Life science is often about understanding complex systems- from
human body systems to ecosystems to evolution. These are notoriously
difficult to understand because it requires understanding how
structures relate to functions and what the behaviors of the
system are. Understanding a system involves considering the
causal interactions and functional relationships among the parts
of the system. Some interactions between parts are invisible
and have a time sequence that makes them difficult to perceive.
Even adults struggle to learn about complex systems (Feltovich
et al., 1992). Yet such understanding is often critical to scientific
analysis. The behaviors of the individual elements interact
in such a way that the overall function of the system emerges
from the behaviors of the components. These difficulties may
be aggravated by the static depictions found in typical textbooks
that focus on structures without considering the dynamic behaviors
and function. It is not surprising then that learners often
focus exclusively on perceptually apparent structures. This
oversimplification of complex phenomenon that can cause enduring
misconceptions (Feltovich et al., 1992).
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One possible approach to teaching about complex systems involves
the use of a conceptual representation drawn from Structure-Behavior-Function
(SBF) theory (Goel & Chandrasekaran 1989). According to
this theory, systems consist of multiple related levels—the
structures, or parts, or the system, the functions, what the
system actually produces, and the behaviors, which are the mechanisms
by which the structures produce their functions. We need to
understand more about what it means to understand a complex
system and that understanding complex systems can be enhanced
with appropriate conceptual tools, such as the SBF representation,
and representational tools that provide opportunities to foreground
function and make invisible, dynamic behaviors available for
Example SBF Questions for Teachers
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This proposal outlines a series of studies that will address
three major research questions:
1) What does it mean to understand a complex system?
2) How can providing an explicit conceptual representation support
learning about complex systems?
3) How can dynamic representational tools support learning about
this conceptual representation?
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In the first of four studies, I will investigate what children
know about complex systems and identify learning trajectories
by comparing middle school children with novice adults and experts.
This will provide a developmental analysis that runs from children
with little experience learning about biological systems to
adults who will have at least completed high school science
and may have taken a college course or two in science, and experts.
The SBF model will be used as a framework to analyze people’s
thinking. The experts should understand a great deal about functional
and behavioral aspects of the system but the novice adults may
know more about structures than the middle school children but
it is not that they would have a better understanding of functions
The second study will examine using SBF as an explicit conceptual
tool that can be used to structure a hypermedia learning environment
that will use the SBF framework to move middle school students
from their prior knowledge identified in Study 1 to a more sophisticated
functional understanding. While providing an explicit representation
can enhance students understanding of function, the hypermedia
will be essentially a static representation of SBF. To gain
a deep understanding of the behavior of complex systems, learners
need a way to make their mental models of complex systems visible,
test them out, repair their misunderstandings, and reevaluate
their models. A static representation does not make dynamic
behaviors salient nor does it allow learners to test out their
conceptions. I suggest that by providing students with an appropriate
representational tool, the Virtual Construction Kit (VCK), a
simulation model construction kit, they will be able to make
their thinking visible and get the dynamic feedback necessary
for them to construct deep understanding, particularly of system
Study 3 will test this idea in a middle school classroom environment
as students use the VCK to support design and modeling activities.
Allowing students to make their thinking visible and providing
dynamic feedback should support deepening understanding to the
extent that students are able to interpret the results of their
simulation but it is possible that some learners may need help
in interpreting what they see (to prevent them from inventing
new misconceptions). The SBF hypermedia from Study 2 may serve
as a useful tool to help in interpretation and guide students'
Study 4 will examine how using multiple representational tools
jointly contribute to student learning about complex systems.
This builds on Study 3 by investigating how the explicit SBF
model from the hypermedia can scaffold student’s design
and modeling activities.
is based upon work supported by the National
Foundation under Grant No. 0133533. Any opinions, findings
conclusions or recomendations expressed in this material are
the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the