Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Site Map

Educational Learning Theories: Chapter 7 Required Reading

Chapter 7 Required Reading

The literature from the human developmental sciences provides more comprehensive conceptual and operational definitions of human development than the economic literature typically does (Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 1998; Lerner, 1998; Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998). In essence, according to Thelen and Smith (1998), “The theory of development is based on very general and content-independent principles that describe the behavior of complex physical and biological systems” (p. 258). Thus, development can only be understood as (1) “the multiple, mutual, and continuous interaction of all the levels of the development system, from the molecular to the cultural”; and (2) “as nested processes that unfold over many time scales, from milliseconds to years” (Thelen & Smith, 1998, p. 258). In other words, human development refers to change over time, and time is typically characterized as chronological age. Age is not the cause of development; it is just a frame of reference. More specifically, development comprises interactions among various levels of functioning, from the genetic, physiological, and neurological to the behavioral, social, and environmental. Human development is a permanent exchange among these levels. And the more mature the person, the more influence and control the person has over the organization of these interactions.

Human developmental science attributes the driving force of development to so-called proximal processes: stimulating, regular face-to-face interactions over extended periods with people, objects, or symbols, which promote the realization of the genetic potential for effective biological, psychological, and social development. For example, parents influence and shape their children through parenting behaviors, role modeling, and encouraging certain behaviors and activities for their children.

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model (Figure 7.1) is well suited to illustrate some important dimensions of these human developmental processes, as it captures the complexity of human development as an intricate web of interrelated systems and processes. A basic tenet of the bioecological systems’ theories of development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) is that child and youth development is influenced by many different “contexts,” “settings,” or “ecologies” (for example, family, peers, schools, communities, sociocultural belief systems, policy regimes, and, of course, the economy). The model is able to account for multiple face-to-face environments, or settings, within the microsystem of a person (for example, family, school, peers); how relations between settings (mesosystem) can affect what happens within them (for example, interactions between school and family); and how settings within which the individuals have no direct presence (exo- and macrosystem) can affect settings in their microsystems (for example, how parents’ experiences at their  workplace affect their relationships within the family) (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Thus, this model allows the analysis of the lives of people, “living organisms whose biopsychological characteristics, both as a species and as individuals, have as much to do with their development as do the environments in which they live their lives” (Bronfenbrenner, 1995, p. 8).

        Figure 7.1. Source: Visual adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of child development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Note: SES = socioeconomic status.

A central question in scientific research on how ecologies influence development is how macrosystem contexts and events (for example, aggregate economic shocks) influence intermediate (exo- and mesosystem) contexts, which in turn influence the settings or contexts within the developing person’s microsystem, settings within which the person has face-to-face interactions or proximal processes. Aggregate economic shocks are thought to affect the ecology of human development by hitting the macrosystem, as depicted in Figure 7.1.

This model is integrative and interdisciplinary, drawing on and relating concepts and hypotheses from disciplines as diverse as biology, behavioral genetics and neurobiology, psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, history, and economics-focusing on and highlighting processes and links that shape human development through the life course (Bronfenbrenner, 1995). In particular, this model relates to the economic model of human capital investments outlined earlier in many, but not all, respects. It provides a complementary framework for understanding how shocks affect human development understood as complex systems of interactive processes between developing individuals and their surroundings. As such, bioecological developmental models have the potential to enrich or expand the standard economic approach to human capital.  

In what follows we will expound on human developmental processes and how these are nested within a complex set of systems and settings. “Domains,” “processes,” and “context” provide a convenient organizational structure for discussing the complex topic of human development.


 It is widely understood that human development has many distinct and important dimensions, or domains (Alkire, 2002). Fundamental domains of development are not generally hierarchical (one is not more important than others), irreducible (fundamental dimensions cannot be reduced to other dimensions), or incommensurable (they cannot be adequately compared to each other). Nonetheless, in the practical world of science, programs, and policies, some domains receive more attention than others. In the scientific study of child and youth development, three domains-physical, biological, and neuroanatomical development; cognitive, language, and academic development; and social, emotional, and behavioral development-have received much more attention than have moral, spiritual, and religious development or artistic and aesthetic development. The program and policy world parallels the scientific world in placing greater emphasis on children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development, roughly aligned with the domains of health, education, and social-emotional or psychosocial well-being.

