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Activity 2: Developmentally Systematizing a Phenomenon

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  • One of the challenges we set for ourselves was to encourage each student to work on the target phenomenon of their choice, with the assurance that we would help them “developmentalize” it, whatever it was, so that it would be suitable for framing within a variety of systems orientations. This offer was made with the conviction that, since everything really is developmental (i.e., everything really is active, moving, changing, transforming), the process of uncovering or converting a configuration and question from one sub-discipline (e.g., social, industrial-organizational, community, education) to developmental-land would be relatively straightforward. How hard could it be? As it turns out, it could be pretty hard.

    At first, it was very interesting to see what kinds of phenomena students initially brought to us to be converted. It was revealing to see the features that students assumed their phenomenon would be required to possess if it was going to be able to be developmentalized. Some students tried to think of questions that interested them about babies, children, or adolescents. Some tried to think of questions that focused on adulthood and aging (e.g., the aging workforce was a prime candidate). It became clear that, for them at this point, the primary defining feature of “developmental” was the target population. It simply did not occur to them that every single phenomenon, including exactly the one that they were studying in their thesis or dissertation research was, from our perspective, inherently developmental, worthy of being hewn out of the static rock where it was trapped by the assumptions of its surrounding sub-discipline and set free to travel across time.

    How did you help students developmentally systematize their phenomenon?

    In the beginning, we had no real idea about how to accomplish this goal. We simply talked to students individually about their targets, interviewing them about their research questions and variables (which is where they were typically focused) and trying to help them “zoom out” to see the larger conceptual questions and applied problems that they cared about. We kept listening and drew pictures together and after a while something the student said reminded us of something we had once thought about a similar phenomenon and then “presto-change-o!” a sliver of developmental light began to dawn. Eventually, through these interviews, we also learned about the difficulties and barriers to developmentally systematizing phenomena, and we discovered that the barriers were not only in our students, by also in the sub-disciplines of their research questions, and in ourselves.

    What were the three main barriers?

    A first barrier was limited domain knowledge. Students picked their own topics within psychology, based on their interests and training. However, the topics differed enormously in how much had been discovered about them already. As a rule, domains in which more was known were easier to “systematize.” Areas that had identified a wide range of predictors, moderators, and pathways to the target phenomenon were beginning to recognize the complexity of their phenomenon. Some of the areas that included multiple competing perspectives were beginning to realize that more than one of these perspectives was likely valid. These areas were ready for organization and integration.

    In contrast, some areas were relatively less mature; they had been guided by single concepts or dominant perspectives. Some of these areas were beginning to wonder whether their approaches might be dead ends; however, most were questioning the specific approaches rather than searching for larger frameworks that would incorporate them. The biggest problem was what Giggerenzer (1998) refers to as one of the “surrogates for theories,” namely, “one word explanations.” These are “theories” in which all of students’ knowledge could be encapsulated by a single concept—like “emotion regulation,” “self-efficacy,” or “racial stereotype.” These concepts actually refer to a broad range of fully-baked theories, but students often did not know about those theories or their near-neighbors. Hence, a barrier to developmentally systematizing a phenomenon is lack of rich domain knowledge.

    A second barrier was an over-riding focus on the individual. Some students had trouble getting outside of the individual. When asked for a list of the predictors of their phenomena, it was not uncommon for every element on the list to come from inside the person (e.g., personality, temperament, skills) and often from inside their cognitions (e.g., appraisals, values, self-efficacy, perceptions of social support). When we asked for descriptions of dyadic, group-, or organization-level constructs, we were lucky to get two or three candidates, and they were typically from a narrow band of constructs. We viewed this bias as reflecting the dominance of cognitivist metatheories in psychology today. Hence, a second barrier to developmental systems thinking is impoverished knowledge about theories and constructs outside the individual level.

