their surroundings. Similarly, each is a supra-system of the constituent systems for which it, in turn, provides the containing environment. The classroom is a subsystem of the school which is itself a functioning unit within the wider school system. At the same time, the classroom provides the supra-system setting for the smaller learning groups operating within it. One can extend this understanding even further and think of the students in a learning group as knowing and valuing systems in process, in the same way that we typically consider individuals as organic "wholes" or selves.

The systems perspective encourages us to conceive of reality in terms of complex feedback systems -- from the atom to the symbolic entities comprising human culture, with each level understandable on the basis of the nature of the member units and their patterns of relationship. Of course, the inorganic systems studied by physicists and astronomers are much simpler, less open and less dynamic than are the organic ones studied by biologists and physicians. Systems at the psycho-social level of organization are even more complex and open to change from without (and therefore more difficult to study) than are the organic ones in which they are rooted. This is why the scientific study of human behavior (covert as well as overt) is by far the most difficult that humans could possibly tackle. It should not be surprising that we do not always get it right

. When we refer to the "self" or the person's value system -- or to the individual learning process -- we are dealing with human behavior at the psychological level of interaction. When we refer to human groups and their regularized processes of interdependent behavior we are forced to structure concepts capable of making sense of activity at the social level. It follows that each self or learning system can be fully understood only as an interacting part of an encompassing social system (a family, classroom, and so on) and each social system can be comprehended adequately only when the attributes and interrelationships of its individual components are taken into account. This means that any comprehensive study of human behavior would seem to require a social-psychological conceptual framework. In the same way, and for the same reasons, a psychobiological systems framework would appear to be essential if we are to understand personality and character development in the individual learner. In medicine it has already been generally accepted that a biochemical model provides the most fruitful theoretical perspective.

It is no accident that physics and philosophy are brought together by the best minds of every age in the development of an encompassing conceptual framework or "world view" for ordering and giving meaning to the universe of reality within which human social systems are seen to interact. As physics evolved from the Newtonian world view to that of Einstein, philosophical models were forced to move away from the concept of the autonomous, free-wheeling individual as the ultimate unit of reality, to the idea that it is the nature of the relations within and among living beings that defines reality.

Philosophical models of the nature of knowledge have undergone a similarly drastic alteration. In the Newtonian universe knowledge was understood to be made up of building blocks comprising mirror images of reality's essence -- painstakingly "discovered" and accumulated, in an immutable form, for all posterity. We now acknowledge that humans can neither perceive nor intuit perfect pictures of an absolute Truth. With considerable more humility, we are satisfied with defining knowledge as the body of structured sets of the most reliable hypotheses of cause-effect relations yet constructed in that formal, public inquiry process by which we have learned to test human experience. It is the process of science.

In viewing the classroom as a social system, then, we are employing a conceptual framework within which relations can be observed and tested and reliable knowledge about teaching-learning behaviors might possibly be constructed. It is a model capable of bringing home to us the network of interrelationships of which the specific classroom forms a small but vital connecting link. We are constantly reminded that it is not sufficient to focus upon the individual pupil as the measure of all things; and that to perceive the group as a "given" whose welfare necessarily supersedes that of the individual is no less distorting. We are forced to direct our attention to teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interaction, and to the nature of the learning occurring for each member as a result of participation in the particular ongoing system. And we are provided with a theoretical perspective that allows us to make sense out of what otherwise might appear as a jumble of meaningless behaviors ebbing and flowing around us as we strive to attain our goals of learning and enabling others to learn.