Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Program Name/Specialization

Community Psychology


Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Dr. Manuel Riemer

Advisor Role



As a powerful socializing force in Western society, schools have significant influence on young people’s development into adulthood. As powerful agents of societal maintenance and change, adolescents have significant influence on communities and institutions such as schools. In this embedded case study, I use structuration theory, German Critical Psychology, and systems thinking to examine the dynamic relationship between institutional structures and student agency in a school setting. I specifically examine the influence of this relationship on young people’s capacity for critical and transcendent engagement, constructs described further in this work. In the setting of Nancy Campbell Academy (NCA), an international school in Stratford, Ontario, I use mixed qualitative methods to examine three questions: 1. What characteristics of NCA impact students’ patterns of thought and action conducive to critical and transcendent engagement? 2. By what mechanisms do school structures and their underlying vision become represented in students’ patterns of thought and action? 3. What qualities of the NCA environment impact the strength of the relationship between school structures and students’ capacity for critical and transcendent engagement? My ethnographic approach includes observations of daily life at the school, in-depth interviews with the principal, life history interviews with students, and focus groups with teachers and students. This research identifies characteristics of a case in which structures are mindfully utilized to translate core values and high expectations of youth into practice. As students engage in these structures, they encounter a safe environment for taking developmental risks, in which they can bring their own values and goals into play to reciprocally shape school structures to meet personal and relational needs. In this analysis, I identify a tripartite matrix of protagonists in the school setting: the institution, the individual, and the community. Through their interplay, students’ capacity for critical and transcendent engagement is raised through the constructs of wisdom, spiritual development, and a world embracing vision. Relationships among the three protagonists transcend categorization as either “top down” or “bottom up”, characterized instead by reciprocity, interconnectedness, and convergence. I identify several principles that ground this matrix in the case-study setting and discuss their implications for school reform and further research. I describe key processes involved in building young people’s capacity for critical and transcendent engagement. In so doing, I also discuss the implications of this case for a constructive approach to generating school environments that are conducive to the wellbeing of students, teachers, and society.

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