Challenges of Learning About & Strategies for Teaching Complex Systems

This page is a brief list of challenges and strategies related to teaching and learning about complex systems, from the early Monday morning discussion at the 2010 workshop on Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems.


  • Metacognition - how do you teach students to think about their thinking (about complex systems)?
  • Important role of conceptual models
  • Some students are not well grounded in establishing linear cause and effect
  • Understanding levels of mechanisms - what are the relationships, mechanisms and components that are invisible?
  • Nonlinearities don't always give the same result even when you put in the same starting points -- stochastic behavior is difficult in and of itself
  • Finding ways to engage people with the behavior of complex systems
  • Underlying concepts are essential --e.g. mass balance
  • Lack of tools for understanding what students are learning, where we are succeeding
  • Difficulty of explaining to deans, parents, students what they are going to learn -- systems thinking, earth system science are not terms that mean much to external groups.
  • Transitioning from traditional curriculum to developing understanding of complex systems
  • Push back from students regarding both content and teaching methods
  • Moving students up from reactions to critical thinking regarding controversial issues
  • Variation in quantitative sophistication of students -- making complex systems behavior and underpinning concepts accessible without relying on mathematical description
  • Mismatch between expert approach to understanding complex systems and approaches that are accessible to students


  • Comparison between complex systems and linear systems
  • Teaching metacognition about complex systems - modeling how the expert/instructor is understanding the system
  • Insert in multiple courses so repeated exposure
  • Use teacher prep to get into K-12
  • Use complex system models as a mechanism for broad based problem solving
  • Make the hidden levels visible
  • Build on relative comfort with both linear and complex behavior in social settings to move to natural science settings
  • Use physical and mathematical models and movies of these as entry way into understanding models/complex systems
  • Viral YouTube videos
  • Situate complex systems thinking as a form of critical thinking
  • Teaching geosciences using grand challenges and issues in a safe and engaging way motivates students to learn complex systems thinking