Teach the Earth > Complex Systems > Promising Pedagogical Approaches

Promising Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Complex Systems

This web page is based on a document produced by Sarah Bednarz, Andy Johnson, Ann Linsley, and Jeff Wilson at the 2010 workshop on Developing Student Understanding on Complex Systems in the Geosciences. The information presented here summarizes the thinking of workshop participants.

Jump down to Challenges in Teaching Complex Systems * Effective Strategies * A Call to Action


We are not aware of much research to substantiate specific best practices in teaching complex systems. This is a new field which requires ongoing collaboration between psychologists, cognitive scientists, educational researchers and practitioners, and geoscientists to derive definitive best practices. Much of this conference has focused on use of models, simulations, and visualizations as powerful tools to help students understand systems and properties of complex systems. It is important to realize that these do not stand by themselves but must be embedded in a viable pedagogical strategy that will support and demand thinking and sense-making from the students. This document summarizes much of what we know and have discussed on this topic during the 2010 workshop on Developing Student Understanding on Complex Systems in the Geosciences.

Some Challenges Inherent in Teaching about Complex Systems

Workshop participants identified the following key challenges they have experienced in teaching students about complex systems:

Effective Strategies (and Related Tools)

Workshop participants identified the following pedagogical approaches as being effective, in their experience. These methods are by no means mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they may be most effective when used together.

Using Computer Modeling to Teach Complex Systems

Systems modeling software can be used very effectively, in combination with inquiry-based learning, to help students explore the characteristics of complex systems.

Combining an Inquiry-Based Approach with Multiple Representations of Complex Systems

Inquiry-based approaches allow you to engage students in exploring real world problems.

Using a Role-Playing Exercise to Teach Complex Systems

Role-playing exercises can be particularly effective when you want students to explore interdisciplinary aspects (scientific, economic, political) of societal issues related to complex systems. For example, Jimm Myers and Greg Marfleet have designed a role-playing exercise in coupled complex natural and human systems for a pair of linked courses: a geoscience course and a political science or public policy course.

Other Effective Pedagogies

Incorporating Metacognition

A Call to Action

While the approaches described above have worked well for individual workshop participants, there has been little research we know of delving into the question of how best to teach complex systems thinking. We need to clarify essential concepts to be learned, identify particular student difficulties, and test various strategies to see which are most effective in addressing learning challenges.

« Previous Page      Next Page »