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The importance of the wider context: How an ecological approach can assist in understanding ICT take-up

Michael Hammond, Associate Professor at University of Warwick

Those researching technology use in education often switch between excessive optimism and excessive pessimism. They see the opportunities that new technology offers for creativity and a more relevant learner-centred curriculum. However, their initial optimism can become replaced with resignation as hoped-for changes fail to materialise. My argument in a recent paper (Hammond, 2020) is that this to-ing and fro-ing of perspective is a consequence of overestimating the degree of freedom that teachers have when it comes to classroom planning and teaching. A more nuanced approach is possible if we see the teachers’ actions as shaped by a broader context. This, I argue, is an ecological approach.

‘Core to an ecological approach is a concern to consider the relationship of individuals to the systems in which they act – a relationship which is interdependent.’

There are very many different takes on what an ecological approach looks like, but core to it is a concern to consider the relationship of individuals to the systems in which they act, a relationship which is interdependent. Bronfenbrenner (1979) is a key point of reference. He saw development taking place in a nested ecology consisting of micro, meso, exo and macro levels. Other theorists use a different vocabulary but address similar ideas: for example, Lewin (1951) introduced the idea of field theory; Valsiner (1997), canalisation; and Vygotsky famously described a process by which meanings are imported, internally processed and finally exported within a wider social system.

In my paper I draw on the literature but also several supervised doctorate case studies. Not all of this literature is self-styled ecological research, but all of it is trying to make sense of teaching within a wider context. In particular, researchers are trying to account for the use of technology within different layers of an educational systems. These layers cover the following.

  • The teacher perspective not only on ICT but on teaching in general.
  • The institutional policies and practices developed by leaders and by teacher teams.
  • Policies made beyond the institution (at the national, local government, district or school consortium levels, for instance) as well as broader discourses surrounding technology.
  • The tools available to teachers: as well as digital tools, these could include non-material resources such as curriculum documents, and non-digital resources such as whiteboards and classroom furniture.

An ecological approach is not straightforward but it is worth adopting. Its key contribution is to show that the use of technology in school depends on alignment with different layers of system. In many cases there is very little alignment (see for example Rana, Greenwood, & Turnbull, 2019). In my case studies, teachers saw their role (and their authority) as embedded in their ability to transfer a scheme of work into accessible and interactive teaching, with the result that students were sufficiently prepared for an end-of-programme assessment. Their work was ‘canalised’ in directions that left very little space for collaborative knowledge building, supported by ICT, either within or outside the classroom.

However, an ecological approach is not simply about identifying why ICT struggles to find a place: it also helps us to understand how practices have settled and become routine. Teachers will use ICT when aligned with the wider system. They will use it to support their subject knowledge; they will create resources and search for pedagogical materials on the internet; and they will use discussion forums, teacher blogs and social media sites as ‘go to’ sources for continuous professional development. An ecological approach shows the constraints on action, but it must also allow room for individual agency and disposition. Systems do not stand still, and it is possible that some emerging uses of technology may later become embedded in school schemes of work. By taking an ecological approach I believe researchers can avoid over-inflated claims about technology while remaining cautiously optimistic about change.

This blog is based on the article ‘What is an ecological approach and how can it assist in understanding ICT take-up?’ by Michael Hammond, published in the British Educational Research Journal.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hammond, M. (2019). What is an ecological approach and how can it assist in understanding ICT take-up? [Advance online publication]. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Lewin, K. (1951/1997). Resolving Social Conflicts. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rana, K., Greenwood, J., & Fox-Turnbull, W. (2019). Implementation of Nepal’s education policy in ICT: Examining current practice through an ecological model. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, e12118.

Valsiner, J. (1997). Culture and the Development of Children’s Actions: A theory of human development. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.