    Finally, a third barrier was specialization. Students had a hard time seeing how conceptualizations and research outside their own sub-areas (or even their individual sub-sub-areas) could be relevant to them. For example, as we discussed the issue of levels in organizations, some developmental students tuned out. What did the workplace have to do with children? Or when we discussed attachment, community psychology students focusing on support groups failed to make any connection. We could see that their disinterest reflected the compartmentalization of the field of psychology today. Research topics and fields have evolved in relative isolation from each other. Hence, a third barrier to developmental systems thinking is the headset that researchers are responsible only for the knowledge inside their narrow specialization.

    In facing the limitations experienced by our students, we faced the limitations experienced in the field of psychology as a whole. As a field, we tend to work in relatively compartmentalized areas, learning only occasionally about the constructs and perspectives outside the traditional boundaries of our topics. Since the individual is the focal unit for psychologists, we tend to over-emphasize that level, looking for our answers inside the person and remaining less knowledgeable about theories and constructs from higher and lower levels of analysis.

    How did you help students overcome these barriers?

    We tried to develop a series of activities (short writing assignments and discussions) that could help students begin to see their target phenomena, as well as the theorizing and studying they were doing about it, as objects of reflection outside of themselves. The activities are listed in Table 8a.1. As described previously, we started with each student’s “elevator speech” in class, followed by the paragraph outlining the problem statement. The next assignment was to write a brief (1-1.5 pages) summary of describing “traditional” research on their target topic. This usually consisted of two parts. The first was a list of predictors, which for some topics had been classified into “good news” (e.g., protective factors) and “bad news” (e.g., risk factors), and for others had been classified by level (e.g., personal vs. social factors).

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    The second part was a list of models or conceptualizations used on the topic. Sometimes models consisted of putting all the factors in boxes and connecting them with arrows, and sometimes more complex relationships (containing mediators or moderators) had been suggested. Although lists of predictors could be very long, rarely did any area have more than two or three alternative conceptualizations or models. Some of the more mature areas had review articles in which these predictors and models had been collected. These descriptions of “traditional research” were subsequently used as summaries of domain knowledge for each topic.

    How did this assignment help “developmentalize” students’ phenomena?

    This assignment served three functions. First, it encouraged students to see the current research on their topic as “traditional” and not as “correct.” For many students, this was the first moment that it occurred to them that what seemed to be “known” about their phenomenon at this moment was not a representation of the static “truth,” but a moving window of the current working model of the area. This loosened their hold a bit on the status quo.

    Second, it encouraged students to consider the many different lenses that had already been used to capture pictures of their targets, also suggesting to them that multiple perspectives could be useful. If by chance students didn't know about all the perspectives that were currently employed to study their phenomenon, this exercise gave them the chance to go and learn about them (usually by talking to their faculty mentors and getting recommendations form them about good reviews or historical chapters). Moreover, as was sometimes true, if their topics were dominated by a single theory or perspective, this exercise also gave students the opportunity to realize that work on their topic was not currently informed by multiple perspectives—and so they could reflect on what might be missing from their topic areas.

    Third, these brief summaries were a big help to us, their instructors, so we could learn the basics about each of their areas—especially ones with which we were not particularly familiar. These short papers also provided the puzzle pieces that we wanted students to use in the next steps of developmentalizing and systematizing their phenomena.

    What were the next steps? The next step was for students to turn what they knew about their target phenomenon into a representation of a process, by using the “understanding a theory” process they had learned about previously. For this exercise, students used a rubric like the one pictured in Figure 8a.1 and could basically “fill in the blanks.” Students could fill out as many of these as they needed to complete all the different theoretical frameworks that had been used to conceptualize their target phenomenon. One thing that filling in the blanks allows students to do is notice when they are missing information. The “one word explanations” masquerading as theories began looking less like theories when they came to an end after the concept name was placed in the box labeled

    This representation also allowed students to make decisions about where they wanted to focus their attention. When students wanted to develop intervention and optimization strategies, and the “target” was the desired outcome, they sometimes decided to focus on figuring out how to change the target’s antecedents and so added a box to the left representing the antecedents of the antecedents. For example, a student who is initially identifies as their target “Work-family balance” may decide that an important antecedent is “supervisor support,” but as soon as they want to create an intervention to optimize supervisor support, they need an antecedent to this antecedent to figure out how to improve it.

