Banathy & Jenlink on Systems Theory

Today I finished an article on systems theory.  It’s kind of amazing to me that I’ve never really had systems theory explained before. I feel now like I understand it fairly well, though some things in the article seem contradictory to me (postmodern systems theory?) or unclear (the application to education is highly theoretical and thus rather impractical). The article has a few references to becoming which I will highlight after I explain (to cement my own comprehension) the basics of the theory.

Systems theory began with conviction of a unified nature of reality, wherein “models, principles, and laws that can be generalized across various systems… [and] universal principles appl[y] to systems in general” (pp. 37-8). It adopts a transdisciplinary perspective and embraces “the science of complexity” (p. 37). With this emphasis on complexity, interdependence, and relationships, “[s]ystems philosophy developed as the main rival of the ‘thing view.’ It recognizes the primacy of organizing relationship processes between entities (of systems)…” (p. 39).

The authors break down systems philosophy into ontology (what things are, what a person or a society is, what kind of world we live in), epistemology (how do we know what we know), and axiology (the ethical/moral/aesthetic nature of a system).  They summarize the ideas of Whitehead (1978) to connect epistemology to ontology, in a quotation that makes a statement about becoming:

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its “being” is constituted by its “becoming” (p. 23). Philosophically, systems are at once being and becoming. (p. 39)

This is interesting statement. How we are becoming (learning) is an essential aspect of what we are.  It is important that they said “how”, not “what” we are becoming/learning.

The authors explain the development of systems theory, hearkening as far back as Greek ethics and Hegel’s philosophy. They also explain various developments in the theory of late. Of most interest to me was their explanation of human systems inquiry. The authors note that human systems are open systems, and open systems (p. 44; bold mine):

  • “are nests of relations that are sustained through time. They are sustained by these relations and by the process of regulation”
  • “depend on and contribute to their environment
  • “are wholes, but are also parts of larger systems, and their constituents may also be consistuents of other systems”

They refer to Ackoff & Emery (1972), who argue that human systems are “purposeful systems whose members are also purposeful individuals who intentionally and collectively formulate objectives” (p. 44). The word “purposeful” stuck out to me because I had thought a lot about the term when writing my conversation paper. Gibbons’s definition of the instruction-conversation metaphor had used the term, too. Because of this purposefulness, the authors write, human systems need to serve self-directiveness (their own purposes), humanization (the purpose of their purposeful parts and people in the system), and environmentalism (the purposes of the larger system(s) of which they are part) (see p. 44). How do these characteristics apply to a theory of learning? For learning to be meaningful and purposeful, does it need to serve these same purposes (self-directiveness, humanization, and environmentalism)?  Does education already have a learning theory that touches on any of these qualities?  Which ones, which terms?

In the second section of the article, the authors apply the systems view to education (or at least, to instructional design, since most of their time focuses on design). One thing that interested me was their list of the four major strategies of design and development of social systems:

  1. transcending the existing state
  2. envisioning: creating the first image
  3. designing the new system (intent)
  4. transforming the system based on the design

Repeatedly they argued that the current system was broken, ill-fitted for the learning needs of the 21st century. In their opinions we should not merely repair the existing educational system, but transcend and transform it.


Banathy, B. H, & Jenlink, P. M. (2004). Systems inquiry and its application in education. Jonassen, D. H. (Eds.) Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 37-58. Bloomington, IN: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.


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