Family Education Perspectives: Implications for Family Educators’ Professional Practice and Research


  • Authors’ Note: Dr. Ruth Thomas is a Professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Luyi Lien is a Curriculum Director at the Yinghua Academy, St. Paul, Minnesota. Please address correspondence to Dr. Ruth Thomas, Curriculum & Instruction Department, 145 Peik Hall, University of Minnesota, 159 Pillsbury Drive, MN 55455; e-mail:


Three family education perspectives, preservation, improvement, and attunement, are presented as lenses through which family educators view, conduct, and critique their professional practice. Each perspective is discussed in terms of its orientation and underlying values, assumptions about the world and human beings, human goals, professional practices, roles of educators and learners and their power relations, and consequences. Examples of family education that reflect each perspective are described, as are types and examples of disciplined inquiry. Conclusions and recommendations for family educators and researchers are provided.

The purpose of this article is to make explicit family education perspectives that have been evident across time in family education. It is important for family education scholars and practitioners to understand these perspectives because they underlie, shape, and drive thinking and practice in the field. After a brief introduction that points out the significance of perspectives, each perspective is presented and critiqued. Ways in which each perspective is reflected in family education professional practice and disciplined inquiry are noted. Based on this discussion, the relevance of the perspectives to critical analysis and evaluation by family educators and researchers of their own perspectives and of curriculum and teaching materials is discussed. Conclusions and recommendations for the future are provided.

Family education is defined here as education of, for, and about families that is carried out by families, educational institutions, and communities. It involves the efforts of families themselves, professional educators, and community members and entities. It is both a phenomenon and a field of practice. Family education as a phenomenon occurs worldwide and has been a function of families and communities across human history and prehistory. Its professionalization has been spurred in Western societies with the growth of industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Perspectives are used here to mean world views. They are complexes of beliefs and assumptions, often unconsciously held, that function as a system in the formation of human beings’ perceptions, actions, thoughts, and motivations. These world views operate as lenses that dominate practitioners’ and researchers’ ways of understanding and thinking and drive their motivations and actions.

Three Family Education Perspectives

The three family education perspectives described here, preservation, improvement, and attunement, connote different values and educational purposes. They are based on conceptual analysis of family education professional literature and history of families and family education, as well as ideas underlying historical eras and educational developments in many nations.

Educational philosophies, modes of inquiry, and cultural forces that may be already familiar to readers have fueled development of the perspectives. Over the years, there have been theoretical and research frameworks that have been identified as related to education and family education (e.g., Hultgren & Coomer, 1989; Humble & Morgaine, 2002; Morgaine, 1992a, 1999; Short, 1991). These frameworks (e.g., hypothetico-deductive, communicative-interpretive, and critical-emancipatory) have focused primarily on knowledge and understanding and ways of acquiring and developing knowledge. Although relationships can be seen between these frameworks and the three perspectives presented here, the perspectives presented here are unique in several ways. First, their focus is on professional practice, on action, as reflected in their verb form (preserve, improve, and attune). These verbs also reflect deep motivations underlying educators’ professional practice, what educational practitioners guided by each perspective are trying to accomplish—and what family education research driven by each perspective is aimed at learning. Second, the perspectives acknowledge and encompass the practice of family education that has occurred across human history—beyond the modern and postmodern eras. Other frameworks, such as those noted above, are tied to the modern age of scientific research and to postmodern critique of, and alternatives to, science as a way of knowing. Third, the perspectives presented here encompass familiar perspectives such as those noted above (e.g., hypothetico-deductive, communicative-interpretive, and critical-emancipatory), which have been helpful to many of us in understanding ourselves and our work as theorists, researchers, and scholars. The perspectives presented here enable us to see more deeply into these already familiar perspectives and to focus our understanding on their implications for professional practice and research on it as well as the underlying motivations inherent in these perspectives. Although the perspectives presented here are relevant to many settings and domains of professional practice (Thomas & Lien, 2005), and may call to readers’ minds various other terms, this article focuses on the ways the perspectives are reflected in family education and in research on family education.

Each perspective is discussed in the following sections in terms of its (i) basic orientation and underlying values, (ii) assumptions about the world and humans, (iii) human goals, (iv) educational practices, (v) the roles and power relations of educators and learners, and (vi) consequences. A summary overview of the perspectives in terms of these dimensions is provided in Table 1.