    Where’s the development in all this?

    Together, as we regarded students’ initial representations of their phenomena as a process, we asked a series of questions. First and foremost, we wondered --which of these constructs is changing? There are two likely suspects, of course—the target should be changing as a result of the application of the antecedents, and the consequences, both short and long-term, should be changing as an effect of the target. In many cases, this sequence could be considered a “micro-developmental” process and we could ask, what accumulates as these episodes unfold over time. We began to think of the applied problem—what an optimization process would, in this case, produce or prevent. We started to talk of “the dial,” as in whether these episodes cumulatively were “moving the dial,” and of what the dial might be an indicator. We looked at the long-term consequence as one option and began thinking about whether it could be described as a trajectory—of good news or bad news.

    Then we began questioning, not insisting just questioning, whether the antecedents themselves might also be in motion. Here, we took up any constructs, like personality traits or contextual factors, that are typically assumed to be immutable, or at least stable, and suggested that we should keep an open mind as to whether they might themselves be changing, or if not in motion, whether they might be malleable. It was as if we started oiling all the joints around the constructs so that they could move more freely. We started thinking about feedback loops, whether there might be any return arrows—from the consequences to the antecedent or the target. We didn’t draw any yet, but we traced where they might be with our fingers. We started to see in these process representations the potential of cycles, and how each cycle might “move the dial” just a bit.

    We spent a bit of time speculating about “what is on the arrows,” and we noticed that there were lots of arrows and that they, in most depictions of current theories, were largely blank. We noted the many blanks. Finally, we considered those aspects of the process that we felt were likely to remain fairly stable, and instead of skipping over them, we looked them in the eye and asked them how they managed this—what was happening on the arrows, or what was acting as a counterforce to what was on the arrows, that would allow them to hold there place in the rushing stream of developmental change. They usually didn't know at this point, because they were simply assumed to be static, but we told them to be patient. We would think about the hard work of staying the same, that is, the dynamics of stability, by and by.

    We did not, at this point in the class, ask students to pull back and look at the whole picture, all that was drawn and all that was implied, and query these parts through the most developmental of questions, namely, how is this phenomena organized-- and how does this specific pattern of the coordination of these parts (this organization) serve a specific set of functions, that is characteristic of a particular point in time, whether that “time” is calibrated to age (e.g., an essential characteristic of “ten-ness), to the beginning of a developmental task (e.g., identity development), to a transition in competence (e.g., novice or expert) or circumstances (e.g., a divorce)? The notion of discontinuity and qualitative stages or states-- this is a fundamental concept that we would have to work our way toward very carefully, or we would lose students on the path.

    Table 8a.2. Potential Questions to ask one’s Phenomena when Beginning to Convert it to a Developmental System.

    1. Which of these constructs is changing?

    2. How is the target changing as a result of the antecedents?

    3. How are the short-term consequences changing as a result of the target?

    4. Can these constructs be seen as creating an “episode”?

    6. Do these episodes suggest that they might accumulate —that is, “move the dial”?

    7. What is on “the dial”? Long-term development?

    8. What constructs does optimization suggest we might consider as outcomes that we could try to change? What options should we be trying to improve, produce, or prevent?

    9. Could the antecedents be changing? Could they be malleable?

    10. Are there potential feedback loops? Hints of “cycles”?

    11. What could be on the arrows?

    12. What constructs are likely to be stable? What could be keeping them stable?

    Questions for later

    13. How are these parts organized, and how does this coordination serve specific functions?

    14. How is the whole picture (the whole system) embedded in a larger stream of time— and what are some options about how to think about the kind of “time” that marks systems’ changes? What about— “age,” “beginning,” “ending,” or “transitions”?

