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The EcoEducational-BioPsychoSocial Model in Everyday Education: A Suggestion for Researching Holistic Well-Being as a Contribution to Healthier Learner Autonomy



In this short article, we propose that education could benefit greatly if students and teachers were tuned into the biopsychosocial parts of our holistic well-being, which is considered to be autonomy supportive, as a prerequisite of learning. Thus far, education has largely operated on a bias toward cognitive processes as the sole meaningful contributor to learning, focusing on the acquisition of knowledge while often seeing the biological, psychological, and social contextual contributions as unrelated. With the recent generation of positive psychology and positive sociology, researchers and educators alike are becoming more aware of the contribution that contextual well-being (i.e. considering biopsychosocial factors) has upon learning. This growing awareness suggests the need to broaden rather than narrow our understandings of causality both in the classroom and with learning at large. We propose that showing attention to this wider context could improve student learning substantially and support student development of a more sustainable autonomy.
ISSN 2433-5444
Relay Journal
The EcoEducational-BioPsychoSocial Model in
Everyday Education: A Suggestion for
Researching Holistic Well-Being as a
Contribution to Healthier Learner Autonomy
Tim Murphey, Kanda University of International
Studies, Japan
Curtis Edlin, Kanda University of International Studies,
To cite this article
Murphey, T. & Edlin, C. (2020). The EcoEducational-BioPsychoSocial model in
everyday education: A suggestion for researching holistic well-being as a
contribution to healthier learner autonomy.
Relay Journal, 3
(1), 110-121.
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This article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Please
contact the authors for permission to re-print elsewhere.
The EcoEducational-BioPsychoSocial Model in Everyday Education:
A Suggestion for Researching Holistic Well-Being as a Contribution to
Healthier Learner Autonomy
Tim Murphey, Kanda University of International Studies
Curtis Edlin, Kanda University of International Studies
In this short article, we propose that education could benefit greatly if students and
teachers were tuned into the biopsychosocial parts of our holistic well-being, which is
considered to be autonomy supportive, as a prerequisite of learning. Thus far, education
has largely operated on a bias toward cognitive processes as the sole meaningful
contributor to learning, focusing on the acquisition of knowledge while often seeing the
biological, psychological, and social contextual contributions as unrelated. With the
recent generation of positive psychology and positive sociology, researchers and
educators alike are becoming more aware of the contribution that contextual well-being
(i.e., considering biopsychosocial factors) has upon learning. This growing awareness
suggests the need to broaden rather than narrow our understandings of causality both in
the classroom and with learning at large. We propose that showing attention to this wider
context could improve student learning substantially and support student development of
a more sustainable autonomy.
Keywords: educational ecologies, biopsychosocial model, well-being, positive
psychology and sociology
There are times in our classrooms when students’ behavior-learning connections
should not be ignored. Examples might include when our students are nodding off in
otherwise interesting classes, when they are running constantly to the bathroom, when
they continually sit in the back as far away from others as possible, when they chronically
come late and dart off quickly at the bell. These students may be suffering from
biopsychosocial problems that are disturbing and limiting their educational endeavors.
This is natural as students live the vast majority of their lives away from our classrooms
and yet are still bringing the rest of their worlds to class with them through their
biologies, psychologies, and sociologies. In this article we propose that showing at least a
modicum of attention to this wider context could improve student learning substantially.
The BioPsychoSocial Model
We both independently first read about the biopsychosocial model in Deci and
Flaste (1995, pp. 170-173) in late 2019. Tim then further educated himself with several
articles which describe and expand on the ideas (Borell-Carrió, 2004; Reisinger, 2014),
while Curtis read and considered further about its relation to performance (Cotterill,
2017). Although Tim had heard from a variety of sources over the years that “everything
is connected,” such as in some highly recommended TED talks by Tom Chi (TED, 2016)
and Robert Sapolsky (2017) and from his father when he was a teenager, he was not
aware that the medical field in particular had had a hard time breaking away from what
was known as the biomedical model, in which medical doctors mainly looked at health
only in terms of the physical body and ignored other possible psychological and social
influences. Engel and colleagues produced a more expansive positive model called the
biopsychosocial model (Engel, 1977). There have been several articles on its application
to special needs education (Reisinger, 2014), but there is little about its application
toward education at large, which could also align positive psychology and sociology with
our learning goals. We would like to begin taking this next step in this article.