Table 1.   Dimensions of Family Education Perspectives
Orientation and underlying valuesTradition and continuity valued
Preserve human beings and valued ways of living
Extend heritage and traditions
Change, progress, advancement, efficiency, standards, and standardization valued
Apply science to improve families and family life
Diverse perspectives and realities respected and valued
Bring things into better alignment so that all people have opportunities to be acknowledged, recognized, and listened to
Understand families’ views from their perspectives
Assumptions about the world and humansWorld is stable and predictable
Life as it is will (and should) continue
World is ordered, governed by laws discoverable through science
World, human beings and ways of living are predictable, modifiable, and controllable through scientific means
Cultural frame is a human creation and can be modified by human beings
Human beings vary widely. Their understandings grow out of their experiences and social conditions
People are able to act on their own behalf and to consider others as well
Human goalsSurvival of a people, group, or family and their identity, heritage, culture, traditions, and values
Maintain a group’s identity, roots, and interests
Improve, better human beings and families and their environments
Achieve the greatest possible human potential
Understand oneself, others, and forces shaping one’s own and others’ circumstances
Reciprocity and mutuality among persons and between families and society
Emancipation from oppressive forces within oneself and in the external world
Educational practices emphasizedApprenticeship, storytelling, didactic instruction, sanctions, censorship, rites, rituals, ceremoniesScientific research-based interventions intended to enrich lives and prevent and remediate problems or ameliorate their consequencesListening to learners
Engaging learners in reflection, dialog, and practical reasoning
Collaborating with learners, taking joint action with learners
Roles and power relations of educators and learnersAuthority to educate children or new members of a group or family vested in elders, who may identify ``younger elders''
or professionals to assist in some settings
Authority to identify family problems and educate family members vested in professionals specialized in an area of research-based knowledgePower is shared by participants and educators; educators are facilitators, jointly responsible partners with learners
ConsequencesTraditional values and culture sustained as long as external forces and conditions allow
Unexamined ideologies, customs, practices, and social structures, whether functional or not, pass from one generation to another
Way of life may cease to exist if external context changes in ways that don’t support sustaining it
Technological developments that affect family life in various ways
Stress resulting from continual pressure to improve
Improvements often only temporary and may create other problems
Families viewed in terms of labels ascribed to them and dependent on professionals
Learners' self and other awareness and understanding increased as is understanding of own and others' contexts; may lead to feeling overwhelmed
Learners' sensitivity to power dynamics increased
Learners see relevance to their lives of knowledge learned

Examples of family education and family education research reflecting each perspective are also provided. Disciplined inquiry regarding family education contributes to understanding of family education, including its origins, contexts, design and development, processes, and consequences. It encompasses, but is not limited to, philosophic and historical work; evaluation studies; various kinds of empirical research regarding educators, students, and programs; and curriculum development and research.

The Preservation Perspective

The preservation perspective has existed in some form or other over epochs of human existence in which knowledge and practices deemed valuable and essential for survival have been passed from one generation to another. Although its predominance has decreased over time, it is reflected today in both formal and nonformal education as well as in the informal education that occurs in family and community settings in any society. For example, the preservation perspective is evident when older adults share their cultural history and traditions with children and when children learn by watching adults’ activities and participating in them (Rogoff, 1990; Suina & Smolkin, 1994).

Basic orientation and underlying values.  Preservation of human beings and of valued ways of living are central concerns in this perspective. Extending the heritage and traditions of a people, a nation, a group, or a family across time is a central interest. This requires transmission of traditional values and customs to new members.

Assumptions about the world and humans.  An assumption underlying the preservation perspective is that the world is stable, unchanging, and cyclical. Since the world is seen as largely predictable and lives are viewed as likely to be the same from generation to generation, it is assumed that younger generations will and should become like older generations in their ways of thinking and living (Suina & Smolkin, 1994). Knowledge is seen as fixed and as needing to be transmitted to each generation so that life as it is can be perpetuated. Historically, when people have immigrated to another culture, and more recently, as rates of social change have increased across the world, an assumption that valued traditions and ways of thinking must be protected against erosion or extinction is also evident.

Human goals.  Goals reflected in the preservation perspective are focused on survival. Survival of a people, group, or family and their heritage, culture, traditions, and values is the central goal. Passing on a way of life and valued skills and knowledge that are seen to have worked for a group over time is viewed as critical to future generations’ survival. Hunting and fishing, and food gathering, production, processing, and preservation have been survival skills taught and learned in families across the world for epochs. In many present-day societies, families teach other kinds of survival knowledge and skills. For example, African American parents teach their children ways of behaving in order to survive in an environment that is often hostile to them (Ogbu, 1994).

Maintaining a group’s identity and roots is another human goal reflected in the preservation perspective. Immigrant families and communities often teach their children to carry out traditional customs from their countries of origin in order to preserve their cultural heritage. In multi-ethnic countries where minorities may face the crisis of being assimilated, they may mount considerable efforts toward preserving vanishing identity and group roots. For example, Native American groups in the United States are working to preserve their languages. Sudanese African refugees in the United States maintain ties to family members in Africa and marry within their group in order to preserve traditional Sudanese family values (Shandy, 2003).

Maintaining a lineage’s interests is also a goal reflected in the preservation perspective. Families teach children how to behave in ways that are deemed appropriate for the family’s background and maintaining its status. For example, upper-class families may teach their children to recognize who the family deems to be appropriate associates and who are not. Such families often teach proper social behavior for their social class, as well as economic, social, and political strategies that contribute to maintaining the family’s fortune and status. Many middle-class families engage in similar status-maintaining efforts (Ehrenreich, 1989).