    Did students “get it”? Did they start using developmental systems thinking? Not yet. At this point, all we were hoping to do was help students open up their minds a bit. We wanted to challenge students’ views about what constitutes a “developmental phenomena”—to rework the assumption that it’s about an age group (i.e., children or the elderly). We were explicit with students that we were going to evangelize about developmental systems, but we did not want them to obediently comply with our meta-theoretical preferences; we wanted them to be able to see the “new world” for themselves and then decide. We even came up with a term to describe whether we thought that each student “got it” yet. It was like popcorn: Students were kernels and the class was the oil and the pan, heating up slowly. We were helping students to “pop,” that is, to spontaneously begin to see the world through the lens of developmental systems meta-theoretical assumptions.

    We saw the work of developing the class as creating a set of experiences that would consistently help students to “pop.” It needed to work for students who were uncomfortable with complexity as well as those who were uncomfortable committing to a specific empirical study. It needed to work with research questions drawn from domains in which complex knowledge structures were not yet available as well as from those in which they currently existed. For the former domains, we needed to identify a set of principles for generating complexity; for the latter domains we needed principles for dealing with it. We needed a set of activities that, working from the inside out, could produce an elaborated conceptualization as well as a series of manageable feasible designs for research that could be accomplished using either standard data collection and statistical methods, and/or current data sets. We saw the course as a microcosm embedded in our own developmental systems meta-theoretical assumptions—so we were using all the principles that we wanted students to consider to help them intentionally shift their way of thinking toward an appreciation of developmental systems meta-theories.

    How else did you help students become more aware of the developmental aspects of their phenomena?

    We assigned them a “Background paper” in which they were asked to write a short summary of the major developmental issues faced by the people in their configurations (see Table 8a.3). The goals of the paper were twofold: (1) to help them become aware of the “whole persons” they were studying; and (2) to make clear to them that people of all ages have key developmental tasks, and developmental changes in their biopsychosocial characteristics, roles, and relationships. Students who are studying adults often ask us what they should be including in their papers, and are somewhat taken aback when we plonk down whole textbooks on “Adult Development and Aging.” They are only required to read the chapters in lifespan textbooks on their particular age group, but even these chapters provide a great deal of information about the multiple issues their participants are negotiating in the “background,” in addition to whatever target issue the student is focused on in the “foreground.”

    Table 8a.3. Background Paper


    To begin to think about people as “whole persons” (that is, as more complex than the particular part you are focusing on). To give you a fuller picture of the developmental tasks and issues with which the people of your developmental level are engaged.


    Write a summary (1 to 2 pages double-spaced) of the main themes in the developmental period of your configuration and phenomenon. If you have a big developmental period (e.g., all of adulthood), it may be longer.


    Developmental textbooks.


    About 25% of the paper covers the development of your target phenomena (e.g., cognition) and about 75% covers other areas of development (e.g., biological, physical, social, personality development). Consider people as integrated bio-psycho-social beings, so be sure to cover (1) biological characteristics (e.g., neurological, temperament, physical, perceptual, health conditions); (2) psychological characteristics (e.g., cognition, attention, personality/ identity, emotion, regulation/volition, moral/ character, motivation); and (3) social relationships (e.g., parents, family, friendship, peers, intimacy, co-workers, own children).

    What are some Examples?

    Your target phenomenon is cognitive development during adulthood. You write about major developments in cognition during adulthood (25%) and also about major developments in other domains during the same age period: biological/ physical, personality, social (e.g., work, family), etc. (75%). Your target phenomenon is families and abuse. You write 25% about the normative developments in the family life cycle (e.g., marriage, establishing the family, child-rearing, divorce, etc.) and also 75% about the other major developmental tasks of the individuals (biological/ physical, cognitive, personality, social, etc.). If you are focusing on the parents, use developmental tasks of adulthood. If you are focusing on the children, use developmental tasks of childhood.