Complexity Thinking in Physics Education Research

Model of a complex system

How can complex processes of teaching and learning be modelled and understood?

Following research fields that have recognized the drawback of linear modelling, i.e., assuming a direct link between cause and effect, there is a movement in Physics Education Research towards viewing education as a complex system. This is because the educational system gets recognized as being constituted by multiple interacting parts, where the adaptation and evolution of the system is partially unpredictable.

Applications of Complexity Thinking in Physics Education Research present new powerful ways of informing the improvement of physics education.

Current projects

A complex system is an interconnected system that changes and adapts with time. The effect of changes to this system are hard to predict as seemingly large changes can have very small effects, and small changes can – potentially – have cascading effects resulting in large and unanticipated effects. Understanding the parts of this complex system and how these are related is critical for understanding how and what can be done to influence and improve the educational system. 

  • To investigate student retention in a new way, this project explores both the empirical as well as the theoretical side of complexity theory
    The point of departure for this work is thinking about student success as something complex, with many interrelated aspects that interact and have indirect effects on the output variable. 

  • ​​​​Physics students’ social media learning behaviours and connectedness
    Drawing on a complexity thinking perspective on learning, the conditions of emergence for complex systems are used as an analytic framework to characterize social media learning behaviours for their potential to promote connectedness.

  • ​​Emergence, adaptation and affordances in physics learning
    This study examines how in physics education new things get noticed and how things get noticed in new ways as a function of the complexity concept of emergence.

  • Complex challenges in physics education: a study of the dynamic properties of present day practice 
    ​​Scientific exploration of the dynamic issues in contemporary teaching practice, as described from the teachers lived experiences and perspectives, offer the potential to positively affect physics teaching and learning; improving educational outcomes. 

Collaboration and Practice

Members of the division are founding members of the Nordic Networks Group, which includes members from the Department of Physics and Department of Science & Mathematics Education, Umeå University; Physics Teacher Education, Department of Physics, University of Helsinki; and, the Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen.
We also collaborate with colleagues at Vancouver Island University, Canada and the University of Wollongong, Australia.

The student retention modelling using complexity theory is being used to explore implications for teachers’ professional reflection.