Educational practices.  Strategies used in preservation-oriented education include apprenticeship; storytelling; didactic instruction; sanctions; censorship; and rites, rituals, and ceremonies. Elders often act as guides for apprentices, but anyone skilled in what is to be learned is a potential guide, including professionals. The guide and the learner work together to make products and carry out traditions (Rogoff, 1990). The guide acts as a role model and as a mentor who inducts the learner into the culture of the setting, role, or task. For example, in many countries around the world, after giving birth, a new mother’s relative (usually her own mother or mother-in-law) lives in to help take care of the newborn and pass on parenting knowledge.

Providing direction through narratives is also often reflected in preservation-oriented family education. Narrative direction through oral storytelling, used by groups to educate their young long before written forms of language were developed, continues today. For example, a new member in a family is offered family stories, which pass on customs, values, and traditions.

Explicit, didactic, verbal messages, exhortations, and instruction are used by elders to teach youth ways of living and doing what is deemed important. Saitoti (1986), a member of the African Maasai group, described how specific instructions from his father taught him to keep a watchful eye on his sheep, keep predators away, and keep the herd safe from rain and flood. Likewise, President Theodore Roosevelt’s letters to his children told them how to behave in college and how to make decisions (Roosevelt, 1919).

Sanctions are used to help members of a family or group learn desired behavior. Sanctions involve giving formal and explicit approval of what is considered good behavior or disapproval of what is considered bad behavior. For example, Hopi elders have the authority to correct the behavior of any child in the community (Suina & Smolkin, 1994), and the Amish community shuns members whose actions meet with disapproval (Kraybill, 1989). Censorship of media and art is also used to maintain and preserve a family’s or group’s norms and values. Elders may censor what children are exposed to on the Internet or television or prohibit exposure to certain books or art.

Rites, rituals, and ceremonies are used to teach lessons and mark events important to preservation goals. For example, a young child may be required to participate in tribal dancing events that represent the group’s history. The bar mitzvah ceremony is a rite of passage for Jewish boys at age 13 in which they become part of the adult society that participates in religious practices. Likewise, the rituals, rites, and ceremonies of the African American church in the United States have been identified as a form of family education important in preserving African American culture (Warren, 1995).

Roles and power relations of educators and learners.  Elders, who have developed abilities and knowledge, pass them on, along with underlying values, by correcting children and new group members and teaching desired behavior and ways. In more recent times, teachers are an example across the world of professionals who are given this authority.

Educators’ and learners’ roles are quite distinct. Power is lodged in tradition and in the highly expert master or well-versed elder. Elders are viewed as possessing the necessary knowledge of the correct way to live because they have lived a long time and experienced many things. It is believed that the young should submit to the authority of their elders. In communities, priests, ministers, teachers, and community leaders are viewed as knowledgeable and given power and authority to educate others. In families, extended family and clan members, parents, and siblings are typically given authority to educate children and adults who join the family. Learners are to follow their elders’ guidance and learn what they are taught.

Consequences.  An overriding intended consequence of the preservation perspective is that a highly valued heritage viewed as essential to a group’s identity and future is sustained. Traditional values and culture and social structures are maintained. If a group’s context changes, however, the preservation perspective may hamper the group’s ability to adapt, and the group may not survive. An example of this unintended consequence is the Shaker society that developed in England and the eastern U.S. in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Sexual intercourse was prohibited. New members came from new converts and orphaned individuals. Despite a decline in these sources of new members, the group maintained its views. It did not survive (Gidley & Bowles, 1990; Horgan, 1982).

Another unintended consequence is that new generations are often expected to continue ideologies, customs, and practices for which justification, explanation, and function have ceased or been forgotten. In her book, Maasai Days, Bentsen (1989) reported asking older women who participated in the ritual of female circumcision why it was done. The women reported that the ritual “has been done this way since the beginning,… nobody gave us the reason either, but you can’t get married until you are circumcised” (p. 204).

Family education examples reflecting the preservation perspective.  Examples of preservation-oriented family education include materials produced by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center that assist Native American parents in raising their children as Native Americans in a contemporary American culture (Franzen, 1992; Grough, 1990) and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family educational efforts and materials that seek to preserve traditional families (e.g., Dobson, 2002, 2005). Jean Zimmerman’s (2003) discussion of longing for aspects of the past while living in a context driven by the improvement perspective discussed in the next section reflects the contrasts between the preservation perspective of family life and family life as shaped by the improvement perspective and implications of each for family education.

