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Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010

MacArthur grant funds School of Education researchers' study of "systems thinking"

Jan. 14, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The MacArthur Foundation is providing more than $727,000 for a project examining the development of systems thinking in middle school students and developing new curriculum for teachers across disciplines.

Melissa Gresalfi

Melissa Gresalfi

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Melissa Gresalfi, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology and its Learning Sciences Program, as well as IU's Cognitive Science Program, and Kylie Peppler, assistant professor in the department's Learning Sciences Program, will be co-principal investigators on the three-year study called "Grinding New Lenses: a Design Project to Support a Systems View of the World." Their partners in the project are Nichole Pinkard, visiting associate professor at DePaul University, and Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play, and associate professor in the Design and Technology program at Parsons, the New School for Design, in New York City.

Systems thinking encourages students to understand subject matter through problem solving that connects issues as part of an overall "system." Applicable to disciplines ranging from science, to the arts, to math, and even to business, systems thinking involves thinking about how different elements behave and interact in order to produce patterns and predictable outcomes.

"What this grant is really about is designing different models of curricula that leverage different forms of technology and address different big ideas," Gresalfi said. "The goal is to support kids' dispositions toward seeing the world as coherent systems."

Peppler and Gresalfi are working on two initiatives. One will develop teaching plans to develop systems thinking in sixth-graders by using various technological tools in a variety of study areas such as science, art and literature. Teachers will begin working on those plans in a month-long workshop this summer in collaboration with Chicago Public Schools. Then during the course of a year, Gresalfi, Peppler and their partners will study how students use the developed modules to adopt a "systems thinking disposition" that helps them see and interpret the world.

The goal is to develop curricula in which the students learn to play and experiment in order to create their own systems.

"A lot of what's been out there about kids understanding systems has been playing simulations and then playing with the variables of those simulations," Peppler said. "Instead of starting with somebody else's creation, they'll be creating their own simulations, in a sense. They'll understand how the elements of a system play out in a game, or in Facebook, or how they play out in poetry or other art forms, or government systems."

During the final year of the project, the researchers will try to understand how teachers use the curriculum modules they've introduced. At the end of the project, they hope to have new ways for teachers to promote systems thinking in the classroom.

"Indiana's technology standards centrally focus on systems thinking and there just is not very much curriculum out there," Gresalfi said. "I'm very optimistic that we'll get some Indiana teachers at a minimum who are looking for something to use to address some of these standards."

Some of the inspiration for the curriculum will come from New York City's "Quest to Learn School," created by Salen's Institute of Play. The grades 6-12 school describes itself as "designed to help students to bridge old and new literacies through learning about the world as a set of interconnected systems." In a few weeks, Gresalfi and Peppler will visit the school to begin learning about the model, which incorporates game play and design and other technologies into an interdisciplinary curriculum.

"In a sense, we're trying to distill some of that thinking down to a curriculum of about 40 hours so that teachers can implement the same types of programs in their classrooms without having to convert the whole school or their classroom to this model," Peppler said.