Monthly Archives: October 2014

Comparing Systems Theory to Critical Systems Thinking and Emancipatory Learning

Analysis of a system over a couple of weeks such as we have had to do with Task One and Task Two has been challenging, but at least there has been time to reflectively consider the model for each system analysis and how the system we were analyzing might compare to the model. I had time to consider the questions Banathy (1973) raised and come up with answers that I felt were representative of the system in question. In contrast, working on the rapid system analysis like we’ve done in class for the two movies has been a lot more difficult. Even when I felt completely comfortable with both the movie and the model, answering difficult questions about a complex system on the spot, and especially trying to come to consensus as a group, was trying. What I’ve learned is that when time is short, sometimes I have to be satisfied with a quick and dirty analysis. I can’t always reflect on my answers the way I’d like, but need to go with my gut reaction and trust the responses of my peers.

The levels of complexity involved systems analysis make it that much more difficult. Systems tend to be interdependent on other systems. Systems have sub-systems and many have supra-systems. Changes to the environment can have a major impact on the system. All these inter-dependencies and multiple levels make it that much more difficult to analyze the system. In a rapid analysis, it isn’t always possible to examine every possible connection, but to focus on the most obvious or most influential ones.

I wasn’t entirely sure I understood the differences between critical theory and systems theory, as they both seemed to analyze and describe complex systems, hopefully to facilitate change. The article by Watson and Watson (2011) that we read last week helped to clarify the differences. This article explained that systems theory was intended mainly to unify various scientific disciplines and permit a common explanation of the relationships and general principles of systems regardless of the type of system. According to Watson and Watson (2011), Critical Systems Theory (CST) got its start in the 1980s when scholars began looking for a more socially aware approach to systems thinking. It was further influenced by the work of Habermas, and today is characterized by a commitment to critique, emancipation, and pluralism according to Schecter (1991, as cited in Watson and Watson, 2011).

The purpose of emancipatory learning “is to develop understanding and knowledge about the nature and root causes of unsatisfactory circumstances in order to develop real strategies to change them”, according to a briefing by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) dated March 2000 (p. 1). While emancipation is one of the three key goals of CST, emancipation is the key goal of emancipatory learning. They use different strategies to achieve their ends. According to the NIACE article, emancipatory learning utilizes five key strategies; really useful knowledge, critical thinking, conscientisation, transformation, and popular education (NIACE, 2000).

Based on what I’ve read in the various articles in class, systems theory is great for analysis and classification of a system, and can help to explain why the system is the way it is. If your purpose is to bring about change, particularly change for social justice, critical systems theory may be appropriate. If you are hoping to work with the people in the system who are weak and powerless and help them gain autonomy and greater control over their lives, then emancipatory learning is most likely appropriate. They are all related, but all a little bit different as well. Having read the various articles, I feel comfortable with the distinctions.

Since I am involved more in working directly with people rather than in analyzing problems and trying to fix things from a top-down approach, I think the emancipatory learning approach is closer to the way I work now and probably will continue to work, at least until I become faculty. I am not sure what my work will look like once I join the ranks of faculty. From what I’ve seen as an outsider looking in, the faculty members I work with still prefer a bottom up approach to problem-solving and work with the people directly affected by a problem rather than trying to analyze and fix the system as a whole.


Banathy, B. H. (1973). The functions/structure model. In Developing a systems view of education: The systems-model approach (pp. 59–97). Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications.

NIACE. (2000). Emancipatory learning. NIACE Briefing Sheet 11, (March), 1–4.

Watson, S. L., & Watson, W. R. (2011). Critical, emancipatory , and pluralistic research for education: A review of critical systems theory. Journal of Thought, Fall-Winte(1968), 63–77.


Conducting a Rapid System’s Analysis in a Small Group

In our last class meeting, we broke into small groups to analyze the movie Detropia through Banathy’s (1973) second lens of system theory. This allowed us to consider the movie from a system perspective rather than focusing on the particular problems of the city or even how the producers of the movie portrayed the city.

We had a group of five which included me, Stacey, AZ, Charles, and Randell. It was helpful to work in a group this size, because it gave us a variety of perspectives and backgrounds to draw upon as we considered the movie and how Detroit and the various systems depicted in the movie fit with systems theory. The many contributions of the group members made our model much richer than it would have been if I had tried to work on it alone.

The model is very confusing, and most of us felt completely lost in places. For example, we did fine when attempting to apply the concepts of image and purpose, but none of the group members felt sure about the definition of systems specifications as they related to Banathy’s second model. We felt like we needed further explanation or examples prior to being asked to apply this part of the model in practice.

My microphone was giving off a terrible echo, so I ended up having to turn off my mic and using only chat. That led to a rather quiet session, as I am the most vocal of the people who participated in my group. Fortunately, Charles stepped up and started sharing via his microphone, and Stacey, Randell, and AZ all contributed via chat.