Research already mentioned that has illumined understanding of preservation-oriented family education includes the Vygotskian socio-historical-based research of Rogoff (1990) and Suina and Smolkin (1994), that of family education professional Warren (1995), and that of anthropologist Ogbu (1994). Historical research and biography (e.g., President Theodore Roosevelt’s letters and Saitoti’s, 1986 work already mentioned are examples) can aid understanding of family education that has occurred in nonprofessional contexts, but can also contribute to the design and development of current preservation-oriented family education. For example, oral histories and narrative research are particularly relevant to this purpose. The Native American nations who are attempting to learn from elders in an attempt to preserve rapidly disappearing Native American languages and ways are examples of this kind of inquiry. Other work in a similar historical vein that is relevant to family education classroom processes is that by Zemelman, Bearden, Simmons, and Leki (2000) on engaging learners in learning and writing about their own family stories and histories.

The Improvement Perspective

The improvement perspective is rooted in the scientific and technological movement that produced the modern era and the Industrial Revolution in the West and which has continued to spread throughout various parts of the world. This rational scientific view, initially applied to technical and economic problems, came to be seen as also relevant to social and cultural needs and problems. In the United States, this trend resulted in application of science to family and educational problems beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the emergence of family education as a profession (Clarke, 1973; Thorndike, 1919). Benefits of the scientific approach were seen as improving families and student learning in effective and powerful ways.

Basic orientation and underlying values.  The improvement of things, procedures, ways of life, and human beings is the main intent underlying the improvement perspective. This perspective is intended to lead people to a better life, one that is more efficient and that more adequately meets prescribed standards. Progress is a central value; scientific ideas of prediction and control are seen as avenues through which human lives can be advanced.

Assumptions about the world and humans.  Influenced by scientific ideas, an instrumental technical world view underlies the improvement perspective. A single reality is assumed—the world is seen as having order and laws. It is assumed that humans and the world are modifiable and changeable. Change is seen as cumulative. Knowledge is viewed as natural laws that can be discovered through scientific research and scientific methods that make it possible to control and predict human behavior and the environment. It is believed that this knowledge can be accumulated and applied to all human beings (Morgaine, 1992a). Problems are seen as located within individuals and families. It is believed that if people possess the right knowledge, they will modify their behavior and create a better life or that, if needed, professionals with the right scientific knowledge can create interventions that will help individuals and families improve themselves and their lives (Braybrook, 1987; Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Humble & Morgaine, 2002; Morgaine, 1992a).

Human goals.  Human betterment is the central human goal reflected in this family education perspective. This perspective reflects human beings’ need to grow and develop beyond their present condition, and to strive for a better life for themselves than the one they currently have. These human strivings have come to be associated with the idea of making progress.

A better life and improved human beings are goals that have multiple aspects, including adding new capacities, relieving or deterring suffering, and achieving the greatest possible human potential. For example, educational settings help parents develop their abilities to communicate effectively with their children with the intent of improving the parent-child relationship (adding new capacities). Research on family communication contributes to developing the content for such educational efforts. Based on research findings about factors associated with human health and longevity, families and individuals have been taught about exercise and other health habits that can result in increased life expectancy (greater human potential).

Educational practices.  Improvement-oriented family educators focus attention on target populations as educational audiences. Prevention is a major educational strategy. Preventing problems before they happen is seen as easier and as creating less suffering than fixing them once they have occurred; once problems occur, they may not be able to be solved. Prevention involves identifying families at risk for failing to meet standards set by authorities and experts as norms. For example, in the early 1900s with funding from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foundation, middle and upper-middle class women schooled in child development theories ran nursery schools for immigrant children and involved parents in observing with the intent that the parents would learn how to parent correctly (Schlossmann, 1983). More recently, findings from empirical research are used as the basis for designing educational interventions intended to bring about change in behavior, patterns of living, and ways of thinking (Dumka, Roosa, Michaels, & Suh, 1995). When problems have not been prevented, a remediation strategy, intended to fix existing problems to the extent possible and prevent further problems, is needed. Remedies typically go beyond education to include treatment, as Todd’s (2000) report of an intervention strategy reflects.

When it is not possible to solve or fix a problem, an amelioration strategy is used. Amelioration programs are intended to reduce suffering and pain. Support programs often reflect this strategy. Examples include supporting families experiencing health crises, debilitating illness, death, and divorce (Cook, Heller, & Pickett-Schenk, 1999) and providing education about community and other resources available to parents struggling with a plethora of unavoidable, simultaneous, stressful demands (Dickinson & Cudaback, 1992; Halpern & Covey, 1983).

Unlike the other improvement-oriented strategies already discussed, the enrichment strategy is intended for already well-functioning individuals and families who could, with help, do and be even better. Enrichment programs reflect an ideal inherent in the improvement perspective—that although no one can ever reach one’s ultimate possibilities, one should nevertheless strive to do so. Examples include enrichment-focused marriage education, such as the Couple Commitment and Relationship Enhancement Program (Halford, Moore, Wilson, Farrugia, & Dyer, 2004) and Couples Coping Enrichment Training (Bodenmann & Shantinath, 2004) that focus on positive communication, conflict management, positive expression of affection, and other skills that predict improved relationship outcomes.

