An agentive focus may limit learning about complex causality and systems dynamics: A study of seventh graders' explanations of ecosystems

Document Type


Date of Original Version



Agent-oriented pedagogies have been used in teaching concepts related to complex systems dynamics. However, little research has systematically explored the role of a strong agency-oriented focus on understanding of complex, dynamic ecological systems. This study analyzed seventh graders' (n = 216) explanations of a complex ecological scenario. The findings show that students were more likely to generate agentive than nonagentive explanations and students who adopted an agentive framing were least likely to understand the complex causal dynamics of two environmental scenarios, eutrophication in a pond and acid rain in a forest. Furthermore, students' initial inclination toward agency-oriented explanation on the assessment was predictive of their performance on a postassessment following an instructional opportunity to learn about ecosystems dynamics; a strong agency orientation corresponded to less complex interpretations of the dynamics of the ecosystems. The results suggest that a strongly agentive perspective may limit students' ability to learn complex systems dynamics and that the pedagogical advantages of agent-based approaches may not be without limitations.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal

Journal of Research in Science Teaching