One vastly influential connective scheme from the 20th century was Maslows
hierarchy of needs (1943). While the bottom two layers of the hierarchy are mostly
biological and understood to underpin the upper layers, those upper layers have mostly to
do with our psychologies and socialization (see Figure 1). All layers are likely to affect
each other and may be pre- and corequisites of effective learning.
Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
There may be certain moments in one’s life when we might observe things as
more obviously connected to each other, that in fact these different elements of our lives
cannot really exist without each other. To some, it may sound ludicrous to separate them.
However, in much of science, medicine, business, and education, we often try to isolate
the variables of phenomena in order to try to understand those variables more concretely,
which makes learning them simpler. While this might work sometimes in pure sciences,
such as chemistry, in other domains, the systems and variables that influence and affect a
variable can be inextricable from each other and thus disallow us to truly isolate that
variable. When we still approach our knowledge and answers through that isolation, our
solutions may in fact suffer from that very isolation, not properly accounting for other
related and causal factors. The scientific method seeks to isolate and purify a causal
event. In our modern world though, we are finding that nearly everything is connected to
and influencing everything else, and a great deal needs greater contextualization, perhaps
in a dynamic systems way of thinking (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008).
Many medical practitioners have long known these ideas, and while they seek to
be specialists in one or two domains, they are in today’s world tasked with continual
learning from neighboring fields. Psychologists no longer just study psychology, but
rather social-psychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental
psychology, evolutionary psychology, forensic psychology, health psychology, neuro-
psychology, educational psychology, and occupational psychology (to name just a few).
However, these subfields are reductionist, i.e., looking more narrowly at particular kinds
of psychology, not seeking to expand but rather to reduce the scope of the fields in order
to make them more understandable for specific needs. This sort of reductionism is often
apparent in teaching within subject domains as well. Engel’s critique of biomedicine (as
reductionist) is summarized in Figure 2 below (from Borrell- Carrió, Suchman, &
Epstein, 2004). Carl Jung (1957) offers another example (see Appendix A).
Figure 2. Engel’s Critique of Biomedicine
Parallels in teaching
We are in no way suggesting that teachers in the classroom are doctors nor that
we are treating medical problems. However, we think that teachers will recognize that
their students are also situated partially in parallel with the descriptions above, in that all
students learn somewhat differently from each other and when afforded one-to-one
counseling or advising directed toward individual situations, they seem to blossom and
thrive. This is certainly also one of the powerful soothing effects of schools opening self-
access centers that offer one-to-one advising (Mynard, 2019), which may derive from the
idea that advising is autonomy-supportive and thus engenders more energy, vitality, and
health (Ryan & Deci, 2008). We hope that good friends and teachers have good “bedside
manners” that show respect and helpfulness and engage students for better well-being,
which we predict will be followed by more successful, autonomy-supportive education.
In the Classroom: Broadening What We See; Start Small
As mentioned above, there are times when behavior-learning connections cannot
be ignored and for which a simple or narrow explanation may not suffice. A simple
explanation may not be enough for us to understand what is happening and interact in a
way that is optimally beneficial and autonomy-supportive for our students. A student who
is falling asleep in class may have a psychological media addiction to computer games
and be playing all night, possibly be working at part-time jobs until 2 a.m. each night to
pay for student loans, or be living alone for the first time and just not regulating herself
well. An overly narrow view (that the student just needs to exert more effort) with an
overly narrow solution (simply admonishing such a student to “pay attention” as if it is a
simple issue of straightforward effort regulation) is not likely to help address the root
problem and may in fact become a further wedge between herself and the class, including
at a motivational level. The implication that her difficulty is a mere, simple lack of effort
regulation can elicit a perception of failure and a discrepancy between who she is and
who she feels she, herself wants to be or ought to be; or between who she is and who
others want her to be or think she ought to be. Some negative potentials of such various
discrepancies are feelings of low self-efficacy, shame or embarrassment, guilt, and
anxiety, to name a few (Higgins, 1987). Along with a feeling of low self-efficacy, this
perception of failure can also trigger a potential negative shift in the boundary between
perceiving these discrepancies as challenges or threats (Cotterill, 2017).