Roles and power relations of educators and learners.  Professionals who have studied the accumulated research-based knowledge in an area of practice are viewed as experts qualified to teach others how to improve their condition. Learners are viewed as lacking the knowledge and skills they need in order to improve. Given the range of groups targeted by the prevention, remediation, amelioration, and enrichment strategies, everyone is a potential audience for an improvement-oriented program. Learners are expected to want a more satisfactory life, to be highly motivated to improve their situation, and to want to learn from experts and follow their teachings.

The improvement perspective places the power to influence human lives in experts, including researchers and professional educators. Expertise is viewed as possessing specialized knowledge and skill in areas relevant to improvement purposes. Systems that grant licenses and certifications to practitioners who meet requirements and standards that define expertise are looked to as insurers of expertise.

Consequences.  Many would agree the improvement perspective has, indeed, led to a better life for many families. Families have been educated about nutrition and safe food handling, which has promoted physical health. For much of the 20th century, improvement-oriented family educators have worked with families to help them use and benefit from technological developments of various kinds (e.g., household equipment and newly developed fibers and chemicals intended to save time and labor and help families reach a higher standard of sanitation and appearance in their person and their homes). Family educators have also worked with families to help them improve their financial decisions and management, apply esthetic principles in creating their wardrobes and living spaces, improve their family relationships, and to be parents knowledgeable about children’s development. The content the educators have taught has been knowledge created by researchers who have studied various aspects of families’ lives and environments.

Where evaluation studies have been done of improvement perspective-oriented family education efforts, there has been evidence that many of the intended improvements have occurred (Blinn-Pike, 1996). It is increasingly apparent, however, that improvement perspective-oriented family education has not had significant impact on some conditions and has also had unintended consequences.

One result of the continual pressure to move upward and onward is that human beings have learned to be in a constant state of dissatisfaction with their current situation and to expect to improve their lives by continual striving. In American society, the press for improving one’s social status and that of one’s children has led to parents working more and more hours to generate income that will support more and more opportunities for themselves and their children, which has taken a toll on family relationships and health (Jacobs & Gerson, 2001; Schor, 1991). The impact of pushing children to develop more and more capacities and interests at earlier and earlier ages can be the opposite of that intended (Chase, 1999; Elkind, 1988). Topics such as overindulgence and insufficient rest leading to physical exhaustion, perpetual states of irritability, and strained relationships are noted in recent popular books as pain-producing phenomena on the increase (Clarke, Dawson, & Bredehoft, 2004; Kurcinka, 2006).

In addition, what is considered to be the standard of a good life by the majority and by experts may not fit everyone. Despite the many scientific approaches to improving human beings, it is very difficult for even an expert to change people who don’t want to follow their guidance. Teen pregnancy prevention programs are an example of this. Developers of these programs have assumed that teen girls don’t want to get pregnant. In looking more deeply into the views of those who became pregnant despite program participation, researchers have discovered that this assumption is not necessarily valid (Luker, 1992).

Because improvement-oriented family education programs focus on problems identified by experts who are external to families’ situations, real problems are sometimes obscured. This leads to improvements that may be quite temporary because improvement-oriented programs tend to treat symptoms rather than addressing root causes of actual problems. In addition, because of their problem orientation, improvement perspective-oriented experts may focus only on deficits and ignore family strengths. Families may become dependent on experts to guide them and make decisions for them. As a result, families may not learn to initiate changes that reflect their own interests or how to sustain changes over the long term without the expert’s help.

Significant problems are often at risk of being oversimplified when this perspective prevails and professionals have come to realize that their own efforts may exacerbate rather than alleviate problems of families. Problems in real life are often more complex than at first assumed and are not always rooted only in individuals and families, as improvement-oriented practitioners tend to presume. Because problems often involve hidden dimensions that may not be recognized and taken into account, new problems often are created by solutions intended to resolve presumed problems. For example, programs focused on helping families do a better job of managing meager financial resources may mask the real problem of insufficient income and generate feelings of inadequacy and incompetence.

Another frequent consequence of improvement-oriented programs is that individuals and groups are often labeled in terms of their problem or what they are diagnosed by program providers to be lacking (e.g., single mothers, teenage parents, delinquent teens, custodial fathers, low-income families, and dysfunctional families). People who bear such labels may feel that they receive biased treatment from others based on their label and come to believe that the label defines their identity to the detriment of their well-being.

Finally, despite the overt valuing of change this perspective reflects, the status quo is preserved by such systems as the practitioner regulation system noted earlier. This system, ostensibly intended to protect families served by family professionals, functions to maintain experts’ power.

