Promoting transfer by grounding complex systems principles

Robert L. Goldstone, Uri Wilensky

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

159 Scopus citations


Understanding scientific phenomena in terms of complex systems principles is both scientifically and pedagogically important. Situations from different disciplines of science are often governed by the same principle, and so promoting knowledge transfer across disciplines makes valuable cross-fertilization and scientific unification possible. Although evidence for this kind of transfer has historically been controversial, experiments and observations of students suggest pedagogical methods for promoting transfer of complex systems principles. One powerful strategy is for students to actively interpret the elements and interactions of perceptually grounded scenarios. Such interpretation can be facilitated through the presentation of a situation alongside a description of how the agents in the situation are behaving, and by students exploring and constructing computational models of the situation. The resulting knowledge can be both concretely grounded yet highly perspective dependent and generalizeable. We discuss methods for coordinating computational and mental models of complex systems, the roles of idealization and concreteness in fostering understanding and generalization, and other complementary theoretical approaches to achieving transfer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)465-516
Number of pages52
JournalJournal of the Learning Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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