Complex systems and the learning sciences

Uri Wilensky, Michael J. Jacobson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

20 Scopus citations


A complex system is a system composed of many elements that interact with each other and their environment. For example, an economy is composed of many individual buyers and sellers; an ecological system of many animals and plants; a weather system of fronts, precipitation, and air; and so on. A key feature of complex systems is that it is often difficult to predict or make sense of the behavior of the systems as a whole, even when all the components are known. We use the term emergence to describe how large-scale patterns arise from the multiple interactions of individuals; and the resultant patterns are called emergent phenomena. Even when we are very familiar with the elements of a system, its emergent pattern is often surprising. Similarly, even when we are very familiar with the overall pattern, it is usually surprising to find out how that pattern arises from underlying elements. Over the past three decades, a science of complex systems has itself emerged from the recognition of similar patterns of complexity and emergence across many different content domains (Bar-Yam, 1997, 2003; Epstein, 2006; Holland, 1995; Kaput et al., 2001; Kauffman, 1995; Mitchell, 2009; Sawyer, 2005; Waldrop, 1992; Watts & Strogatz, 1998; Wolfram, 2002). Complexity researchers study events and actions that have multiple causes and consequences as well as studying systems that have structures at many different scales of time, space, and organization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139519526
ISBN (Print)9781107033252
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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