Family education examples reflecting the improvement perspective.  Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) (Gordon, 2000) and Family Effectiveness Training (F.E.T.) (Gordon, 2004) are classic examples of improvement-oriented family education programs. Characteristics of P.E.T. that Doherty and Ryder (1980) point out in their analysis and critique of this program apply to improvement-oriented family education programs in general: (a) presents a universal formula for everyone to follow, (b) focuses on techniques to the exclusion of other considerations, and (c) may lead family members to mistrust their own capabilities. Other examples of improvement perspective-oriented family education programs include prevention curricula and programs described by Conone (1991) and Nagel and Jones (1993), and the Blinn-Pike (1996) intervention program mentioned earlier. Conone reports extension education efforts that inform adults and teens about developmental disabilities, their causes, and actions likely to reduce the probability of their occurrence in offspring. Nagel and Jones describe models for preventing eating disorders in teenage girls through Family and Consumer Sciences education. Blinn-Pike reports an educational program designed to prevent teen pregnancy.

Dumka et al. (1995) outline the research process surrounding improvement-oriented family education programs and interventions. Research on families and their environments and factors influencing them provides input to program content and design and to target audience identification. Research involving pilot tests of program and intervention designs and processes assists in identifying those that are effective in bringing about change intended by program developers. Evaluation of family education programs involves the use of research methods (e.g., scientific controls and measurement) in determining if predicted changes in families result from educational and other interventions. The examples of research already mentioned reflect one or more aspects of Dumka et al.’s research process. Aoki’s (1986) outline of program evaluation questions includes those most typically of interest in evaluation of improvement-oriented family education programs. These include questions focused on effectiveness of a program in achieving desired outcomes, comparison of alternative programs’ effectiveness and efficiency, fidelity of program implementation, and cost-benefit analyses. Such research is typically of interest to and has value for policy makers in making decisions about continuing and supporting programs.

The Attunement Perspective

The attunement perspective is considered to be a more recent perspective guiding educational practice. It has received considerable attention in the latter half of the 20th century, fueled by the development of postmodern thought (Ellsworth, 1989), critical science (Habermas, 1971, 1973), and disillusionment with the other two perspectives. For example, when the preservation perspective predominates, individuals and groups who prefer different roles than those they occupy in the system may experience their place as oppressive and socially unjust with little hope of change. The lack of success of many improvement-oriented interventions in eradicating or even reducing family problems, and recent emergence of family problems in currently industrializing societies similar to problems in fully industrialized societies have suggested that societal forces play a significant role in the problems of family life. Family and family education scholars (Brown, 1986; Doherty & Ryder, 1980; Morgaine, 1992a) have provided critiques and ideas that underlie the attunement perspective. The attunement perspective focuses on family’s lives and experiences from their own point of view, on the impact of culture and societal forces on families, and on bringing about better alignment and well-being of both families and society by changing the society and culture and supporting families in changing themselves.

Basic orientation and underlying values.  The attunement perspective is oriented to attuning discrepancies, to bringing things into better alignment so that all people have opportunities to be acknowledged, recognized, and listened to. Dictionary definitions of attune that most closely capture its intended meaning as used here include make receptive or aware and to be aware of (Oxford Reference Online, n.d.); “to bring into accord, harmony, or sympathetic relationship” (Flexner et al., 1993, p. 134). Neither the preservation nor the improvement perspectives emphasize human beings’ widely varying goals, intentions, and meanings for their experiences. In contrast, the attunement perspective leads educators to focus on understanding families’ perspectives, situations, and goals and assists them in bringing their situations and their goals into alignment.

Assumptions about the world and humans.  Assumptions underlying the attunement perspective include a view of society as created by human beings and changeable by them (Hultgren, 1989; Humble & Morgaine, 2002). The larger society is seen as influencing personal lives and experiences, whether or not such influence is desired, and as hindering, restricting, or constraining family ideals (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991; Brookfield, 1993). Consequently, it is believed that education should not just fix individuals to fit into an existing cultural frame, but should involve examining and changing the cultural frame.

It is assumed that multiple realities and interests exist (Smith, 1983; Smith & Heshusius, 1986), that no one reality represents right or truth, and that there is not just one way of living for everyone nor one solution for a problem. Accordingly, it is assumed that many human actions cannot be predicted and that it is not ethical for professionals to impose their power and ideas to control families (Morgaine, 1992a, 1999). People’s perspectives are assumed to grow out of their social conditions, and knowledge is seen as dependent on social realities (Brown, 1985; Humble & Morgaine, 2002; Walker, Martin, & Thompson, 1988). People are believed to have the ability to make decisions and initiate action in their own interest and on their own behalf, and to seek help when needed. It is also assumed that an individual’s destiny and actions affect not only the individual, but others and society as well, and that people have the capacity to respect other people’s perspectives, abilities, and rights.

Human goals.  The primary goal reflected in the attunement perspective is to understand individuals and how they are shaped by their social, historical, and cultural contexts. Being heard and understood, being accepted and valued as a person, seeking to understand others and their situations, and becoming more self-aware and aware of one’s own situation and circumstances in society are all goals that are central to this perspective.

