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Teaching for complex systems thinking

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The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are the types of complex issues that are sometimes called “wicked problems”. They involve many different systems and have no easy answers because positive gains in one area might be offset by negative impacts in another, no matter what is decided.  As part of our ongoing curriculum work we have identified the need for students to become better systems thinkers if they are to understand why these challenges are so hard, and what the implications might be for them in their own lives (see for example Key Competencies for the Future).  

How can teachers provide effective opportunities for students to build their Systems Thinking capabilities? What might NZCER do to support them? These deceptively simple questions underpin this literature review project. The following indicative questions are guiding our analysis. 

Curriculum questions:  Do systems thinking curriculum challenges resonate with other issues for implementation of a “21st century” curriculum? Can we build on our previous work in this area? 

  • What sorts of outcomes are envisaged for including systems thinking in the curriculum? 
  • At what stage of their schooling could students be introduced to systems thinking practices? (What might “progress” look like?)
  • How might systems thinking best be included in the overall curriculum?

Conceptual questions: can we provide a helpful description of complex systems to guide teachers’ own professional learning and curriculum design thinking? 

  • What features of complex systems are important for students to learn about and why?

Pedagogical questions: can we provide practical advice for schools? Are there implications for our ongoing resource development work?

  • Are there specific challenges in teaching for systems thinking? If yes, what advice is given about how best to address these? 
  • Are there research-based resources that schools can readily access? 

Assessment questions: can we provide practical advice to schools? Are there implications for our ongoing assessment work at NZCER?

  • (How) have systems thinking capabilities been assessed? 
  • What issues have arisen for assessment and reporting?