Diverse Families: A Dialogue about Reflective Practice

Vol. 12, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676

return to KON home page

browse other KON publications

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2000. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review.


return to top of page


Kappa Omicron Nu


The American Family: Change and Diversity
—A Course with Opportunities for Reflective Human Action

Connie J. Ley and Deborah B. Gentry

Dr. Ley is Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, Illinois State University.
Dr. Gentry is Associate Dean for Research, College of Applied Science and Technology and Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, Illinois State University.


The theme of this publication, Diverse Families, is the hallmark of the course described in this article. The diverse families that have created the history of our country are the fulcrum upon which the course is based. Diverse families built our country and studying the contributions, trials, strengths, frailties and their stunning resilience provides a unique view of United States history for students and an opportunity for reflective human action.

The burgeoning of a new general education program at Illinois State University brought many opportunities and challenges to the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS). The previous general education program included a substantial contribution from the FCS department, but what would the future bring with the creation of a new curriculum? This article describes the creation of a new course to fulfill a United States [History] Traditions requirement for the new general education program. “The American Family: Change and Diversity” is the course title that resulted from collaboration among the departments of family and consumer sciences, history, and sociology. At this juncture, it has been piloted and approved as a general education offering for all students in the university. The Fall semester of 1998 began the official start of the new general education program at Illinois State University. 

Although the mechanics of introducing this course are of interest, the focus of this narrative is the opportunity this course has afforded for operationalizing the Reflective Human Action theory (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm, & Vaughn, 1995). The continual examination and development of the course has required reflective action on the part of faculty members, but additionally, students who enroll in the course are also engaging in reflective human action as they pursue study of American family history, and hopefully after the class is officially completed. The nonpositional leadership perspective is also inherent in the experience of this class. For, although the teacher is by tradition the leader, a major attribute of the course is active learning and the engagement of students in their own learning and in structuring class experiences. At different points in time, various students may take on the role of leader as they steer large and small group activities by applying their own knowledge, expertise, and life experience.

Basis of the Class

Diversity is inherent in this course through a variety of facets. Not only are the culturally diverse functions and activities of families examined, but a variety of family forms, which exist and have existed in our United States society over its history are investigated as well. In combination and as an outcome of these two perspectives, diversity in family formation, relationship dynamics, communication style, resource utilization, decision-making approaches, and reconfiguration choices following personal and national disasters are examined. The goal is to encourage students to hold less parochial perspectives and to apply their findings to other areas of study in which they might engage.

Studying the family provides an excellent context within which students can be encouraged to critically examine a situation familiar to them and, at the same time, expand their knowledge about human relationships. The family, as a basic institution of our society, is ubiquitous and disparate. Family historians and literary writers have documented variant family arrangements within our country. Comparative family scholars have described numerous family structures and mores throughout the world. Through these bodies of scholarly literature, the students' popular beliefs and definitions of the family are challenged and altered as they engage in reflective human action. Students acquire a common core of knowledge, drawn from humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Students come to recognize key events, ideas, individuals, and institutions that have influenced family life, and understand the way in which the major academic disciplines work together to provide this understanding. Since individual students are members of families, focusing on family relations in a historical and comparative setting broadens the perspectives students hold about the nature and function of the family.

In this course, students come to understand the development of United States culture through the examination of selected family practices such as: marriage, having and rearing children, working inside and outside of the home, holding a religious faith, moving one's home from one location to another, or acknowledging various rites of passage including "coming of age" and death. Students use historical and comparative methods of analysis to carry out such examination. It is also intended that students formulate explanations regarding the contributions of diverse individuals (e.g., daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, grandmothers, grandfathers), groups of individuals (e.g., farmers, new immigrants, migrant workers, laborers, homemakers, soldiers), events (e.g., immigration and migration, war; industrialization, rights movements), issues (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism, fertility, sexuality, economic change), practices (e.g., courtship, mate selection, child care and discipline, religious worship, leisure, care of the aged), and institutions (e.g., government, schools, church) to the development of and diversity within the American culture.

Design of the Course

The course was designed to meet certain specifications set forth in the university plan for general education for the specific course category United States Traditions (U. S. History). It also had to build on the prerequisite courses, which students would take prior to enrolling in American Family: Change and Diversity. The three courses, "Foundations of Inquiry (FOI)," "Language and Composition," and "Language and Communication" are either prerequisites or corequisites for this course. The goals of the "Foundations of Inquiry" course allow students to bring with them a basic understanding of the multiple disciplinary strategies people have used in the past, use today, and can use in the future to guide their life choices and solve the problems that confronted) them. It is through this examination that students engage in reflective human action. This understanding is further enhanced by the concentrated emphasis in the American Family course regarding the historical and comparative strategies used by family historians, sociologists, and family scientists. Students should bring with them, from FOI, an appreciation of ways significant historical events have helped shape issues relevant to contemporary life and the ways demographic trends and cultural attributes (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion) define or are defined by the issues of a particular time. The American Family course capitalizes on and deepens such appreciation as it specifically directs the students to examine family related issues.