Each of these three fundamental domains is a complex system of complex subsystems. These systems emerge and evolve over the course of human development and are complexly interrelated to other domains of human developmental systems and subsystems. The “organizational systems” perspective on human development focuses on these fundamental domains and strives to account for how advances or lags in one domain affect and are affected by advances or lags in other domains. For example, the evidence reveals that nutrients by themselves do not suffice to bring about even purely physical, biological, or neuroanatomical development and thus that development can be significantly delayed and even irreversibly compromised in the absence of other factors crucial to development, such as a secure attachment relationship and other proximal processes (Corrales & Utter, 2005). The bioecological systems’ perspective on human development examines how different contexts, settings, experiences, and events affect different domains of child and youth development.

The implications of multiple and interrelated domains of development for this study are clear. Examining the impacts both within the physical (health), cognitive (educational), and social-emotional (psychosocial wellbeing) domains and across these domains will likely enrich efforts to understand the impact of economic shocks on child and youth development.


Put very simply, children’s development is the result of proximal processes; of participating in increasingly complex reciprocal interactions with people, objects, and symbols in their immediate environments (their microsystem contexts) over extended periods of time (represented by the chronosystem) (Bronfenbrenner, 1994a). Thus, according to Bronfenbrenner’s definition, “a microsystem is a pattern of activities, social roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given face-to-face setting with particular physical, social, and symbolic features that invite, permit, or inhibit engagement in sustained, progressively more complex interaction with, and activity in, the immediate environment” (Bronfenbrenner, 1994b, p. 39). Examples of settings within the microsystem are families, neighborhoods, day care centers, schools, playgrounds, and so on within which activities, roles, and interpersonal relations set the stage for proximal processes as crucial mechanisms for human development.

The heterogeneity in individual outcomes thus stems from systematic variation in individuals’ characteristics and environments and in the nature of the developmental outcomes under scrutiny, which jointly determine form, power, content, and direction of proximal processes (Bronfenbrenner, 1994a). Thus, proximal processes determine the capacities of individuals to (1) differentiate perception and response; (2) direct and control their own behaviors; (3) cope successfully under stress; (4) acquire knowledge and skills; (5) establish and maintain mutually rewarding relationships; and (6) modify and construct their own physical, social, and symbolic environments (Bronfenbrenner, 1994a). Proximal processes are thought to be the most important influences on children’s development.

Of course, not only do microcontexts affect children and youth, but also children and youth affect their microcontexts. Children, youth, and the mircocontexts transact (see Sameroff, 2009, for a transactional model). Insecurely attached children are more emotionally demanding for stressed parents to care for, and children slowed in language development stimulate less verbal exchange with adults. Economic shocks are likely to have an impact on these transactional, bidirectional systems of influences between children or youth and their immediate environments. This view of human development as transactional places heavy design and data demands on studies of the underlying mechanisms or pathways of influence, including studies of the influence of economic shocks on child and youth development.

Context and the Interplay of Systems and Settings

n the bioecological model, contextual effects are manifested in a complex interplay of the micro-, meso-, exo-, and macrosystems. The ways these systems interact and influence each other can contribute to an understanding of how shocks to the macrosystem, such as a financial crisis, can disrupt the developmental process as it is transmitted to various settings in a child’s microsystem. Household socioeconomic status, neighborhood characteristics, and school environments, just to mention a few, will determine the quality, frequency, and intensity of proximal processes. For instance, there is a significant body of literature that looks at how household poverty and hardship affect child development (see, for example, Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Neighborhood and community contexts and their influence on children have also been studied extensively (see, for example, Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, & Aber, 1997). For instance, although family socioeconomic status is correlated with well-being and human development, it is not clear if socioeconomic status causes variations in health and well-being or if personal characteristics and dispositions of individuals influence both their socioeconomic status and their future socioemotional well-being and behavior (Conger, Conger, & Martin, 2010, p. 687; Mayer, 1997). In addition, studies have started to unravel the pathways through which poverty affects child and youth development, ranging from the availability of quality prenatal and perinatal care, exposure to environmental toxins such as lead, less cognitive stimulation at home, harsh and inconsistent parenting, to lower teacher quality (McLoyd, 1998). Furthermore, various studies have compared the implications of temporary versus chronic deprivation and how the impact differs according to life stage of the developing person (see, for accounts, Elder, 1999; McLoyd, 1998; McLoyd et al., 2009). In other words, a temporary drop in socioeconomic status during a crisis may have markedly different long-term implications depending on the age of the child.

