This class is not an easy one to take or to teach. It is at once abstract and philosophical, while also reaching down into the foundations of our identities and our science. We have not found “exposure models,” in which we assign readings or lecture students on the benefits of developmental systems approaches, to be very effective in creating the internal paradigm shift that is the ultimate goal of the course. Instead, as described in subsequent chapters in more detail, we begin the course by inviting students to select the phenomena and applied problems of their choice, one that is authentically meaningful to them and in which they are already invested and informed, and bring it to the class as their work project. It is our conviction that any applied problem actually is, and so can be revealed to be, embedded in a complex multi-level developmental system, and this revelation can generate rich theories, interesting studies, important intervention efforts, and innovative practices. It is our commitment to students (and our challenge to ourselves as teachers) that, over the course, we (and the rest of the class) will be working with them to complete this transformation. In working with students who come from all over the map in terms of applied problems and (sub)disciplines, we have discovered that there are many pathways to developmental systems perspectives, but since no one can be an expert in all areas of applied psychology, following any of them requires hard work for students and teachers alike.
From these joint efforts, however, came the process that we now follow in the course and that is carefully described in this book, taking student (and instructor) through a series of exercises, readings, discussions, and activities. We think that it is students’ work on their projects, through a sequence of short papers, class presentations, real-world observations, and open-ended interviews, that ultimately allow students not only to view their applied problem through a developmental systems perspective, but also to understand how they accomplished this-- and so find themselves prepared to use these tools on any applied problem they tackle in the future. Each step on these projects also makes students’ thinking and questions visible to instructors and, because they are worked on by the whole class, creates as many examples of how to “developmental system-ize” an applied problem as there are students in the class. This allows the class to reflect on the characteristics of a phenomenon (and its sub-specialty within social science) that make it easier or more difficult for researchers and practitioners to bring a developmental systems lens to bear.
There are four parts to the teaching and learning process and they correspond to the four sections in this textbook. First, students learn to “understand theories,” using a set of tools for unpacking and analyzing theories that allows us to look at the components of theories and distinguish their micro-developmental processes from their macro-developmental processes. Such an analysis is the basis for locating places where a theory can be “developmentalized” and allows students to unpack their target phenomenon, focus on their applied problem, and start identifying and generating their developmental possibilities.
Students first practice understanding theories on conceptualizations that represent dueling assumptions about the nature of development, and this exercise introduces them to the second set of tools, which we refer to as “meta-views on meta-theories.” These activities allow them to chew on the key assumptions (e.g., nature versus nurture) that underlie our developmental science and see how they are packaged into higher-order families. The class visits a series of developmental systems meta-theories, including the life-span perspective, the bioecological model, the transactional model, relational meta-theories, probabilistic epigenesis, and dynamic systems. These visits allow students to experience first hand the three “big ideas” that underlie all developmental systems perspectives: (1) “levels,” or the notion that integrated multi-level organized people are embedded in integrated organized multi-level contexts; (2) “proximal processes,” or the notion that all development is caused by the reciprocal social interaction between these biopsychosocial people and their local contexts, and that the effects of lower- and higher-order personal and social attributes are all channeled through their influences on the social interactions that take place in these microsystem “envelopes;” and (3) “dynamics,” or the notion that these multiple reciprocal proximal processes, operating at their multiple levels, can be seen, when we “take our hands off” to create movement or change within the system, selforganizing and giving rise to emergent properties and qualitative shifts that then entrain subsequent lower-order processes.
In reflecting on the sources of our meta-theoretical assumptions, it becomes clear that the standard methods we use in our science (e.g., strategies of sampling, measurement, design, and analysis) contain assumptions about the nature of development. For example, if some areas within psychology are dominated by designs that include only one time point, it becomes clear that they assume that no change is occurring or, if it is, it is not important. If researchers use the same measures for participants of different ages, they are also assuming developmental continuity in the target phenomenon. If researchers rely primarily on self-reports and use no direct assessments of contexts or social interactions, then they are assuming the primacy of the person and their perspective. Hence, in the third part of the course and textbook, we consider methodological issues, including developmental sampling and measurement equivalence, causal inference, observational strategies, person-centered approaches, and the use of time in designs, including longitudinal, sequential, and time series designs.
The fourth and last section of the course and textbook zooms in on mechanisms or processes of development, trying to take seriously what is changing or developing in individuals and in their contexts. We consider different perspectives on what is “on the arrows” in most developmental theories and how these different views might lead to different strategies for designing, improving, and evaluating practices and interventions that aim to optimize development. We take as our target developmental phenomena in this section the features of the person and context that are most often assumed to be stable (e.g., neurophysiological structures or higher-order contexts) and examine evidence that they are plastic and review the multiple developmental pathways they can visit.