Complexity and Systems Thinking Models in Education: Applications for Leaders

  • Derek CabreraEmail author
  • Laura Cabrera
Living reference work entry


Based on another chapter in this volume titled “What is Systems Thinking?”, this chapter discusses the application of systems thinking models in education that are informed by complexity science – focusing in particular on the significance of complex adaptive systems (CAS) as conceptual frameworks for both cognition and human organization. It introduces five frameworks that are useful individually but also operate as an ecology of models, tools, and frameworks. Each is based on CAS principles. The first model (systems thinking) identifies simple rules for the emergence of cognition, metacognition, and systems thinking. These rules, or “building blocks,” are distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives (DSRP). A second model or tool (systems mapping) provides a corollary for teaching applied systems thinking/DSRP. A third pedagogical model known as Map Activate Check or MAC utilizes systems thinking and mapping to frame any given lesson, to inform the activities or activation of the concepts in the map, and to check that they have been learned. This chapter further recognizes that the acts of learning and teaching occur in the context of a variety of overlapping human systems. Complexity science provides both insight into these systems and examples to better understand and design integrated learning environments. The fourth model, systems leadership, is an organizational model comprised of four CAS-based functions of organizations – vision, mission, capacity, and learning (VMCL). These four functions explicate the simple rules for designing and leading organizations that function optimally by continuously learning and leveraging complexity. Finally, a fifth model, called a culture-building graph (CBG), offers guidance for leadership to implement change within any group, irrespective of its formal organization. The CBG is a network theory-informed approach to inculcate change across organizations of any size or composition.

These five systems models applied individually or in combination provide school teachers and administrators with an ecology of tools to leverage systems and complexity and to increase success in educational efforts from the classroom to district-wide initiatives.


Complexity Systems thinking Metacognition Organizational change Systems mapping Systems leadership 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Human Ecology, Cabrera Research LabCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Eugene Kowch
    • 1
  1. 1.Werklund School of EducationUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada

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