For this course, students are required to read the family-focused work of historians, sociologists, family scientists, literary writers, and comparative scholars. Their successful completion of the "Language and Composition" course leaves them well prepared to critically examine the rhetorical decisions the authors made when writing for their intended audiences. Having begun a process of developing their personal writing and oral presentation skills while enrolled in the "Language and Composition" and "Language in Communication" courses, students are given further opportunities to refine and polish these skills while completing the learning tasks designed for the American Family course. Students write and engage in discussions about the nature of families in the past, present, and future as well as the forces that affect or have affected family functioning.

In the American Family course, various types and forms of families are discussed. This course seeks to build on rich historical data and literary depictions, which challenge traditional views of family structure and function. Historical and comparative analyses suggest that the glorified "traditional" family has not been omnipresent. Students examine works that analyze gender roles, distribution of power, decision-making patterns, social class, race, and ethnicity as well as the influences of economic, political, and global forces.

Through the study of immigrant, Native American, and slave families, students acquaint themselves with the many civilizations and ethnic traditions that have contributed to the larger American culture, and the contemporary world community. Understanding family within this larger context allows students to develop their ability to function as responsible participants in the social, economic, technological, and political dimensions of life, within local, national, and global communities. As a result, students formulate a wider vision from which to appreciate a variety of families, including their own.

The text Domestic Revolutions (Mintz and Kellogg, 1988) is required reading for all students. In addition, several instructors are also requiring Families in Cultural Context (DeGenova, 1997) for their sections of the class. These basic texts are supplemented with journal readings, exploration of Internet sites, video viewing, field trips, and other opportunities. All of these resources are means of discovering a history of family functioning, which has been richly varied and quite dynamic over multiple centuries.

After completing the readings, each student is encouraged to reflect upon the history of his/her own family and to engage in dynamic exchanges of ideas concerning what the future may hold for his/her family as well as for the many other families that exist today. Upon taking the course, it is hoped that students will hold fewer ethnocentric, generalized, and uncritical perceptions of the family. As a result, it is further hoped students will be better able to make informed, well-reasoned moral and ethical judgments, as well as to evaluate the moral and ethical dimensions of the family-related choices made by the people of the US in times past. 

To facilitate this study, a framework “The American Family Dynamics Cube,” illustrated in Figure 1, was developed and is used as a reference point for students as they examine diverse families throughout the history of these United States of America. The originators of the conceptual framework proposed the examination of each historical era using as a lens various cultural elements and dimensions of family and societal life. This cube itself has evolved through reflective action. As additional faculty members have come aboard to teach the course, their perspectives on the cube have helped to refine the basic framework for the course. 

See Figure: 1 - American Family Dynamics Cube

The front side of the cube denotes the various historical eras through which the American Family has transitioned. The socioeconomic/ political atmosphere of the country at each point in time provides the groundwork for understanding what was happening to families during that era. Although the history is an important facet of study in the course, it is really the springboard for examining the situations in which various families have found themselves and how they they carried out their day-to-day lives. 

The top side of the cube highlights the cultural elements of gender, class, race, religion and ethnicity, and age. Truly, the perspectives of this portion of the framework help the class focus on aspects of diversity and how they manifest themselves in various families throughout history. Students examine each of these aspects as they relate to a particular historic timeframe in an effort to compare and contrast the implications and effects each has had on how the family has carried out its roles and contributed to the community-at-large. It is the interaction of these cultural elements with the stages of family functioning shown on the remaining side of the cube that creates a unique learning experience for the students enrolled in this course. 

The third side of the cube depicts key stages through which family life evolves: family formation, family maintenance, and family reconfiguration. An examination of family formation includes looking at the courtship/dating practices, marital customs and practices, childbearing, and other customs related to the establishment of a family. The category family maintenance entails the day-to-day relating undertaken by family members, including managing resources, communicating, and socializing the young. Family reconfiguration encompasses the actions families might take when faced with adversarial conditions: death, divorce, disasters, and other such experiences which are disconcerting to family members and often call upon them to adapt, reorganize, or change their lifestyles.

