Complex Systems Thinking

  • Understanding complex socio-ecological systems is increasingly important in a world that is socially and ecologically shifting at rapid rates.1 For example, it is important to understand and be able to reason about patterns in the Earth’s climate or diversity of life. Systems reasoning, or being able to understand properties and behaviors of systems, is an academic demand in science learning environments.2 Complex systems, such as traffic patterns or the stock market, are web-like, have emergent properties, and are self-organizing across time and space.3 Complex ecological systems, such as a coral reef or forest, refer to natural systems and the dense web of relationships and interactions of which they are comprised. Finally, socio-ecological systems include humans, and consider the relationships between human systems and ecological systems.
  • Researchers have begun to identify reasoning patterns that support complex socio-ecological systems thinking, and some conceptual frameworks, activities, and practices that can support these. These patterns include: abductive or probabilistic reasoning (considering multiple variables affecting a phenomenon);16 mechanistic reasoning (attending to multiple causal mechanisms behind processes);14, 16 and reasoning from multiple perspectives (seeing the same phenomenon from multiple roles and relationships).22
  • Teachers and families play critical roles in supporting learning about complex socio-ecological systems. It is important to bring in non-dominant student’s family and community perspectives, experiences, and expertise to diversify scientific practices. Sharing family and community knowledges or practices also help make complex socio-ecological systems visible and relevant in children’s lives.