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3.4: Ecological/Contextual Theories

  • Page ID
    200789
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    illustration of a branch
    Branch icon © Lucy La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license

    Ecological theories emphasize the child’s system and context. Ecological theories of human development focus on the interrelationships between broader environmental systems and their impact on a child’s development. In contrast to the theoretical approaches presented earlier in the chapter, ecological theories look more broadly at the complex levels of the child’s environment and how this impacts learning. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory examines the social resources and relationships that directly and indirectly impact a child’s development. Bronfenbrenner focuses on multiple environments of the child, including the contexts of home, neighborhood, community, and culture (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Friere’s critical literacy theory focuses on understanding the social, cultural, and political contexts of learners (Friere, 1985). These theories take an ecological approach as they are focused on understanding the child in the backdrop of time, place, and circumstance.

    3.4a Ecological Theory of Human Development

    The ecological theory of human development emphasizes the contextual interrelationships that exist between individuals, families, the physical environment, the community, and the cultural norms and values of a society. Each of these relationships exerts contextual influence on the individual and is depicted by concentric circles embedded within one another. The nested spheres of influence are represented in the graphic “Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems” (see Figure 3.6) and include the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and the macrosystem, with each system based on a greater understanding of influence (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

    Graphic includes 5 concentric circles. The center circle is The Develooping Child: age, sex, health, abillities, temperament. The next circle is Microsystem, bidirectional influences. This is surrounded by the Mesosytem, interaction of any two microsystems. This is surrounded by the Exosystem. The outer circle is the Marcorsystem, economic and political system, dominant beliefs and ideologies. Four two-way arrows start in the center circle, the developing child. On the other side of the arrows is home, school, neighborhood, and local religious community, whic are on the border of the second and third circles. A fifth two-way arrow starts on the edge of the inner circle and points to peer group inside the third circle, Mesosystem. Two-way arrows point to home-school, school-neighbor, neighbor-peer group, and peer group-local religious community. In the fourth circle, Exosystem, eight one-way arrows point from Exosystem to the third circle, Mesosystem. On the side of the outer circle is an arrow pointing upwards between Chronosystem, dimension of time, and Changing personal and societal conditions oover the life course.
    Figure 3.4 .Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems © LibreTexts is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    The microsystem includes the interaction a child has in their immediate surroundings. This includes the child’s home and the early learning setting as well as other environments that are consistent and immediate. The interaction between the parent and the child or the teacher and the child forms a microsystem. The mesosystem brings together two settings containing the child. For example, when the early learning teacher and the parents interact, it is taking place in the mesosystem. The exosystem is external to the child, although it influences the child indirectly. The exosystem consists of areas the child does not enter. Examples of the exosystem include the parent’s workplace. Yet, the parental workplace influences the child because it influences the parent, which subsequently affects the interactions between parent and child. Consider, for example, how children and families are impacted differently depending on whether or not the workplace provides access to health care, sick leave, or family leave when needed. The macrosystem consists of the norms and mores that influence culture and customs. These beliefs, expectations, and rules underlie the activities and institutions that constitute our everyday lives. For example, policies around mandatory school attendance were created in the macrosystem and influence jurisdictions (also in the macrosystem) to provide schools for the community (exosystem), for families to enroll the child (mesosystem), and for the child to attend (microsystem). At each of these junctures, there are interactions taking place in the various systems indicated and the systems ripple in and out accordingly. Ripple out occurs as the child has needs, the family responds, the local environment reacts, and social change can occur. In some places, early learning centers open at 5:00 am to accommodate super-commuters. This is an example of how the needs of the child and family create change in the community. Other times, larger policies affect whole communities or families in ways that impact their practices. For instance, when airbags were required in new cars (macrosystem), companies started installing them (exosystem), and families stopped putting car seats in the front seat and instead put the child in the backseat.

    Our understanding of language development must take into account environmental aspects beyond the immediate situation containing the child. This means that the literacy interactions that a child experiences in their environment influence the family and vice versa, causing influential ripplings in and out. Children first learn what is familiar and contextual. Development is influenced by multiple systems, including the family, school, neighborhood, and larger ecologies that encompass more immediate systems (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). These systems are the context in which children learn.

    Pause and Connect: Bronfenbrenner

    This video presents a visual representation of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems. Following the viewing of the video, take a very large piece of paper and draw an outline of Bronfenbrenner’s 5 systems. Then draw the people and forces that affect your life in each of the circles. Once you are done, explain the interrelationships between the different forces and how they affect your life. Your visual image can be submitted with a photo.

    3.4b Freire Critical Literacy

    Paulo Freire (1985) defined critical literacy as the capacity to analyze, critique, and transform social, cultural, and political texts and contexts by having a thorough understanding of the experience of the student. Freire went on to suggest that in order to truly reach students, one must be aware of their problems, struggles, and aspirations, while also considering the power dynamics implicit in the ideas and materials they are exposed to and the relationships they develop. Additionally, these understandings should be followed by a reciprocal exchange and a willingness for action in ways that would meet the learner where they are.

    Critical literacy acknowledges teachers have the power to send implicit messages about the importance and meaning of some information above others. Teachers as decision-makers determine the value of particular lessons, goals, materials, and the structure of the learning day. Children receive feedback about the relative importance of ideas within teacher and classroom interactions. These differences are contextual and socially constructed, even as they are transmitted back and forth between speaker and listener, between environment and child, and among each of these characters as they move through their day (Luke, 2012).

    For example, a critical literacy approach prompts us to stop and acknowledge our decision to choose the apple orchard shop in the opening vignette as our theme for the dramatic play area. We are making choices as educators about the types of play contexts that have value and the types of vocabulary that should be introduced. For example, Ms. Tori may also choose to include a picture card that says “manzana,” the Spanish word for apple, in order to support the home language development that she has already identified in the group of children she teaches. Even more broadly, critical literacy challenges us to question the value of the apple orchard center for learners. Would an apple orchard dramatic play area hold the same relevance for children in south Florida as it would for children in northern Michigan? The answer is, it depends. When answering questions about instructional practices, critical literacy asks us to consider: What is the intended goal? What are the children’s interests and how do they connect to their real-world experiences? If not, what would make these practices relevant and impactful for the children? Are the children given only the materials for apple pie, and might it be relevant to include materials for other types of apple desserts, such as apple empanadas? What types of play would be acceptable in this play area? Critical literacy challenges teachers to always consider whether the educational environment and experiences they choose allow children to feel seen and heard as they acquire knowledge.


    This page titled 3.4: Ecological/Contextual Theories is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.