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.

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