A call for system thinking in K-12 schools

The U.S. K-12 Next Generation Science Standards were published in April this year, with the goal of “provid[ing] all students an internationally benchmarked science education.” As described in the FAQ, the standards were developed separately from the more frequently discussed Common Core State Standards, and they are based on the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2011 Framework for for K-12 Science Education.

This NRC framework draws liberally from systems thinking — as evident in the “crosscutting concepts,” one of the framework’s three dimensions:

In this chapter, we describe concepts that bridge disciplinary boundaries, having explanatory value throughout much of science and engineering. … These concepts help provide students with an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from the various disciplines into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world. …

The committee identified seven crosscutting scientific and engineering concepts:

  1. Patterns — Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.
  2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation — Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.
  3. Scale, proportion, and quantity — In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.
  4. Systems and system models — Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.
  5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation — Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations.
  6. Structure and function — The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determine many of its properties and functions.
  7. Stability and change — For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study.

Exciting stuff — as far as it goes. And easier outlined than implemented. I’ll be writing more about the framework and standards in days to come.

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