Reciprocity and mutuality among persons is another goal reflected in the attunement perspective. When reciprocity and mutuality are present among people, people are responsive to each other, there is mutual give and take, individuals and families consider others’ situations, keep other human beings’ interests and benefits in mind, and act in sympathy with others’ needs instead of thinking only about themselves. Reciprocity and mutuality between families and society is also a goal. For example, when family members devote their time to community events and volunteer work they care about, they get to know their neighbors and their environment. In return, the community is strengthened and moved closer to being what the family feels is a supportive and desirable place to live.

A closely related goal is emancipation from domination and oppressive forces within oneself and in the external world. For example, becoming aware of how one has learned to make decisions and choices based on others’ approval rather than one’s own capacities and interests can free one to make more authentic life choices (Knippel, 1998). Families who come to understand the influences of enormously powerful market forces that drive continual striving for more are freer to make conscious choices about what they truly need and want and what costs they as a family are willing to sustain for what benefits.

Educational practices.  Educational practitioners who work from the attunement perspective see individuals within their social, historical, and cultural contexts; they respect each person and each person’s experience as having value. Because this perspective holds that people have the capacity to gain insight and change themselves (including their perceptions of themselves), educators engage learners in reflecting on their own experience, their perspective of their situation and problems, and how people are influenced by their surroundings as a starting point for becoming aware of the relationship between individuals, family, and society. For example, single-parent families may see themselves as having lower status than other families and may actually have lower status in a society that holds up two-parent families as a norm or ideal. Educators may engage single parents in examining social meanings attached to terms, such as happy families and single parents, to help single-parent families reflect on the influence of society on their situation and view of themselves. Educators encourage and welcome diverse ideas and viewpoints and may introduce alternative views in the course of a discussion, but do not impose their views as better or right. Attunement-oriented family educators also help families to see a bigger picture and implications of their actions for others instead of only focusing on themselves.

Practical reasoning is taught to families by attunement-oriented family educators as a way of engaging them in thinking about their situation and taking action regarding it. Practical reasoning is focused on everyday situations in which a discrepancy between reality and a desired state exists (Coombs, 1997; Fedje, 1998; Thomas, 2003). Participants are asked to consider their situation and their valued ends, to examine relevant contextual factors, and to identify actions that might bring these into better alignment. Sometimes action involves changing oneself or one’s view of one’s situation; sometimes it involves taking steps to change one’s environment (Knippel, 1998; Thomas, 2003).

Instead of seeing families’ situations as the result of family members’ lack of skills and knowledge and targeting vulnerable persons and families as at risk for various problems, attunement-oriented educators view the personal problems of individuals and families as having roots in the social, political, and economic structure of society and try to develop awareness of families’ plight from the families’ perspectives (Acker, Barry, & Esseveid, 1983; Ryan, 1976; Walker et al., 1988). For example, limited income pushes many families to the margins of society, to the point where they may avoid opportunities to make themselves heard and may ignore community resources that could help them out of their situation. This insularity may make them even more powerless because their needs are unlikely to be considered when they do not have a voice in their community. Attunement-oriented educators work with such families by listening to them, by engaging the families in helping the educator understand the families’ perspectives, by sharing and helping families find information and resources relevant to their goals, and by working with the families to stimulate change that will get their needs met.

Roles and power relations of educators and learners.  The efforts of family educators are directed toward individual family members and whole families as well as groups within society and the culture itself. The family educator uses educational processes that make power relationships among participants and the educator more equal than is the case for the other two perspectives. Both educators and learners take roles as teachers and learners. Because control of the educational situation is shared by educator and participants, the educator is a jointly responsible partner who shares the educational situation with participants and involves them in developing their own goals for their learning and determining how they want to proceed.

Consequences.  Within the attunement perspective, individuals, families, groups of families, the institution of family, and the larger society and culture are all seen as potentially benefiting from family education. Educators and learners alike come to see themselves as reflective agents who can think deeply, have choices, make decisions, and act on their own behalf (Freire, 2000). The family education literature reflecting this perspective has provided helpful discussions of attunement-oriented perspectives and educational practices and has noted learners’ development of greater self-awareness and understanding and greater awareness and understanding of others (Crosbie-Burnett, 1992; Fedje, 1998; Humble & Morgaine, 2002; McClelland, 1997; Morgaine, 1992a; Walker et al., 1988). Walker (1996) has reported that teaching in ways that develop learners’ sensitivity to power dynamics and ability to see connections between real-life situations and the broader social structure does not deter or sacrifice their interest and motivation for learning concepts and principles (Walker, 1996). Furthermore, learners are likely to see the relevance to their lives of concepts and principles learned. Learners’ increasing awareness, however, may seem overwhelming and cause them to experience psychological and emotional distress (Brookfield, 1994).

