Monthly Archives: September 2014

Comparing my micro-system to the analysis of Donnie Darko

The micro-system I’m writing about for Task One is me. I am a part of at least two different educational systems, and felt that I was the only individual I knew well enough to be able to conduct a thorough analysis. I felt comfortable with the definition of a single individual as a micro-system.

Because I am an individual and Donnie was also, there are similarities in the way I relate to others in the educational system. I am part of larger meta-systems (schools) both where I work and where I attend as a student. In the case of Donnie, Donnie was a part of one school only as a student, so the fact that I am also employed at one is a difference. Also, Donnie is a high school student, attending physical classes at his school, and I am a doctoral student, attending virtual classes at my school. The classes would be a meso-system. I am enrolled in two classes this semester. Donnie would most likely have been a part of six or more classes at his school. Additionally, he may have been involved with clubs or other extra-curricular activities. As a virtual student, I don’t have many opportunities to participate in activities outside of class.

During our discussion in Week 3, we focused quite a bit on some of the peripheral characters that influenced Donnie’s actions or had an impact on his life. These included Frank, Gretchen, Dr. Thurman, Roberta Sparrow, and Professor Monnitoff. Frank is of special interest, as he plays a critical role in many of the decisions Donnie makes throughout the movie. Despite our discussion in class and reading numerous analyses on the topic, I have not yet decided whether Frank is a part of Donnie’s system, or if Frank is a part of the environment and is just acting on Donnie’s system to stimulate change. Because one of the analyses I read lean toward Frank’s influence as a figment of Donnie’s imagination (Bishop, 2006), that would make him a very distinct part of Donnie’s system.

When looking at my own life and trying to determine if I have similar influences, I know that I have people who serve as mentors for me. One of my mentors is the person who held my job before I did. He was in the process of going to school for his doctorate when I first met him, and I was then a master’s student. I watched him struggle his way through his dissertation and finally graduate to become Dr. Williams, receive a job offer for a full time tenure-track faculty position on our campus, and eventually get offered and accept the position of department chair when our existing chair of Instructional Technology left. He has the kind of success story I’d like to be able to put on my vita one day, and he started were I am right now.

Another such influence in my life is one of my professors, Dr. Warren. In one of the first classes I took with Dr. Warren we were asked to write minor and major arguments. I remember the first couple I turned in were so redlined and marked up, I literally cried myself to sleep after receiving them. I had always considered myself a good writer, and these argument papers have been bled over. I nearly lost confidence in myself. But I forced myself to try harder, and I took the criticism and used it to refine my work and make improvements, and turned the papers back in with the requested changes. Beyond that, I made sure not to make those same mistakes in the next papers I turned in. By the end of the class, my articles were coming back with fewer and fewer marks on them. I really feel that although it may have hurt my pride at the time, Doc challenged me to become better and as a result I am a better writer because of it.

My husband is also sort of a hero for me. I have been in school full time since 2010, and this is my second time in school in our married lives. When we were first married, I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree, and I came with baggage in the form of an 18 month old son from my first marriage. Ron accepted Michael as his own child from the beginning, and didn’t take that role lightly. Within our first year of marriage I had to take night classes; Ron would come home from work and see to feeding Michael and putting him to bed.

For the past four years, Ron has been integral to keeping this household together. I make supper every evening when I get home from work unless I have a synchronous class to attend, in which case we have fast food or TV dinners. I also do the weekly menus and most of the grocery shopping. The lion’s share of the household chores, however, from the dishes to the laundry, fall squarely on Ron’s shoulders. Despite working 12 hour days four days a week, Ron manages to ensure that the food gets put away every night and the dishes get washed while I spend my evenings plugging away at school. He spends his days off washing all the clothes and sweeping and mopping the house. I would not be able to continue to attend school if he wasn’t willing to do this, and he has never once complained. He is my hero, and when all this is over, he’ll be the one I to whom I owe my success.

Filling sort of an antagonistic role in my life might be my mother. We have a working relationship of sorts at the moment, but she and I have had a fragile relationship at best through most of my childhood. I always felt that I was never good enough for her, and that she loved my brother more than me; these feelings of inadequacy lasted long into my adulthood and persisted even when I would come to visit her as an adult with children of my own. It was only recently that I discovered she always felt threatened by the shared intellectual bond I held with my father and always felt inadequate to be a good mother to me. These feelings of inadequacy, rather than keeping me down, strove to make me do better; to try harder. I constantly wanted to be the straight A student, to do things that would make my mother proud of me. I realize now that she always was and that the jealousy I felt toward my brother was unfounded, but the feelings I held as a child formed the basis of my perfectionist personality and made me what I am today.