The opposite of narrowing is expanding, which Grinker (1964) proposed as
eclecticism and which Engel expanded on later with the biopsychosocial model,
suggesting it replace the old biomedical model that ignored the parts played by our minds
and societies. The biopsychosocial model has of course also been criticized as too
eclectic, i.e., “anything goes” and thus sometimes “unscientific,” as humanism currently
tends to be. While it has been applied to special educational needs (Reisinger, 2014), it
has not been widely applied to general education. Our contention is that it should be
applied to everyday education, just as civility (Porath, 2016).
In the field of educational linguistics, we often unnaturally treat grammar,
vocabulary, spelling, writing, and speaking as separate and distinct. While we can learn
them in this way for a short time, sooner or later we are using them all together in a blend
that we call communicative second language acquisition. This is similar to how medical
scientists have long separated and specialized on parts of our bodies in hopes of better
understanding them. While this intense specialization in a variety of fields has indeed
rewarded us with great knowledge, its overemphasis can also make us blind to other
contributing factors to health and successful practice at times, across any number of
domains. With a broader understanding of contributors of illnesses, we might improve
our control over illnesses and create better experienced longevity. One recent addition to
this area is the book by Hoshi and Kodama (2018), in which various studies have been
correlated to show how environmental, psychological, and social well-being (among
other factors) contribute to a healthy longevity (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. The Structure of Healthy Life Determinants, adapted from Hoshi and Kodama
Similarly, if we can take a broader understanding of the environmental contributors to
language learning and how they are situated in student lives, perhaps we can approach
pedagogy in a way that is more effective in supporting both sustained learning and
supporting its integration as part of a biopsychosocially healthy life.
Application in a sample activity
What we wish to propose here is construction of an ecological educational model
that looks more closely at the attributes of the biopsychosocial model and combines them
into an eco-educational biopsychosocial model for teachers. Here, ecological does not
denote natural ecology, but instead refers to taking an ecological perspective to
understanding that action through opportunities for [inter]action, or affordances. These
affordances, including opportunities for learning and practice, emerge from the
relationship or interplay between a person and their environment, including between
learners (see: van Lier, 2004). Actions and potentials cannot be easily or neatly separated
from their contexts.
One practical way to apply these ideas is by simply asking our students to discuss
them. Tim has experimented with this in the initial five minutes in every classroom with
his students’ action logs, which are similar to classroom diaries (Hooper & Murphey, in
progress; Miyake-Warkentin, Hooper, & Murphey, in progress; Murphey, 1993). He asks
students to share action logs that they have written and check in with each other that they
are okay, that is to say sufficiently healthy and eager to learn. He often asks them to ask
each other about their bio-conditions (e.g., “How much sleep did you get last night?”
“Did you have a good breakfast or lunch?” see Appendix B). He wishes to expand this
focus in the upcoming semester when students do action log shares. He is going to ask
that they add in the data about themselves in form depicted in Figure 4 and talk things
over with their partners. He hopes that this will help them to tune into their
biopsychosocial prerequisites as a base for learning as well as give him valuable
information about the students’ lives.
Figure 4: Student Self-Assessment of BioPsychoSocial Well-Being and Readiness to
Next Steps
Invitations to use activities, do research, and make the world a better place
If interested in borrowing and adapting the activity and process described above
for classes or as research, we invite readers to do so. While we think action logging
would be an appropriate way for students to engage with the ideas of holistic well-being
and the BioPsychoSocial Model, please feel free to engage with the ideas in ways that are
ecologically fitting for you and your students (and any research constraints). For
example, some of you may just try the simple questionnaire at the beginning, middle, and
end of term, rather than try it daily in class. For further discussion on the EcoEducational-
BioPsychoSocial Model, contact Tim or Curtis, the authors of this article.