Because I controlled the breakout room, I think I naturally assumed the leadership role. It was easy enough to capture the assignment from Canvas, copy it into a Word document, and share it on my screen. Then as the discussion took place, I was able to make notes in the document. I asked Randell to keep track of time. Not being able to speak hindered the process greatly. I think it might have been more effective if we had all been able to write in the document rather than just me, perhaps using the collaborative features of Google Docs.

I think next week I’ll ask for a different person to lead the group and we’ll select someone to serve separately as note-taker. That way we can all take responsibility for the creation of the document. I also think I’ll move the document to a Google document and share the link before class with my group members. I’ll ask them to have it open when we go to our breakout room. This way we can all collaborate on it together. We may experiment with Google Hangouts.

I’m fine with the fact that others in my team are quiet. Their silence is just a communication style; it does not reflect their level of contribution to the team or the work. We work well together and they have very different insights to contribute. I won’t push for microphone contributions, even thought it would speed up the process.


Banathy, B. H. (1973). The functions/structure model. In Developing a systems view of education: The systems-model approach (pp. 59–97). Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications.

Reflections on Analysing a Micro-system

Completing Task One was a challenge. Even though I selected a micro-system with which I was intimately familiar; myself, I still found it a struggle making the connections that Banathy described in his model of a human activity system (Banathy, 1973). For me, many of the things were a stretch. While I feel that much of the research into General Systems Theory and chaos theory and human activity systems does provide a good way to describe and explain the complex systems of education, it should be noted that any system involving humans is extremely complex, and I do not necessarily agree that all human behavior can be explained or mapped into patterns.

Every single system, even the simplest one, has layers of dependency on sub-systems, supra-systems, meso-systems, and exo-systems that surround it. The interaction of the system with its environment and with other systems determines whether that system is open or closed, and how the system responds to feedback to produce change. The result of changes to one system may have an impact on other systems which depend on that system, resulting in a rippling effect throughout the environment.

I was unsure about my research approach. I felt it best to just write freely, uninhibited by the need to search out other sources or cite resources as I went along, even if I knew that something I was writing was not a unique thought. I had copied keywords from Banathy into the document to give my thoughts structure and I used those to direct my train of thought so that I wasn’t just rambling, but I directed my thoughts only along the line of the Banathy model for the bulk of the document until I felt I had thoroughly covered the entire model.

Then I returned through the document and re-read my work. I cleaned up my text where my words needed reframing. I looked for supporting documentation when I knew that what I had said was from someone else’s writings. I went back into the articles I had read before and found additional information to expound upon a particular point I had made or to extend a thought where appropriate. I then did some additional research to finish out my thoughts.

This approach worked best for me but I was not sure it was a valid research approach. I felt better about this approach after validating it with Dr. Cox. I guess what that says about me as a learner is that I am still learning, and I am not sure whether my methods and techniques are acceptable forms of research. I still need training and instruction from my professors before I will feel secure to embark as an independent researcher.

Overall, I feel fairly confident in my performance on Task One. I covered all the elements that were mentioned in the model as explained by Banathy. I found one spelling error after I turned it in, and I forgot to include a mind map despite downloading Mindomo to develop one, so I’ll lose some points on those things, but other than that, I covered most of the requirements in the rubric. It was the appropriate length and included the appropriate number of references, and I believe I did a good job with the writing and provided an accurate depiction of what the assignment called for.

In the future, I will make myself a checklist to go over of all the things I need to be sure and include in the document and check them off as I finish them. That way I won’t forget something like the mind map. That was a stupid oversight, forgotten only because I was feeling rushed. This week, in addition to Task One, this blog, the movie, and all the readings for this class, we had to complete Peer Reviews of our SITE article for EVERY member of our class in CECS6210 and upload our multimedia project proposal. That meant reading and providing helpful comments on 13 papers, plus developing a proposal, instructional design document, and calendar of activities including responsibilities of the team members. I have evenings and weekends only in which to accomplish this, as I work full time during the week and have a 45 minute commute. Subtract from that available time two synchronous class sessions; one for each class, each taking at least two hours, and you can understand the pressure most of us are feeling with these deadlines. I am working until I can no longer pry my eyes open, but there are simply not enough hours in the evening to accomplish it all. So Saturday morning, I got up early and went straight to work to finish Task One, and worked most of the day on it. I had time to complete the mind map, but as I said, I felt rushed by all the other projects I was still facing on Sunday, and turned it in prematurely before checking to ensure I’d completed all the requirements. A checklist would have helped. The rubric, while nice, is not in a format which is conducive to ensuring I didn’t miss anything.

All in all, it was an enjoyable project, and I think I’ll enjoy the further analysis we do in Tasks Two and Three.


Banathy, B. H. (1973). The functions/structure model. In Developing a systems view of education: The systems-model approach (pp. 59–97). Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications.