This textbook provides a toolbox, a guidebook, and an instruction manual for researchers and interventionists who want to conceptualize and study applied problems from a developmental systems perspective, and for those who want to teach their graduate (or advanced undergraduate) students how to do this. It is designed to be useful to practitioners who focus on applied developmental problems, such as improving the important developmental contexts where people live, learn, and work, including the applied professions in education, social work, counseling, health care, community development, and business, all of which at their core are concerned with optimizing the development of their students, clients, patients, workers, citizens, and others whose lives they touch.
We start from the assumption that all applied problems become more tractable when they are viewed as parts of complex changing systems that are multi-level, interactive, and dynamic. We have learned that advanced undergraduate students and graduate students, even really smart and well-prepared students, do not find it easy to generate theories, design research, create interventions, or engage in practices that reflect developmental systems principles. Their views, just like the views of most developmental researchers and interventionists, are shaped by the prevailing scientific, political, and disciplinary cultures, which tend to conceptualize and study applied problems as if they were discrete parts of phenomena that are flat, linear, and static.
We think that three forces conspire to keep researchers, practitioners, and students from realizing the utility of developmental systems frameworks. First, the theories that currently guide applied developmental research and interventions have embedded in them assumptions about the nature of people, their contexts, and how they work together to generate change or maintain stability. Second, the methodologies we typically use to study and intervene bring their own assumptions to our work. Third, we are not always aware that our views have been hijacked by prevailing conventions. In fact, many researchers, interventionists, practitioners, and students have not had the opportunity to reflect on their own assumptions or to consider alternatives, activities which might enable them to articulate more complex and dynamic understandings of the people and organizations they are attempting to study or to serve. Moreover, even when we and our students espouse developmental systems meta-views, which over the last 20 years have been slowly moving into prominence (Lerner, 2006), we have often not thought carefully enough about their corresponding implications for the kinds of theories we should be trying to build, the methodologies we need to master, and the interventions and practices we should construct and test.