Classrooms Can Use Therapy Too

Elizabeth D. Burris


Paul Dell, a family systems therapist inspired by the systems thinking of Humberto Maturana, posits that family systems achieve pathology because of what he calls “epistemological errors”: either the refusal to acknowledge reality or the desire to control reality. Reality, in Dell’s definition, is the coupled nature of human interaction, or structure determinism. Applying Dell’s definition to classrooms, I identify two epistemological errors commonly committed by teachers: valuing content more highly than relationships in the classroom and attempting to control students through classroom management techniques. When these two practices are viewed through the systems lens rather than through the modernist, objectivist lens, the relationships that are enacted in a classroom among teacher, students, and the content under study come into focus, and pathology, or repetitive behaviors that obviate desired learning, is more easily discerned. Given the emphasis systems theory places on relationships, I claim that, as with family systems, classroom systems can benefit from the kind of analysis—or “therapy”—that exposes the “coherence,” or the tight relational couplings, within the system that, in some cases, invites non-educative interactions. Such therapy can help teachers shift their own attitudes and behaviors so as to influence those of their students.

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