Reflective Human Action

The entire process of developing this course and its continuing evolution is a product of reflective human action (Andrews, et al., 1995). Very few models existed for the curriculum and even these did not completely match the criteria, which had been set forth for Illinois State’s general education United States [History] Traditions category. Therefore, the entire process of developing the course lent itself well to the use of reflective human action --"searching for meaning and thinking about what you are doing while you are doing it" (Andrews, et al., 1995). There has been collaboration among faculty members from different departments: chaos brought about by developing a prototype of a course, which was unique and different; action of embracing a vision and developing relationships in a setting of authenticity (being open and honest in dialogue and action); and demonstrations of ethical sensibility. Designing, delivering, and evaluating this course has prompted a search for meaning and continuous thinking. Those faculty members teaching this course are committed to continuing the search. Consider the following examples.

Originally, the term family dissolution was used on the American Family Dynamics Cube. Upon the addition of another faculty member to the teaching team, the adequacy of the term “dissolution” was raised. The ensuing discussion led to the new term family reconfiguration. This is the way the course conceptualization has and continues to evolve, through critical examination, reflecting while acting, interacting with others, sharing ideas and information, and keeping focused on the vision of what the course can be. 

The reflective action for students occurs in a variety of forms. For example, early in the course, students initially experience a certain degree of chaos when they are presented with numerous scenarios describing assorted groupings of people who are varyingly related to one another by blood, legality, obligation, and so on. Essentially, these scenarios represent a variety of family forms and lifestyles, some beyond the experience of many of the students. The students are asked whether or not these scenarios match their personal definition of “family” and why. This question stimulates their thinking process. Working in small groups, students are individually called upon to give an initial reaction to the scenarios and to then discuss amongst themselves (sharing information and developing relationships) the different perspectives of the group members on each of the scenarios. There is an attempt to reach some group consensus and to create a group vision of what a family is. This experience provides a means of searching for meaning and being actively involved in thinking about what you are doing while you are doing it. How did you reach consensus in your group? What did you learn from this experience of working in your group that might facilitate positive group interaction in the future? This is just one example of the kinds of learning involvement students pursue in this class.

Faculty members who teach this course are from three different departments: family and consumer sciences, history, and sociology. To create a cohesive and comparable course experience across class sections, instructors for the class meet and communicate regularly. Doing so ensures adherence to a common core of ideas and learning experiences for students. It also facilitates ongoing assessment of the course that results in thoughtful decisions about what features or components of the course to maintain, revise, or eliminate. It is through mutual examination and sharing personal reflections about instructional design, delivery, and evaluation that the course has and continues to progress. The chaos associated with this evolving course has persisted as additional instructors have joined the teaching team as a result of increasing number of sections of the course being offered to serve students who need to enroll in the class. Table 1 depicts ways reflective human action is used by both faculty and students as they teach and learn about the diverse American Family.

Table 1 - Depiction of Reflective Human Action Principles of Practice as Related to The Course, American Family: Change and Diversity

Principle of Practice Principle Related to American Family Course
Accepting Chaos

Faculty Action:  Functioning in an unknown situation to create courses for a new general education program.

Student Action:  Confronting new views of family and family functioning.

Sharing Information

Faculty Action:  Collaboration among three departments and multiple faculty members to mount a successful new course.

Student Action:  Openness to sharing ideas and experiences related to families they have known.

Developing Relationships

Faculty Action:  Creating and maintaining reasonable working relationships while maintaining a personal teaching style.

Student Action:  Working in small and large groups with relative strangers to accomplish class goals.

Embracing Vision

Faculty Action:  Creating a vision of what the course should be and enhancing and sharing that vision as the course evolved with new faculty members as they became involved

Student Action:  Broadening personal views of the family and envisioning the future of families and a personal family future for themselves.


Because students readily identify with the concept of “family,” and their definitions of family are challenged by this course, it is likely that their intellectual curiosity is aroused. Application of the historical and comparative framework prompts students to examine family structures from a less parochial perspective and to use the same framework to enrich their understanding of other areas of study. Although some enrollees may find ways to continue their study of family relations beyond the completion of the course, it is hoped that all students, regardless of their major, will recognize family relations as an important field of study. Additionally, all these combinations of experiences for both faculty and students create an atmosphere in which reflective human action is the mode of operation.

More information about this course can be found at the following locations on the Internet. - This document provides a syllabus for the course American Family: Change and Diversity and some additional information about the course. - Scroll down to the course category United States Traditions for more information about that category and what courses in that category should accomplish.


Andrews, F. E., Mitstifer, D. I., Rehm, M., & Vaughn, G. G. (1995). Leadership: Reflective human action. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu Honor Society.

DeGenova, M. K. (1997). Families in cultural context. Mountainview, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

Mintz, S., & Kellogg, S. (1988). Domestic revolutions: A social history of American family life. New York: Free Press.

Illinois State University.(1996). General Education Documents. (Office of General Education, Illinois State University. Normal, IL 61790-4900)