In my case, I think Ron and my mother are parts of my system for sure, because I think family is a part of an individual and has a direct impact on that individual. I am not sure if Dr. Williams is part of my system or just my environment. It could be argued that Doc Warren, being one of my instructors, is definitely part of the system of which I’m part, and since he had a direct impact on me, I’ll even go so far as to say he is part of my system.

Reference

Bishop, M. K. (2006). A Case Study of Donnie Darko, Analyzing Interpretations and its Cult Status. (Doctoral dissertation). Accessed from Researchgate.net.

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What I’ve learned about Systems Theory

Banathy’s (1973) model of human/educational activity systems was helpful in providing me with not only a thorough narrative description of what constitutes a complex system, but also a visual depiction of one. Prior to reading Banathy, I had problems visualizing a system. I envisioned it as a sort of “black box”. I could imagine the system with inputs and outputs going into and out of the system, and I understood that the system would respond to feedback and produce change, but could not visualize the processes that took place inside the system which caused that change to take place. Banathy’s model helped me make sense of how the system responded to feedback both through the inputs and outputs to the system and used those to undergo a process of transformation to either adapt to small changes in the environment or co-evolve along with the environment in response to major changes.

The two readings on chaos theory further assisted in refining my understanding of systems. Both Eoyang (1993) and Reigeluth (2004) compared complex systems to chaos theory as found in the hard sciences. Eoyang described complex systems in terms of the patterns that it holds in common with chaos theory. These patterns include nonlinearity and unpredictability which helped me understand that in a complex system it is not possible to predict a future state of the system based on the current state. Their example was weather; even with our advanced technology, meteorologists cannot predict weather in the future with perfect accuracy. We can look at patterns and try to interpret what they might mean, but as humans we often behave erratically and not according to previously established habits; just because a football team usually punts on 3rd and long does not mean they will do so this down.

Eoyang (1993) also spoke of autopoesis. I particularly liked this comparison. The ability of a system to adapt to its environment and yet maintain its own identity was a unique pattern not spoken of by the other authors. While change is a necessary part of being a system, change should not cost your identity. In Eoyang’s description, people within the organization change over time but the organization retains its identity. I can also imagine this with the system of an individual person. I have pictures of my son, Michael from when he was little. He has changed quite a lot over the years; however, I can still see the same person in him that I saw back then, and the things that make him Michael; his kind heart, quick mind, and generous nature, have not changed either as he has grown.

Reigeluth (2004) focused instead on the processes of chaos that a complex system undergoes as it transforms. Watching these steps unfold was enlightening to me. While he describes some of the same items as Banathy such as co-evolution and feedback, for me, learning that disequilibrium and perturbance were actually good for a system and helped the system in the necessary transformative process was a healthy dose of reality. Like any human, I grate against disharmony and want to see it as a bad thing, and learning to accept that when my world feels out of balance that is actually a good and healthy thing is going to make my life less stressful, I believe.

Both Reigeluth and Eoyang described fractals, which seem to be core values around which the system is organized. These become effective for transformation when new fractals become widely accepted by the stakeholders in the system.

The most recently assigned article by Laszlo and Krippner (1998) explained the history of systems theory and how it came to be used to describe systems in the social sciences. The article demonstrated the benefits of having a unifying theory by which to explain both hard and soft systems, or those found in both natural and social sciences. Being able to compare complex social systems such as an individual’s emotions or the organizational structure of a school to more definite hard systems like an individual’s cardiovascular system or a city’s sewer system made it a lot easier for me to conceptualize the way a system works and its interdependence on subsystems, as well as the effect it has on its environment.

Obviously, anything that involves humans in it is going to be necessarily complex. The readings have helped me classify and make sense of some of the complexities of a particular system. Any given system can have dozens or even hundreds of subsystems, each interdependent on some or all of the others, and a supra-system, on which the system depends and on which the system has an impact, as well as the ever-change environment to which the system belongs and because of which the system is required to adapt or evolve. This complexity is part of the charm of a system but also makes it increasingly difficult to fully understand a system. The complexity also makes systems more interesting.

Immediately upon beginning the readings I began recognizing the patterns and functions of systems both in myself and other systems of which I am a part. I see the patterns emerging in my workplace; I see them unfolding in my own life and in the relationships I play out with my family members. In some ways understanding systems thinking is helpful for understanding the way the organizations or systems of which I am a part are functioning and where in the transformative process I find myself. In other aspects, it could be disheartening to read these articles and to realize that if my school, for example, does not respond to the feedback and make the appropriate adjustments necessary to transform into the new kind of school it needs to be for our changing environment; if it does not co-evolve, we may find our system has terminated.

