Systems Theory

  • Concept Map--an alternate view (to come)
  • Resources, Links (to come)

Most Prominent Contributors

Ludvig Bertalannfy (1940s)


Russel Ackoff

Bela Banathy

Gerald Nadler

Kenneth Boulding (



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Definition of Learning

  • Learning might be characterized by semi-permanent changes in human systems.
  • As change is continuous, so is learning.
  • Human systems have purposeful roles to perform as they belong to purposeful systems

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Description of Theory

  • The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and parts cannot be understood in isolation from the whole.  
  • Systems theory holds that there are a set of inter-related and interdependent concepts and principals that apply to all systems.
  • To understand theses complex connections, a unified form of inquiry is required that are beyond the competence of any single discipline.
  • Systems theory wants to be the thread that unifies all the natural, physical and social sciences. We should view systems as integrated wholes instead of disassembled parts.
  • Traditional specialized scientific research fields are too involved in their own work to step back and see their connection to other disciplines.
  • Systems are constantly changing as they act and are acted upon by other systems, hence findings through traditional scientific means represent mere snapshots of system parts at a given moment.
  • Systems are self-regulating, are always changing but are self-organized to resist change and restore equilibrium.
  • Humans are purposeful systems, with purposeful parts and are parts of larger purposeful systems (Ackoff, 1981)  eg. value-guided social systems
  • Three models exist to help us understand educational systems: 1) Systems-environmental, 2) Functions/Structure, 3) Process/Behavioral.

    Systems-Environmental model

    • Describes educational system in terms of its role in the community and larger society

    Functions/Structure model

    • Describes educational system in terms of what the system is at a given time (snap shot)
    • At this stage we look at our system’s goals, identify the functions to obtain the goals.
    • Specify what parts of the system can perform the functions etc.

    Process/Behavioral model

    • Describes educational system in terms of what the system does over time (motion picture).
    • How it receives and processes input
    • How it guides adaptation or transformation
    • observes how the desired output is generated etc.

Key terms

  • Holistic learning
  • Ontology-what things are, what a person and a society is, what kind of world do we live in
  • Epistemology-how we know what we know? How do we know what a person and society is?  How do we know what kind of world we live in?
  • Cybernetics-understanding the self-organization of human, artificial and natural systems.
  • Systemic vs. systematic
  • Open and closed systems

Relation to other theories

  • Reaction to the reductionist, linear-causal paradigm of classical science.
  • First-order cybernetics related to MAC cognitivism

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Initial (knee-jerk) Reactions

  • Naïve, romantic, idealistic view of the world.
  • Parasitic theory in that systems theory can only exist because traditional (narrowly focused) scientific research is going on—the type of specialized research it is so contemptuous toward. (biting the hand that feeds it)
  • A nonetheless important, high-level perspective that not everyone should engage in, but everyone should be aware of.
  • A good perspective for educational leadership, and other leadership roles.
  • The devil is in the details, and this field (systems theory) doesn’t want to get in to it—it avoids the details like the plague!

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Relevance to Instructional Systems Design (ISD)

  • The field of ISD provides this sort of bridging of disciplines—gathering the best and most relevant knowledge from all domains as it pertains to teaching and learning.
  • A you design an educational system, consider the ideal system, then add the constraints.  Consider further the audience the system will serve, then its functions, then how theses functions will be monitored (monitoring subsystem)
  • In preparing individual lesson objectives, ensure their alignment with overall course and curriculum objectives.
  • Examples should be upwardly contextualized (big picture view)—show how its fits in relation to other larger systems as opposed to one narrow instance.

    Nadler & Hibino (1990) provide a list of  sensible systems-view principles to guide ISD.

    • Uniqueness--regardless of similarities, remember each problem is unique.
    • Purposes--focus on purposes and expectations, not the problems.
    • Ideal design—stimulates us to work back from an ideal solution.
    • Systems—reminds us that every design setting is part of a larger system.  We need to be aware of the nature of the embeddedness of our design, and what it may impact.
    • Limited information—points to the pitfall that too much knowing may hinder us from seeing innovative solutions.
    • People design—underscores the necessity to involve all people in the systems affected by your design.
    • Betterment timeline—deliberately build in the capacity for ongoing revision and betterment

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What I Don’t Know yet / Questions

  • When is a system so small as not make sense to call it a system anymore?  What seems small to one person, is very complex and huge to another person
  • If human systems have purposeful roles to perform because they belong to purposeful systems—whose purposes are they fulfilling?  The Borg’s?!
  • I need to better understand open-systems thinking, and how I can develop such skills?


Source: B, Banathy (1996). Systems Inquiry and its Application in Education,
ch. 3 in Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology
. D.H. Jonassen (ed.) NY: Simon & Schuster

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Page last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2002