Applications and outcomes
We hope to show in future research and articles that by becoming more attuned to
contributing influences (BioPsychoSocial) upon growth, well-being, and learning that we
can help students deal with those influences and create better learning environments for
everyone. Other objectives are to further craft a clear, concise, basic definition of the
model, further elucidate its connections to learner autonomy, and to illustrate what it
might look like both generally conceptually and through details embedded in real life
Notes on the contributors
Tim Murphey is a visiting professor at Kanda University’s Research Institute of Learner
Autonomy Education (RILAE). He also teaches at Wayo Women’s University Graduate
School of Human Ecology, Aoyama University, and Nagoya University of Foreign
Studies Graduate School. He publishes and presents passionately with others and
presently researches community potentials. For further discussion on this topic feel free
to contact at
Curtis Edlin is a senior learning advisor working in the Self-Access Learning Center at
Kanda University of International Studies. Some of his current research interests include
advising practices, motivation, self-determination theory (SDT), and performance
psychology in learning. Feel free to contact him at for further
discussion on any of these topics.
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Science, 196(4286), 129-136.
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Engel, G. L. (1980). The clinical application of the biopsychosocial model. American
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Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological
Review, 94, 319-340.
Hooper, D., & Murphey, T. (in progress). Action logging: A source of collaborative
communities. Manuscript in preparation.
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Lessons from the Japanese aging cohort studies. Singapore: Springer.
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Appendices Appendix A
Quote from C. G. Jung (1957) p. 19-20
In view of the fact that in principle, the positive advantages of knowledge work
specifically to the disadvantage of understanding, the judgment resulting therefrom is
likely to be something of a paradox.…The doctor, above all, should be aware of this
contradiction. On the one hand, he is equipped with the statistical truths of his scientific
training, and on the other, he is faced with the task of treating a sick person who,
especially in the case of psychic suffering, requires individual understanding. The more
schematic the treatment is, the more resistances itquite rightlycalls up in the patient,
and the more the cure is jeopardized. The psychotherapist sees himself compelled, willy-
nilly, to regard the individuality of a patient as an essential fact in the picture and to
arrange his methods of treatment accordingly. Today, over the whole field of medicine, it
is recognized that the task of the doctor consists in treating the sick person, not an
abstract illness.
This illustration in the case of medicine is only a special instance of the problem of
education and training in general. Scientific education is based in the main on statistical
truths and abstract knowledge and therefore imparts an unrealistic, rational picture of the
world, in which the individual, as a merely marginal phenomenon, plays no role. The
individual, however, as an irrational datum, is the true and authentic carrier of reality, the
concrete man as opposed to the unreal ideal or normal man to whom the scientific
statements refer. What is more, most of the natural sciences try to represent the results of
their investigations as though these had come into existence without man’s intervention,
in such a way that the collaboration of the psyche—an indispensable factor—remains
invisible. (An exception to this is modern physics, which recognizes that the observed is
not independent of the observer.) So in this respect, too, science conveys a picture of the
world from which a real human psyche appears to be excluded—the very antithesis of the
Appendix B
Daily Action Logs Entry
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Full-text available
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( This reprinted article originally appeared in Science, 1977, Vol 196[4286], 129–236. The following abstract of the original article appeared in PA, Vol 59:1423. ) Although it seems that acceptance of the medical model by psychiatry would finally end confusion about its goals, methods, and outcomes, the present article argues that current crises in both psychiatry and medicine as a whole stem from their adherence to a model of disease that is no longer adequate for the work and responsibilities of either field. It is noted that psychiatrists have responded to their crisis by endorsing 2 apparently contradictory positions, one that would exclude psychiatry from the field of medicine and one that would strictly adhere to the medical model and limit the work of psychiatry to behavioral disorders of an organic nature. Characteristics of the dominant biomedical model of disease are identified, and historical origins and limitations of this reductionistic view are examined. A biopsychosocial model is proposed that would encompass all factors related to both illness and patienthood. Implications for teaching and health care delivery are considered.