There are definitely challenges involved in fully understanding systems. Systems are complex. The processes they undergo and the patterns that emerge are also complex. It would be easy to miss a cue or misread something and fail to interpret your position in the system correctly. The smallest system is still infinitely complex, with processes unique to that system that depend on other processes and which, in turn, interrelate with external systems. Even if I think I understand the system today, the transformations it undergoes today might be so different as to make it difficult to understand tomorrow.

References

Banathy, B. H. (1973). Developing a systems view of education: The systems-model approach. Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications.

Eoyang, G. H. (1993). A brief introduction to complexity in organizations. In paper presented at the Chaos Network Conference in 1993.

Laszlo, A., & Krippner, S. (1998). Systems Theories: Their Origins, Foundations, and Development. In J. S. Jordan (Ed.), Systems Theories and A Priori Aspects of Perception (pp. 47–74). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

Reigeluth, C. M. (2004). Chaos theory and the sciences of complexity: Foundations for transforming education. In annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Diego, CA.

Reflections on this week’s discussion and the educational systems I belong to

The in-class discussion was very lively. It was nice to break into smaller groups and get a chance to discuss the book and article in-depth. This gave us a better opportunity to hear the opinions of our peers and express ourselves without feeling very limited for time or like any one person was monopolizing the conversation. For example, Joe can be very quiet, but in our group he was able to have a voice and be expressive because there were only four of us. Atheer had an opportunity to express a counter-opinion to the rest of the group and make a strong case for the way he felt.
I’m not sure that I necessarily learned anything novel or new. We did immediately look up and discuss the meanings of the book characters’ names, which was an interesting exercise. As a fiction writer myself, I do invest a great of thought into the meaning of the names of my characters. The protagonist in my one completed novel was named Delores; she was raising a child with CF and had gone through a heart-wrenching divorce. The hero of the story, a minister, was named Christopher, which means follower of Christ. So obviously, if I put that much thought into the names of my characters, others must do the same. I should have thought to look up the names myself but for some reason had not done so. I guess I am not used to reading fiction for school. Anyway, the character names sparked a conversation about whether or not our names in reality have any impact on our characters. Do we live up to the meaning of our names? Does it in some way predict or form our personality? We discussed that at some length. It would be curious to do a study on that some time, although I’m not sure how you would measure that.
Another thing we discussed at length was chaos theory and how a change made to a system in one area can impact the system in other, unintended ways. These unintended consequences might be good or bad. Stacey talked about the Cobra effect and how the British government, concerned about the number of poisonous cobras in and around Dehli, paid people for every dead cobra. This worked great until enterprising people began breeding cobras for the money. When the government heard about the practice, they stopped paying for the snakes. This resulted in the now worthless cobras being released back into the wild, which created a worse problem than before. Stacey then described a more positive example in her own profession. She had just opened a school program in a part of town where theft was very high. To help with attendance and to ensure the students’ safety, she implemented a system where everyone would be checked in with an ID at the door, and her employees were all required to wear red shirts to be easily identifiable. Due to the location of the school, they were prepared for and even expected a high incidence of theft at the school, but in the first month that the school has been open, they’ve experienced zero loss due to theft. An unintended consequence of the check-in policy has been theft deterrence, as any potential thief realizes that the school literally has their number.
I am not sure I agree that the fact that I did not start an investigation on my own and track down resources says something about my way of learning and motivation for learning. It may be that this particular conversation didn’t spark my creative juices and get me motivated to learn something new, but that does not make me unmotivated or lacking in resourcefulness. I would argue the opposite. I can hardly think of a day that goes by that I don’t “Google” something because I’m curious to know more about a subject. I am a very self-motivated learner and so resourceful, people often think I just know a lot. I have been dubbed “the guru” by the faculty I work with. They believe there isn’t a thing about technology that I don’t know. When they find out I have to look up the answer just as they would, they are disillusioned.
I’m involved in at least three educational systems. I am a part of the UNT doctoral program as a student. This has been an interesting experience, as this program is sort of a hybrid between a fully online program and something else brand new. The summer meetings have allowed me to get to know my cohort and faculty members in a way I never could in a fully online program. I really know the people I attend class with. When I learn from Dr. Warren, I can read his very educated, intelligent comments and stern reprimands to support my statements, but I see the dichotomy of him in his flip-flops and shorts, relaxed, playing a video game on his phone. I don’t respect him any less for that, but he is more real to me because of that, and infinitely more approachable. I’ve gotten to know my fellow students over dinner or coffee or sightseeing, and we’ve bonded in a way that just working together could never have bonded us. That makes us a stronger team when working together in a group. We look out for each other. We help one another along. The system itself is similar to other educational systems, but being involved virtually in the system has disadvantages. If I have trouble with financial aid, as I did this semester, I’m at the mercy of phone calls and emails to straighten it out. There is no way I can go to the office and work it out. I can’t be a part of group meetings. I can’t do work-study jobs. I’m not even sure how a research grant would work out if one were offered me. All the climate and culture that goes along with being a student, from football games to dances to clubs, is lost on me and my peers as distance education students. We have the faculty and the advisors and one another, and that is it. So at times I feel like a UNT student, but other times, I do not really feel like I belong to UNT.
I am also a part of the A&M system, particularly Texas A&M University-Texarkana. I feel more strongly a part of this system than I do UNT. First of all, I am a graduate of A&M-Texarkana, and although I also attended this school online, I was close enough to campus to drive to it when I had problems. I attended functions at the school occasionally including an awards banquet where I received the “Student of the Year” award for my department, and I was employed there while still a student, working directly with some of my instructors. When I received the official job offer and when from an interim employee to a regular employee, the faculty member who headed the Instructional Technology department greeted the news with a loud “whoop”. I’ve been there for nearly three years now as a regular employee; longer if you count my internship. I hope to become faculty there once I complete my doctorate. I have a strong connection to the school as an alumni and a staff member, not to mention a member of the community of which the school is a vital part.
Finally I am connected to the New Boston Independent School District as a parent of three students. My daughters have been in attendance at one of the four schools in this district since we moved here four years ago. My younger two attended Crestview Elementary School the year we moved here and the year after that. Sarah remained for another year while Twila joined her sister at the middle school. Last year, Gloria moved up to the high school and Sarah moved up to the middle school. Next year, Twila will be at the high school, too, and in another year, they will all be there. I’ve not been heavily involved with this system. As a parent, I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to devote to the things parents usually do. When the boys were small I was PTA treasurer and room mother and volunteered to chaperone field trips; when Mike reached 5th grade I homeschooled all three boys for 6 years and was vice-president and then president of our homeschool support group. I planned and organized field trips, supervised plays, taught cooperative classes, ran fundraisers. I just don’t have that kind of time with a full-time job and a full-time career as a student. I did volunteer two years ago to help with Gloria’s 8th grade dance, and will probably do the same this year for Twila’s dance. It’s the equivalent of a prom for the middle-school kids. I have not done a lot of other volunteering, but I’m in attendance at every concert my daughters play in, attend every awards ceremony, and support them in every way possible.

