Developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1970, ecological systems theory is a groundbreaking work that has had tremendous influence on the field of education and childcare in general. The theory is based on two propositions. First, humans develop through processes of increasingly more complex interactions between “an active, evolving biopsychological human organism and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate environment.” This means that human development is the product of our surroundings and how we interact with it. The second proposition is that the “form, power, content, and direction of the proximal processes effecting development vary systematically as a joint function of the characteristics of the developing person… the environment… and the nature of the developmental outcomes” (Bronfenbrenner, 1994). In other words, how these interactions shape the developing person differ from situation to situation.
This, of course, means that teachers need to have in-depth knowledge of the Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. One reason for this is that teachers create the environment that the students will interact with, including the microsystems, which are the face to face experiences; the mesosystems, which are the experiences taking place across more than one setting; the exosystems, which are made of the linkages between settings, only one of which involves the developing person; the macrosystems, which are bigger patterns in the previous three; and the chronosystems, which consist of how the preceding change over time. A teacher needs to understand how all of these levels are involved and how they differ for each student, so that the teacher can create and promote a healthy learning environment.
A good example of this is how people learn language. “We now know that somewhere between 6 and 12 months of age infants start to filter out speech sounds not used in their immediate environment, resulting in a loss of speech sounds of foreign languages” (Odonnell et al., 2015, p. 132). This means that the environment that they interact with is a key aspect of language development. This is true as well for students who are English language learners. Furthermore, teachers need to be aware of culturally different contexts. That is, teachers need to be aware of how students from different cultures are interacting with the environment they are helping to create. Some challenges of this include socioeconomic disadvantage, language barrier, social disadvantage such as students with diverse family problems and histories (Odonnell et al., 2015, p. 47). A teacher needs to know how to assess and adapt to the unique situations created by students from a variety of cultures so that each student has the opportunity to interact with a healthy environment that is conducive to development. Teachers can do this by creating “a safe, nurturing environment in which students can feel comfortable enough to take risks in learning and feel support when they struggle” (Urie Bronfenbrenner in the Classroom, 2014).
Furthermore, teachers need to realize that they are only one part of what creates a developing child’s environment. Other parts include family, friends, the larger community, etc. All of these are important for a child’s healthy development, but teachers do still have an important role. One study looked at students from a lower income area to determine why some students remained more resilient than others in the face of adversity. There are three factors that promote resilience: “caring and supportive relationships, high expectations and opportunities for meaningful participation in school activities” (Odonnell et al., 2015. p. 224). Therefore, teachers have a special role to play in the development of a child, although it is impossible for them to control every aspect, such as their home life or whatever else happens outside of school.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological Models of Human Development. International Encyclopedia of Education, 3, 1643-1647.
- O’Donnell, A. M., Bartlett, B., Nagel, M. C., Spooner-Lane, R., Youssef-Shalala, A., Reeve, J., & Smith, J. K. (n.d.). Bilingualism and second-language acquisition. In Educational Psychology (pp. 132-133).
- Urie Bronfenbrenner in the Classroom [Web log post]. (2014, February). Retrieved from https://aelafleur.wordpress.com/