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How can network thinking be brought into the classroom?




Image: Xavier Gigandet et. al., CC BY 2.5

Network thinking is a way of solving complex dynamic problems. If we want to understand and ultimately solve a problem, then we have to understand the systems behind it. These are where the complexity and dynamics of the problem are rooted: since the system elements often interact and feed back to each other in a non-linear way, it can be hard to work out how the system will behave in the future.
One way of starting to promote this kind of thinking in the classroom would be to allow students to actually experience how a problem can be dynamic. This could be done using computer models or games that demonstrate how unpredictable complex systems can be.  By introducing the structure of systems and how they interact and feed back into each other, students will be able to get an idea of how their own actions can lead to side effects and trigger effects over long distances.
Next, students can build their own system models based on descriptions of problems and then use that snapshot of reality to extract if-then relationships (word model). The interactions between different system elements can be set out in a diagram using arrows to show whether they are going in the same or opposite direction. After marking possible feedback loops, students will have produced a qualitative model with a structure that allows them to contemplate and assess various solutions and the effects they will have.
The learning process will be especially effective if the lesson creates space for problem-oriented teaching and learning. The first step should be to tell students how they can deal with and solve a problem. The students then tackle the problem themselves with decreasing external support. In so doing, they should be encouraged to independently apply their network thinking skills to settings that start out familiar and become increasingly unfamiliar.

This question was answered by Dr Christian Hörsch of the Institute of Biology and its Didactics at the University of Education in Freiburg.