, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 3-19

Thinking in Levels: A Dynamic Systems Approach to Making Sense of the World

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The concept of emergent "levels" (i.e., levels that arise from interactions of objects at lower levels) is fundamental to scientific theory. In this paper, we argue for an expanded role for this concept of levels in science education. We show confusion of levels (and "slippage" between levels) as the source of many of people's deep misunderstandings about patterns and phenomena in the world. These misunderstandings are evidenced not only in students' difficulties in the formal study of science but also in their misconceptions about experiences in their everyday lives. The StarLogo modeling language is designed as a medium for students to build models of multi-leveled phenomena and through these constructions explore the concept of levels. We describe several case studies of students working in StarLogo. The cases illustrate students' difficulties with the concept of levels, and how they can begin to develop richer understandings.