A mesosystem, according to Bronfenbrenner, “comprises the linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings containing the developing person” (1994b, p. 40), such as the relations between home and school He notes that “it is formed or extended whenever the developing person moves into a new setting” (1979, p. 25). The main distinction between the meso- and the microsystem is that in the microsystem activities, social roles, and interpersonal relations are confined to one setting, whereas the mesosystem incorporates the interactions across the boundaries of at least two settings (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 209). The mesosystem is structured by institutions that have taken-for-granted rules for interaction and that shape expected behaviors with the help of shared norms. Institutions may be mutually reinforcing or in tensions with one another, as when the implicit rules for gaining status among peers are at odds with standards of behavior valued by schools and with rules facilitating educational achievement (Carter, 2007; Warikoo, 2010).

Settings in the mesosystem can enhance (or diminish) people’s developmental potential when (1) a transition is made together with a group of others that they have engaged with in previous settings (versus alone) (for example, transition with a group of peers from kindergarten to school); (2) when roles and activities between two settings are compatible (or incompatible) and encourage (or discourage) trust, positive orientation, and consensus on goals, as well as a balance of power in favor of the developing person; (3) when the number of structurally different settings is increased (or decreased) and others are more (or less) mature or experienced; and (4) when cultural or subcultural contexts differ from each other (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, pp. 209-223).

An exosystem refers to “the linkages and processes taking place between two or more settings, at least one of which does not contain the developing person, but in which events occur that indirectly influence processes within the immediate setting in which the developing person lives” (Bronfenbrenner, 1994b, p. 40). An example of such an exosystem setting would be the parent’s workplace, in which the child does not interact directly, but which could indirectly, through parental stress, job loss, or the like, influence family dynamics and thus the developing child. Consequently, a causal sequence of at least two steps is required to qualify as an exosystem. The first step is to establish a connection between events in the external setting, or exosystem, which does not include the developing person, to processes in the microsystem, which does include the person, and, second, to link these processes to developmental changes in the developing person (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Important to note in this context is the ability of the child to influence parents just as much as parents influence the child, and this influence can reach far beyond the family into settings of the child’s exosystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

Research to date has focused on three prominent exosystems that are particularly likely to influence the developmental processes of children and youth through their influence on the family, school, and peers: parents’ workplaces, family social networks, and neighborhood-community contexts (Bronfenbrenner, 1994b). To illustrate, Kohn’s research (see, for example, Pearlin & Kohn, 2009) demonstrated that the beliefs, standards, and expectations parents face at work, for example concerning their autonomy or dependency, is what they bring home and essentially expect the same from their children. As a result, parents who were always subdued at work have a tendency to subdue their children. This factor may help explain intergenerational transmission of values. Economic shocks can have a tremendous effect on exosystems, affecting not only the workplaces of parents but also the situations of those who do not have work. Several functions of work-such as organization of the day, income, and social status, among others-can be affected.

The macrosystem captures “the overarching pattern of micro-, meso-, and exosystems characteristic of a given culture or subculture, with particular reference to the belief systems, bodies of knowledge, material resources, customs, lifestyles, opportunity structures, hazards, and lifecourse options that are embedded in each of these broader systems” (Bronfenbrenner, 1994b, p. 40). These include the laws and regulations, political economy, economic markets, and public policies of the societies within which the developing person is embedded. Incorporating the macrosystem takes the analysis beyond the identification of class, ethnic, and cultural differences in child-rearing practices and outcomes and incorporates the phenomena of aggregate economic shocks. Of particular interest are dynamic aspects of “ecological transitions,” such as investigations of how social and economic changes affect children and youths’ development and how they adapt to such changes in the macrosystem. 

While Bronfenbrenner refers mainly to cultural aspects of the macrosystem, a society’s cultural frameworks, politics, and institutions are all closely interrelated and mutually reinforcing. Thus, the process of change can be induced through several channels or entities, the result of which will be a “complicated set of interlocking physical and social relations, patterns, and processes” (Martin, McCann, & Purcell, 2003, p. 114). Put another way, the macrosystem can be interpreted as “space” that Lefebvre (1991) defined as an “unavoidably social product created from a mix of legal, political, economic, and social practices and structures” (p. 190). Individuals draw on these cultural tools that their environment puts at their disposal, or that they choose to make sense of challenges and imagine effective solutions. They also find strategies for action by observing the behaviors of those around them and the consequences of their actions.

