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A Bronfenbrenner ecological perspective on the transition to teaching for alternative certification.

This paper presents an ecologically informed approach to conceptualizing and studying the transition to formal teaching of alternative certification candidates. This perspective acknowledges that transitions play an important role in later teaching success; theorizes that a full understanding of teacher competence must examine the influence of the relationships among candidate characteristics and peer, mentor, instructor, and school site contexts. This approach recommends that future policy, practice, and research be based on the following three premises. First, the transition to teaching must be conceptualized in terms of relationships between candidates and their surrounding contexts, especially mentors. Second, that Vygotsky's sociocultural theory takes a closer look at social relationships that foster development (Crain, 2000). Third, the examination of this transition period must address how contexts and relationships develop, and how change and stability in these relationships form key aspects of candidates' transition to teaching.

Key words: Bronfenbrenner, Ecological, Alternative Certification, transition to teaching


Who are alternative certification teaching candidates? In short, these teachers are second career professionals that satisfy critical shortage areas or hard to fill positions who participate in effective, abbreviated paths to the classroom for persons outside of the education profession (Feistritzer, 1998). Like any educator, these alternatively certified teachers must become state credentialed through mandatory tests in their content areas, general knowledge, and professional teaching pedagogy as well as complete a state approved certification program.

Sociocultural influences for alternative certification teaching candidates range from the broad-based, global inputs of culture to the fraternal relationship with peers undergoing the same intense experiences. A view that captures the complexity of this sociocultural world was developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). The graphic portrays Bronfenbrenner's ecological model for understanding sociocultural influences (see Appendix A for an example of Bronfenbrenner's ecological model).

The alternative certification teacher candidate is placed in the center of the model as the candidate's most direct interactions are with the microsystem--the classroom setting in which the ACP candidate operates. These contexts include the candidate's peers within an alternative certification program. The candidate is not viewed as a passive recipient of experiences in these settings, but as someone who helps to construct the environment. The mesosystem involves relations between microsystems or connections between contexts. It is important to observe the candidate's behavior in multiple settings--such as peer, mentor, instructor, and school site contexts--to provide a more complete picture of the candidate's social development. The exosystem is involved when experiences in another social setting--in which the candidate does not have an active role--influences what the candidate experiences in an immediate context. The most abstract level in Bronfenbrenner's analysis of sociocultural influences is the macrosystem--the attitudes and ideologies of the culture. School culture runs deep and there is much for the alternative certification teacher candidate to learn about the hidden curriculum of teaching and learning.

Ecological Systems Theory

Uric Bronfenbrenner (1995), an American psychologist, is responsible for an ecological systems theory that views development within a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment. Ecological systems theory highlights four nested structures that include but extend beyond the classroom setting.

The Microsystem: Classroom Practices

At the innermost level of the environment is the microsystem, which refers to activities and interaction patterns in the candidate's immediate surroundings. Bronfenbrenner emphasizes that to understand this level, we must keep in mind that all relationships are bidirectional and reciprocal. That is, administrators, mentors, and peers affect the candidate's behavior, but the candidate's characteristics--personality style and way of thinking--also influences the behavior of others. Within the microsystem, interaction is affected by the presence of third parties. If other people in the setting are supportive, then the quality of the relationships is enhanced.

The Mesosystem: Professional Collaboration

For candidates to develop at their best, supports must also exist in the larger environment. The second level in Bronfenbrenner's theory is the mesosystem. It refers to connections among microsystems, such as alternative certification classes, peer meetings, mentoring sessions, and the school site, which foster candidates' development. This level determines how contexts and relationships develop, and how change and stability in these relationships form key aspects of the candidate's transition to teaching.

The Exosystem: Organizational Structure and Policies

The exosystem refers to social settings that do not contain candidates, but that affect their experiences in immediate settings either formal or informal as in a mentor's social network. For example, work experiences may affect a candidate's relationship with his personal family. He may juggle time management skills that require more time and energy. This might increase family conflict or stressors.

The Macrosystem: Cultural Values

The outermost level of Bronfenbrenner's model is the microsystem. It is not a specific context. Instead, it refers to the values, laws, and customs of a particular culture. The priority that the macrosystem gives to the candidate's needs affects the support they receive at lower levels of the environment.

Perhaps you have already noticed that ecological systems theory is of applied significance, since it suggests that interventions at any level of the environment can enhance development. For example, at the level of the exosystem, providing the candidate with access to a school site administrator, where she can discuss her own classroom problems and experience gratifying social relationships, would help to relieve her distress and improve her relationship with his students. Bronfenbrenner (1998) emphasizes that change at the level of the macrosystem is particularly important. Because it affects all other environmental levels, revising established values and programs in ways more favorable to candidate development has the most far-reaching impact on candidates' well-being.

Culturally Specific Practices

Today, more research is examining the relationship of culturally specific practices to development. The contributions of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) have played a major role in this trend. Vygotsky's perspective is called sociocultural theory (Crain, 2000). It focuses on how culture--the values, beliefs, customs, and skills of a social group--is transmitted. According to Vygotsky, social interaction--in particular, cooperative dialogues between learners and more knowledgeable members of society--is necessary to acquire the ways of thinking and behaving that make up a community's culture. As mentors help candidates master culturally meaningful activities, the communication between them becomes part of the alternative certification candidate's thinking. Once candidates internalize the essential features of these dialogues, they can use the language within them to guide their own actions and accomplish skills on their own.


New theories are constantly emerging, questioning and building on earlier discoveries. Ethology highlights the adaptive, or survival, value of candidate's behavior and its evolutionary history. Ecological systems theory stresses that mentor- candidate interaction is a two-way street affected by a range of environmental influences, from immediate settings to broad cultural values and programs. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory takes a closer look at social relationships that foster development. Through cooperative dialogues with mature members of the field, candidates acquire unique, culturally adaptive competencies.

Appendix A Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Model for Understanding Sociocultural Influences



Crain, W. (2000) Theories of Development (4th ed.) Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Feistritzer, C.E. (1998, February). Alternative Teacher Certification-An Overview.Retrieved March 14, 2007 from

Bronfenbrernner, U., & Morris, P.A. (1998). The Ecology of Developmental processes. In W. Denton (Series Ed.) & R.M. Lerner (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol.1 Theory (5th Ed.). New York: Wiley.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1995). Developmental Ecology Through Space and Time: A Future Perspective. In P. Moen, G.H. Elder, Jr., and K. Luscher (Eds.), Examining lives in context: Perspectives on the ecology of human development. Washington, D.C: APA Books.

Laura D. Tissington, Ed.D., Assistant Dean and NCATE Coordinator, Division of Teacher Education, College of Professional Studies, University of West Florida.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Laura D. Tissington at
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Title Annotation:Uric Bronfenbrenner
Author:Tissington, Laura D.
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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