Higher Education as a Complex System

     I work in higher education. In my opinion, this is one system that is in desperate need of what Reigeluth (2004) termed transformation. The higher education system, at least the institute where I teach, has not co-evolved along with society. Even though the information age demands a more learner-centered approach to education, many of the instructors who work within my system are very comfortable with the lecture-based form of education to which they have become accustomed. There has not been enough of a perturbance in the system to cause disequilibrium and bring about change.

     There are a few forward thinking individuals at my school who have the vision and desire to change. Thankfully, our new president is one of them. She has been working with the faculty, staff, and students to draft a new academic vision and master plan, and this new vision identifies student-centered learning as one of our focuses. This may serve as the impetus to change, with the vision for change coming from both the top and bottom levels of the system and all levels empowered to bring about the change.

     One good thing about my system is that, at least for the time being, academic freedom permits instructors to determine what they are going to teach without a lot of outside pressure to standardize the curriculum. I haven’t spent a lot of time working on the core curriculum, which is a sort of standardization, but for the most part, even two instructors teaching the same course using the same book add so much of their own flair to the course that there is little collaboration even within departments.

     Unfortunately, when it comes to online learning, this same diversity and independence leads to lack of standards and often poor quality. Whenever we have pushed for standards in online course design, we’ve gotten push-back from instructors who resent being told what or how to teach.

     The higher education system is made up of administrators, faculty and adjunct instructors, students, staff, parents, alumni, local businesses, the board of regents, donors, and other stakeholders. Its resources include its people, funds, research interests, library collections, buildings and land holdings, etc. It is affected by the economic influences of the local community, the state budget and allocations, federal funding, student enrollments, and other factors. Social factors which influence the system include how prepared students are upon entering the system, the availability and types of careers students need to be preparing for upon graduation, student demand, and changes in technological advancement.

Reference:

Reigeluth, C.M. (2008). Chaos theory and the sciences of complexity: Foundations for transforming education. In B. Despres (Ed.), Systems Thinkers in Action: A Field Guide for Effective Change Leadership in Education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.