The bioecological model is flexible enough to accommodate cross-national variations in the weight given to various aspects of human development influenced by the local culture (for instance, the greater emphasis on self-esteem, self-actualization, and individualization characteristic of the American upper-middle class; see Markus, 2004). It also takes into consideration meso- and macrolevel conditions for collective human development, including shared myths and narratives that buttress the individual sense of self and capabilities (see, for example, Hall & Lamont, 2009).

Similarly, the bioecological model is capable of capturing “experiences.” Proximal processes and other interactions are “experienced by the developing person,” which is meant to indicate, “that the scientifically relevant features of any environment include not only its objective properties but also the way in which these properties are perceived by the persons in that environment” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22). Experiences in this sense are individual (and collective) constructs of the “objective,” which determines an individual’s (and a group’s) capacity for making meaning and for self-representation (Hall & Lamont, 2009). Experiences, while in part determined by the individual’s personality, are embedded in local culture and customs; thus, understanding the cultural frameworks and narratives that shape the relationships and processes within and between settings and systems is crucial to recognizing factors that enhance or weaken the resilience of a developing person.

One example of the cultural or contextual variability in the meaning of experience comes from the empirical literature on the influence of parenting styles on the development of children’s academic and social-emotional competencies. Early research indicated that authoritative parenting (which combines warmth with firm control) promoted greater child competence than did authoritarian (low warmth, very high control) or laissez-faire (low warmth, low control) parenting (for reviews, see Baumrind, 1989, 1991). But subsequent research observed race, ethnic, and neighborhood differences in the influence of parenting styles on child competence. In a sample of African American and Latino-American parents living in dangerous inner-city neighborhoods, authoritarian parenting behaviors were associated with less adolescent delinquency than authoritative parenting behaviors (Florsheim, Tolan, & Gorman-Smith, 1996). This pattern of findings has led child developmentalists to believe that “high control” parenting has greater adaptive value in more dangerous neighborhoods and may be “experienced” by children in a different way in those contexts (Furstenberg et al., 1999; Garcia-Coll et al., 1996; McLoyd, 1990; Rodriguez & Walden, 2010).

Finally, only recently have the theory, measures, and mathematical models been available to enable the rigorous empirical study of child and youth development in context. As pointed out previously, children and youth are embedded in and transact with each other in and across contexts. Consequently, the study of peer and other spillover effects in human developmental science has grown, as it has in the social sciences, although many of these studies do not convincingly control for what determines the individuals with whom one interacts. These advances are directly relevant to improving our understanding of the impact of economic shocks on child and youth development.

To reiterate, the human developmental process consequently depends on more than the available resources, prices, policies, and parental preferences for investments in their children. From a human development perspective, if we are to fully understand the effects of economic shocks on child and youth development, we must track the influence of economic (macro) shocks on exo- and mesosystems and in turn on children’s microsystem contexts and the proximal processes-that is, the reciprocal interactions between children and immediate contexts-that are the drivers of human development.

Educational Implications

The Bioecological Model by Bronfenbrenner looked at patterns of development across time as well as the interactions between the development of the child and the environment. The implications of the Model include the social and political policies and practices affecting children, families, and parenting. The Bioecological Model as depicted in Figure 7.1 serve as a visual organizer to both summarize and unpack key concepts and themes as they related to individual development, teaching and learning, and educational practices. As teachers and educators strive to become evidence-based practitioners, the goal of learning this Model is to understand the theoretical and research foundations that inform the work in supporting students' well-being, teaching and learning and identify and use other factors/resources such as parents, family, peers, to provide positive influence on students’ learning and development.

In that regard, Bronfenbrenner‘s Bioecological Model encourages much consideration of what constitutes supportive interactions in fostering development. It goes beyond identifying what might influence development, and, more importantly, assists in considering how and why it influences development. Furthermore, Bronfenbrenner’s theory also assists in considering how an interaction might be added or taken away or improved to foster development and, especially, how a face-to-face interaction between a developing individual and an agent within his or her environment might be changed. Although Bronfenbrenner’s multi-system model has value in identifying the resources that influence development, it is likely of most value in assisting consideration of how the resource might be used. Inherent within this idea is the emphasis Bronfenbrenner places on proximal processes, those interactions nearest to the individual have the greatest influence on the development of the individual.

Criticisms of the Bioecological Model

A criticism of Bronfenbrenner has been that the model focuses too much on the biological and cognitive aspects of human development, but not much on socioemotional aspect of human development.  A more comprehensive view of human development with the 3 domains of human development in the center is suggested (Integrated Ecological Systems and Framework, n.d.). This ecological model is called the Integrated Ecological Systems Framework (Figure 7.2).

