Research in Science Education

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 137–172 | Cite as

Teaching Systems Thinking in the Context of the Water Cycle

  • Tammy D. LeeEmail author
  • M. Gail Jones
  • Katherine Chesnutt


Complex systems affect every part of our lives from the ecosystems that we inhabit and share with other living organisms to the systems that supply our water (i.e., water cycle). Evaluating events, entities, problems, and systems from multiple perspectives is known as a systems thinking approach. New curriculum standards have made explicit the call for teaching with a systems thinking approach in our science classrooms. However, little is known about how elementary in-service or pre-service teachers understand complex systems especially in terms of systems thinking. This mixed methods study investigated 67 elementary in-service teachers’ and 69 pre-service teachers’ knowledge of a complex system (e.g., water cycle) and their knowledge of systems thinking. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a sub-sample of participants. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of content assessment data and questionnaires were conducted. Results from this study showed elementary in-service and pre-service teachers applied different levels of systems thinking from novice to intermediate. Common barriers to complete systems thinking were identified with both in-service and pre-service teachers and included identifying components and processes, recognizing multiple interactions and relationships between subsystems and hidden dimensions, and difficulty understanding the human impact on the water cycle system.


Systems thinking Elementary teachers Water cycle Teacher education 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tammy D. Lee
    • 1
    Email author
  • M. Gail Jones
    • 2
  • Katherine Chesnutt
    • 2
  1. 1.East Carolina UniversityGreenvilleUSA
  2. 2.North Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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