Interactions between reasoning about complex systems and conceptual understanding in learning chemistry

Sigal Samon, Sharona T. Levy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


“Complex systems” is a general-purpose reasoning scheme, used in a wide range of disciplines to make sense of systems with many similar entities. In this paper, we examine the generality of this approach in learning chemistry. Students' reasoning in chemistry in terms of emergent complex systems is explored for two curricula: a normative and a complexity-based one, so that the interaction could be examined under both the conditions. A quasi-experimental pretest-intervention-posttest comparison group design was used to explore student's learning, complemented with interview data. The experimental group (n = 47) studied the topic of gases with a complexity-based curriculum. A comparison group (n = 45) studied with a normative curriculum for the same duration. Students' answers to questionnaires were coded with a complexity-based approach that included levels (distinguishing micro- and macro-levels), stochastic particle behaviors, the emergence of macro-level patterns from micro-level behaviors, and the source of control in the system. It was found that students' reasoning about chemistry concepts in terms of complex systems falls into three distinct and coherent mental models. A sophisticated mental model included most of the above-described complexity features, while the nonsophisticated model included none. The intermediate model is typified by distinguishing between levels, but not by stochastic and emergent behaviors. The nonsophisticated mental model was used mostly in the pretest. In the posttest, the experimental group used the intermediate and sophisticated models; while the comparison group used the nonsophisticated and intermediate models. Discussion approaches the topics of the generality of the complex systems approach; and the unique forms of reasoning that a complexity approach may contribute to learning science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)58-86
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • complex systems
  • concepts
  • diffusion
  • emergence
  • middle school
  • science education

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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