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Modelling system thinking

System thinking at primary school – Focusing on modeling abilities in the frame of system thinking


Influence of teachers‘ PCK and CK on lower secondary students’ biological system thinking development


Biology is the science that is engaged with biological systems. In order to deal with such biological systems, specific abilities are needed, which are described by the term system thinking. Based on an empirically proven model, the influence of individual- and content-related factors on the development of system thinking has been analyzed. A further project investigated the teachers' role for students' development of system thinking.


Project Details

The scientific approach to solve problems is often an analytical approach which means that complex structures are fragmented into smaller components. Even though many problems can be solved by using the analytical approach, it is being limited (1) when it comes to a change in the observed phenomenon, (2) when an event influences another one, or (3) when several events can only be explained by looking at the combination of subsystems. Therefore, the systemic approach can be taken into account to complement the analytical approach and to expand knowledge.


Systemic Approach as Aim in Science Education

The systematic approach aims at the understanding of complex relationships between the components (i.e. elements) of a system, at the analysis of their interaction, and at the deduction of conclusions for the future development of the system. These abilities are important for many situations, for example when judging ideas for climate protection. Hence, the development of these abilities is essential to enable students to take part in a complex environment in an active and reflective way. Because of this, the work with systems is prescribed in the educational curriculum as obligatory for all levels of education and all school types. Taking into account the ability to follow up future professional classes, the ability of system thinking as a scientific competence should be fostered as early as possible.


Competence Models for Modelling System Thinking

Due to the demand for an output-orientated educational system the question raises of how to regulate teaching and learning processes in order to support the development of the postulated competence. There are little empirically proven competence models for the different competence areas in natural sciences so far. Competence models are necessary in order to make statements about the support and the development of competence. These models should not only describe the needed abilities and skills but also their gradation and development.

The research on competence models is the basis for many processes in the educational system. The reason for this is that it provides the basis for curricular decisions, for the development of teaching material, for the change of teaching and learning methods, and for the feedback of the learners' competence level.


Project Aims

The present studies are based on an empirically proven competence model, which describes the needed abilities of students to understand and to handle a system. Two goals are being pursued with this model:

  • Analyzing the influence of individual- and content-related factors on the development of system thinking have been analyzed in one project, based on the empirically proven competence model for system thinking. This project is funded by the DFG.
  • Analyzing the influence of the teacher becomes quite important in terms of the acquirement of competence. A further project, which is funded by the BMBF, investigated the influence of the teachers' content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge and the influence of their motivational orientations (self-efficacy, enthusiasm for biology and enthusiasm for teaching) on the students' system thinking.


Research Design

There are many factors influencing the acquisition of competence in school on different levels. Previous studies on system thinking of primary-school students have shown that there are extensive differences in the performances of students of the same age. Our research group investigates the reasons for these differences on the learners' and the teachers' level with experimental field studies. On the learners' level intra-individual comparisons are drawn before and after an intervention. These comparisons give information about the influence different content knowledge has on the ability of system thinking. Moreover, the students' ability to develop an abstract understanding of systems and to apply this ability while handling systems are being analyzed as well as the differences in development depending on the students' age. On the teachers' level the influences of content-related professional knowledge and motivational orientations on the development of the students' system thinking are being investigated.



Both projects provide the empirical evidence that the students' system thinking can be described as consisting of two abilities. Moreover, both projects show that the students' general cognitive abilities as well as their abilities in system thinking are predictive for its development. On the teachers' level the pedagogical content knowledge is especially predictive for the students' development of abilities. Further analyses which will deal with the teachers' motivational orientations influencing the development of the students' system thinking are in progress.


Researchers responsible /associated

Kristina Fraune (until 09/2012)
Dr. Jörg Großschedl
Prof. Dr. Ute Harms
Daniela Mahler