Family education examples reflecting the attunement perspective.  Because programs based on the attunement perspective are codeveloped by educators and learners, they tend not to depend on published curricula intended for use across educational practitioners and settings. Reports of enacted programs are a more likely form of documentation. An example of such a report is the critical theory-based Process Parenting Program (Morgaine, 1992b, 1994). Examples of published family education curriculum materials that do exist and are intended to reflect attunement-oriented perspectives include Staaland and Strom’s (1996)Family, Food, and Society and a practical reasoning-focused parent education model and curriculum (Parenthood Education Curriculum Project, 1990; Southers, 1990). Other examples of family education that reflect attunement-oriented teaching (and that contrast with the pregnancy prevention orientation of improvement-oriented programs) include McClelland and Hamilton (1995), who take students through analysis and critique of societal meanings attached to a pregnancy prevention device and Baber and Murray (2001), whose feminist approach to teaching sexuality engages students in considering taken-for-granted information, the historical context surrounding perspectives about sex and sexual behavior, and power dimensions of sexuality.

Research regarding attunement family education programs is sparse. This paucity of program-focused inquiry is not unique to family education (Ellsworth, 1989). Much of the past three decades of inquiry regarding this perspective in family education has been devoted to philosophic inquiry and to developing modes of teaching and learning and teacher education that reflect attunement. The family education literature has only recently begun to include reports of attunement-oriented teaching and learning as family educators, many of whom were prepared as improvement-oriented educators, have struggled to understand attunement perspective-oriented ideas and learn ways of thinking, being, and practicing as educators that are consistent with them. As already noted, some educator-scholars have reported learners’ development of greater self-awareness and understanding and greater awareness and understanding of others in classes that reflect attunement-oriented educational practices (Baber & Murray, 2001; Crosbie-Burnett, 1992; Fedje, 1998; Humble & Morgaine, 2002; McClelland, 1997; McClelland & Hamilton, 1995; Morgaine, 1992a; Walker, 1996; Walker et al., 1988) and that learners’ motivation for and interest in learning of content concepts and principles in these classes has not been lessened (Walker, 1996).

Feminist research approaches and teaching and learning approaches have been used by those conducting attunement-oriented inquiry regarding family education and by educators in developing attunement-oriented practices (Acker et al., 1983; Walker et al., 1988). Aoki’s (1986) outline of program evaluation questions includes several that are relevant to the attunement perspective’s orientation. Among these are questions focused on interests, perspectives, and assumptions underlying a particular curricula or program, how various stakeholders (including participants) view it, and what they see as its strengths and weaknesses.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This article has discussed three family education perspectives. Literature reflective of each perspective, including research regarding it, has been cited, and examples of educational practices and materials as well as disciplined inquiry have been provided. Awareness of these perspectives can help family educators and researchers clarify their own beliefs, values, and ideas regarding their professional practice and research and gain a sense of their own world view. An understanding of the perspectives can also help family educators and researchers make conscious choices about whether their orientations are appropriate for specific contexts and whether other orientations deserve exploration. The perspectives also provide lenses, language, and concepts useful in discussions of curriculum and professional practice among family educators. These lenses, language, and concepts are also useful for researchers in formulating family education-focused research questions. By considering curriculum, educational practices, and educational materials in light of the perspectives, family educators and researchers can see more deeply into the nature and potential consequences of these practices and materials and better design educational programs and research regarding them.

Documentation and reporting of attunement-oriented programs, their processes, participants, and consequences would aid further understanding of this developing perspective and provide a useful foundation from which practitioners and scholars might create modes of practice appropriate to it. Much of the existing literature regarding family education reflecting this perspective is focused on courses and educational practices rather than on program-level consequences. There is a need for more experience among family educators with the attunement perspective and more scholarly inquiry regarding it in order to better understand and critique its strengths, limitations, and consequences. We recommend that family educators work to create attunement-oriented programs, report their efforts, and work with researchers to understand and report the consequences of such programs in the professional literature. Helpful ideas for obtaining findings concerning consequences are provided by Vincenti (1999) and in Aoki’s (1986) discussion of situational interpretive and critical theoretic evaluation orientations.

Since each perspective is a coherent system of beliefs, assumptions, values, and practices, and since the underlying philosophical positions and assumptions inherent in each perspective reflect different, and in some instances contradictory world views, it can be argued that it is not reasonable to think of combining the perspectives, of drawing strengths from each in forming family education curriculum, practices, and programs. We would argue, however, that there may be a promising way of combining the perspectives. Because in the attunement perspective learners are viewed as participants in decisions about their learning and emphasis in program goals is placed on learners’ interests, the attunement perspective is more likely than the other two perspectives to engage participants’ interest and motivation. Participants see what learning is needed and why it is needed in order to accomplish their own purposes. If the attunement perspective were an overarching framework within which family education programs were created, the improvement and preservation perspectives might be effectively infused for certain specific purposes such as skill development and developing appreciation for and understanding of historical roots and origins. Understanding the degree to which and in what ways the perspectives lend themselves to being integrated is an important agenda for family education researchers.