Systems Science and Its Impact on Early Childhood Education and Care

I - Background and Organizational Context


Historic in subject and scope, this volume recounts how the nascent field of early childhood education and care (ECEC) burgeoned in the mid- to late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It will suggest that the emerging field was extruded not only from the needs of parents but from legacies that were imparted to it from an array of hard (i.e., natural) and soft (i.e., social) sciences. Gamering legitimacy in part due to the knowledge obtained from scientific inquiry about young children and their development, ECEC is not only foundationally grounded in developmental science, but has marshalled an array of other sciences (e.g., neuro-, evaluation, systems, implementation) to accelerate its growth and impact. Examining how science has and may continue to impact the field is a both a noble and essential endeavor.

Inherent in this volume’s premise (and its promise) are several latent assumptions that have shaped the application of science to the social and humanitarian services in general and to EC.ECi in particular. First, there is a historic assumption: rooted in developmental science and awash with pedagogical theory, ECEC has been guided top-down by scientists and theorists who posited both nuanced views of human development and specialized learning theories deemed germane to that development. This is to say, generally ECEC has been and is comfortable using theoretical and scientific bases as cornerstones for its foundational premises. Second, slightly preceding the development of ECi ECi, science itself grew in the twentieth century, becoming characterized by diverse and increasingly sophisticated domains of inquiry, accompanied by highly specialized scientific methodologies. Fueled by growing industrialization, the advent of World Wars, and relatedly America’s emergence as a global presence, the advancement of science and scientific inquiry soared to greater prominence. Although legitimized by the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, science as the true epicenter for advancement was fueled from diverse investments and societal sectors, including business, industry, philanthropy, higher education, and government. Inherent in this growth was the premise that science can be beneficial to society, promoting health, well-being, and economic growth. Stated differently, the impact of the sciences in EGEC was part of a global Zeitgeist that embraced the beneficial effects of science and scientific study.

But a phenomenon so bold does not emerge all at once. Spurred by the Enlightenment, the past centuries have seen a growing embrace of science. Though perhaps originally conceptualized as the purview of elites, there came to be increasing recognition that scientific advancements could improve living conditions for broader society. Both physical and social science needed to be readied for application - in the landmark words of Lindblom and Cohen (1979), it needed to be “made usable.” Stemming from this, and important to understand, three premises frame this chapter and the evolution of contemporary science’s importance to ECEC. They are: (i) an inherent respect for scientific inquiry as the basis for a field; (ii) an acceptance that science and scientific inquiry can yield considerable benefits to disciplines and populations; and (iii) an understanding that science and practice are not dyadic, but complementary, interdependent, and mutually influencing domains of effort.

Intent and Organization

This chapter focuses on the evolution of systems science and its connection to ECEC. It acknowledges that systems science was extruded at a time when technological advances were rapidly expanding human capabilities and the scope of knowledge available. It also suggests that, like many other sciences, its intellectual corpus evolved over time and was modified by changing contextual needs and opportunities.

In this sense, systems science is both malleable and functional: it affects and reflects its time. With regard to malleability, the application of systems science to ECEC involved the adaptation of theories, which themselves were evolving, to an emerging field. This is to say that both the fields of systems science and ECEC were in flux, rendering the influence of one to the other highly idiosyncratic, non-linear, and remarkably unpredictable. The application of systems science to ECEC! was, and is, not a matter of applying a clear formula; rather it is the act of developing many formulas through twists and turns, each one understood and experienced differently by different scholars. It is inherently changeable and hybridized, blending many sciences. Yet in order to enhance functionality, the nascent field of systems science also sought coherence, seeking to render itself maximally usable. Its application to ECEC was forged largely by theorists who lived in the world of practice, whose language was nontechnical, and whose goals were to both explain and better reality. Systems thinking in ECEC is rooted in theory but emanates from urgency. As this paper will show, the application of systems science to ECEC is one of remarkable fidelity to context-specific experience; as such, it does not lend itself to easily predictable patterns. Rather, it is an unlikely saga that combines science and serendipity.

This chapter is the story of that unlikely unfolding. It begins with definitions of systems, systems theory, and the emergence of systems science (Part II), and is followed by a review of systems science, tracing its scholarly evolution along with an examination of its parameters and partner theories (Part III). It then turns to a discussion of the evolution of systems science in ECEC, tracing its winding path (Part IV). Part V reviews the effects of ECEC systems work and then speculates on its future.

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