Niklas Luhmann: a systems view of education and school improvement

Derek Bunyard


This paper focuses on one of the central aspects of educational theory and practice: self-reflection. The critical sociology of Niklas Luhmann is featured. Sufficient of his work is now available in translation to support an initial survey. The generality of Luhmann’s work derives from an adaptation of Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory. The principal modification Luhmann makes is to incorporate Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s concept of autopoiesis. Luhmann makes communication the central feature of social life, and the bulk of his work has focussed on the forms of communication that exist within the ‘function systems’ of mass society. In terms of the Anglophone tradition of educational research, one aspect of this theorising is particularly significant: the centrality of human subjectivity for social analysis is radically questioned. Luhmann’s critical perspective specifically targets the phenomena of self-reference and self-reflection in relation to the social effectiveness of the education system. He concludes that institutional improvement will continue to be elusive because of inherent instabilities in the processes of self-recognition.

Bunyard, D. (2010) Niklas Luhmann: a systems view of education and school improvement. Educationalfutures, [online] Vol. 2(3). Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr, 2024].