Figure 7.2 Integrated Ecological Systems Framework

Figure 7.2. Source: Integrated Ecological Systems and Framework (n.d.). The picture above illustrated Integrated Systems Framework with 3 domains of human development in the center: Biological Domain, Cognitive Domain, and Socioemotional Domain.

Developmentalists often refer to the three domains as overlapping circles that represent the intricately interwoven relationship between each of the following aspects of an individual’s experience (Figure 7.3). Biological Processes: the physical changes in an individual’s body. Cognitive Processes: the changes in an individual’s thinking and intelligence. Socioemotional Processes: the changes in an individual's relationship with other people in emotions, in personality and in the role of social contexts in development.

Figure 7.3 Processes of Human Development

Figure 7.3. Source: Integrated Ecological Systems and Framework. (n.d.). The picture above illustrated the three domains of processes: Biological Processes, Cognitive Processes, and Socioemotional Processes.


Alkire, S. (2002). Dimensions of human development.  World Development, 30(2), 181-205. UK: Elsevier Science.

Baumrind, D. (1989). Rearing competent children. In W. Damon (Ed.), Child development today and tomorrow (pp. 349-378). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Nature-Nurture reconceptualized in developmental perspective: A bioecological model. Psychological Review, 101(4), 568-86.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1995). Developmental ecology through space and time: A future perspective. In P. Moen, G. Elder, & K. Lusher (Eds.), Examining lives in context: Perspectives on the ecology of human development (pp. 619-647). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2006). The biological model of human development. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Theoretical models of human development (6th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 793-828). New York, NY: Wiley.

Carter, P. (2007). Keeping it real: School success beyond black and white. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Conger, R., K. Conger, & Martin, M. (2010). Socioeconomic status, family processes, and individual development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 685-704.

Corrales, K., & Utter, S. (2005). Growth failure. In P. Q. Samour & K. King, Handbook of pediatric nutrition (3rd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Damon, W., & Lerner, R. M. (1998). Handbook of child psychology: Theoretical models of human development. New York, NY: Wiley.

Duncan, G., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (Eds.). (1997). Consequences of growing up poor. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Elder, G., & Caspi, A. (1988). Economic stress in lives: Developmental perspectives. Journal of Social Issues, 44 (4), 25-45.

Florsheim, P., Tolan P. H., & Gorman-Smith, D. (1996). Family processes and risk for externalizing behavior problems among African American and Hispanic boys. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64 (6), 1222-1230.

Furstenburg, F. F., Cook, T., Eccles, J., Elder, G. H., & Sameroff, A. (1999). Managing to make it: Urban families in high-risk neighborhoods. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Garcia-Coll, C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., Mc Adoo, H. P., Crnic, P., Wasik, B. H., & Vázquez, H. G. (1996). An integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children. Child Development, 67(5), 1891-1914.

Gottlieb, G., Wahlsten, D., & Lickliter, R. (1998). The significance of biology for human     development: A developmental psychobiological systems view.” In R Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (6th ed., Vol. 1). New York, NY: Wiley.

Hall, P., & Lamont, M. (Eds.). (2009). Successful societies: How institutions and culture affect health. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Integrated ecological systems and framework. (n.d.). Retrieved from 

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.

Markus, H. R. (2004). Culture and personality: Brief for an arranged marriage. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 75-83.

Martin, D., McCann, E., & Purcell, M. (2003). Space, scale, governance, and representation: Contemporary geographical perspectives on urban politics and policy. Journal of Urban Affairs, 25(2), 113-121.

McLoyd, V. C. (1990). The impact of economic hardship on black families and children: Psychological distress, parenting, and socioemotional development. Child Development, 61(2), 311-346.

Pearlin, L., & Kohn, M. (2009). Social class, occupation, and parental values: A cross-national study. In A. Grey (Ed.), Class and personality in society (pp. 161-184). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Rodriguez, M. L., & Walden, N. J. (2010). Socializing relationships. In D. P. Swanson, C. M. Edwards, & M. B. Spencer (Eds.), Adolescence: Development during a global era (pp. 299-340). Burlington, MA: Academic Press.

Thelen, E., & Smith, L. (1998). Dynamic systems theories.  In R. Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (6th ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Warikoo, N. (2010). Balancing act: Youth culture in the global city. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.