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Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences
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Synthesis of Key Workshop Ideas

This web page is based on a discussion at the conclusion of the 2010 workshop on Developing Student Understanding on Complex Systems in the Geosciences. The information presented here summarizes the thinking of workshop participants.

  1. Understanding complex systems is essential. The ability to recognize complex systems, coupled with an understanding of the properties of complex system behavior, provides a powerful tool for critical thinking, problem solving and integrative thinking. Further, complex systems analysis and the use of models is a central part of science, and needs to be incorporated into students' experience, designed to teach the process of science. To demonstrate the power of complex systems in teaching and learning science and social science, we have developed a vision of how instructors might work together to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach to teaching complex systems, using a role-playing exercise in a pair of linked courses.
  2. Developing the ability to recognize complex systems and understand their behavior is a significant learning task that cannot be achieved in a single course. Rather it is a type of literacy that should be taught in a progression extending from elementary school to college and across the disciplines. Work is needed to define this progression and its endpoints. Our workshop initiated thinking on what this complex systems learning progression (Acrobat (PDF) 21kB Apr20 10) might look like.
  3. While there has not been much research on best practices in teaching complex systems, there are many diverse and promising strategies available, including computer modeling, physical modeling, and inquiry, particularly inquiry involving multiple representations.
    • Models and visualizations are important in teaching about complex systems because they provide a venue for students to explore complex systems and because they provide a mechanism for depicting data, concepts, behaviors, and relations that can then be discussed. Using models and visualizations to teach about natural systems requires building linkages between models, visualizations, and observations and data derived from the natural world. It is important for students to understand explicitly the relationship between the model and the natural system, and the limits of the model. Learning success depends both on selecting effective models and visualizations that are suited to the teaching goal and on using effective pedagogies. Models at different levels of complexity can be brought together in various ways to scaffold learning, as in this teaching activity on Modeling Exsolution (and Perthite Formation) as an Example of Complex System Behavior.
    • Research is needed on the effectiveness of teaching strategies that make use of students exploring professionally collected data sets.
    • We use analogies extensively in teaching about complex system and in supporting transfer from one system to another. Analyzing these analogies and the questions we ask about them will strengthen our ability use them effectively.
    • Kinesthetic learning and field studies are strategies that have been used successfully to engage students in first hand experience of these phenomena and should be explored more fully via research.
    • Discourse is used extensively to develop understanding of complex systems and associated metacognitive strategies. An analysis to help us understand the important or essential parts of this discourse in supporting learning would be helpful. Discourse surrounding visualizations and models is fundamental in supporting collaborative thinking and learning (as described in the distributed cognition literature).
    • Gestures are an important part of discourse that can bridge between spatial visualizations and words, and gestures can help the gesturer think as well as serving a communicative role. There is some research evidence showing that learners first begin to convey their understanding of a new or difficult concept through their gestures, before they can produce a coherent explanation in words. The role of gestures among students learning complex earth systems is another area for further research.
  4. At present, there is not a consensus regarding what constitutes understanding complex system behavior, or how to assess this understanding. These goals and assessments are critically needed. We have initiated thinking about potential learning goals and assessment tools.
  5. Currently we do not have consistent vocabulary or approaches to talking and teaching about complex systems. This serves as a barrier to students drawing together learning from different disciplines/courses or transferring knowledge from one discipline to another.
  6. A professional knowledge community is needed to support our continued research and professional development supporting effective teaching of complex systems. This is ripe for a design cycle approach to research involving psychology, education and content expertise. Our workshop experience benefited extensively from teaching experience in a wide range of disciplines as well as the participation of education and cognitive science researchers. We have established a learning community in which you can participate by joining the complex systems email list to join in our conversations.

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