ERIC Identifier: ED478717
Publication Date: 2002-10-00
Author: Lee, Hyongyong
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Systems Theory and the Earth Systems Approach in Science
Education. ERIC Digest.
During the past three decades, scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians
have been working to construct a theoretical framework for unifying the many
branches of the scientific enterprise for science education. The outcome of this
effort, system theory, provides a framework for understanding both natural and
human-constructed environments (Chen & Stroup, 1993). One example, the Earth
system developed by the Earth System Sciences Committee (1988) provides Earth
science educators with a conceptual approach to curriculum integration (Mayer,
1993). In this approach the Earth is regarded as a unified system of interacting
components, including lithosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and
biosphere (Earth System Sciences Committee, 1988). The general idea of "Earth
systems" is used as a unifying theme of integrated science in over 30 states
(Biological Science Curriculum Study, 2000) and has considerably influenced the
restructuring of science curriculum and curriculum development. The Earth system
concept is also being used by scientists to investigate the role that human
activities play in global environmental change (Steffen & Tyson, 2001).
As Blauberg, Sadovsky and Yudin (1977)
observed, a German-Canadian biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972) was a
creator of General System Theory (GST). His conceptual approach has had a wide
impact on such diverse disciplines as biology, psychology, and economics, and
his system theory is an attempt to formulate common laws that apply to every
scientific field. Heylighen and Joslyn (2001) stated,
Bertalanffy was both reacting against reductionism and attempting to revive
the unity of science. He emphasized that real systems are open to, and interact
with, their environments, and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties
through emergence, resulting in continual evolution. Rather than reducing an
entity (e.g., the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g.,
organs or cells), systems theory focuses on the arrangement of and relations
between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism). This particular
organization determines a system, which is independent of the concrete substance
of the elements (e.g., particles, cells, transistors, people, etc). Thus, the
same concepts and principles of organization underlie the different disciplines
(physics, biology, technology, sociology, etc.), providing a basis for their
unification. (p. 1)
In Bertalanffy's outline of the major aims of general system theory, we can
find the implications for education (Chen & Stroup, 1993). His system theory
provides a basis and unifying focus for integrated science education. His list
of the major aims includes:
* There is a general tendency towards integration in the various sciences,
natural and social.
* Such integration seems to be centered in a general theory of systems.
theory may be an important means for aiming at exact theory in the nonphysical
fields of science.
* Developing unifying principles running "vertically" through the universe of
the individual sciences, this theory brings us nearer to the goal of the unity
* This can lead to a much-needed integration in scientific education.
(Bertalanffy, 1969, p. 38)
Heylighen and Joslyn (2001) describe the system theory as "the
transdisciplinary study of the abstract organization of phenomena, independent
of their substance, type, or spatial or temporal scale of existence. It
investigates both the principles common to all complex entities, and the
(usually mathematical) models which can be used to describe them." (p. 1) In
addition, at the core of system theory are the notions that:
* A "system" is an ensemble of interaction parts, the sum of which exhibits
behavior not localized in its constituent parts. (That is, "the whole is more
than the sum of the parts.")
* A system can be physical, biological, social, or symbolic; or it can be
comprised of one or more these.
* Change is seen as a transformation of the system in time, which, nevertheless,
conserves its identity. Growth, steady state, and decay are major types of
* Goal-directed behavior characterizes the changes observed in the state of the
system. A system is seen to be actively organized in terms of the goal and,
hence, can be understood to exhibit "reverse causality."
* "Feedback" is the mechanism that mediates between the goal and system
* Time is a central variable in system theory. It provides a referent for the
very idea of dynamics.
* The "boundary" serves to delineate the system from the environment and any
subsystems from the system as a whole.
* System-environment interactions can be defined as the input and output of
matter, information, and energy. The system can be open, closed, or
semipermeable to the environment. (Chen & Stroup, 1993, pp. 448-449)
INFLUENCE OF SYSTEM THEORY ON SCIENCE EDUCATION
on the traditional science disciplines to study the Earth, the system approach
has become widely accepted as a framework by science communities. Several
documents also support the 'system' idea as a unifying theme to understand
science, and science education. The Earth System Sciences Committee (1988)
suggested that "maturation of traditional disciplines, a global view of the
Earth from space, and the recognition of the human role in global change have
combined to stimulate a new approach to Earth studies-Earth systems science. In
this approach, the Earth system is studied as a related set of interacting
processes, rather than as a collection of individual components" (p. 13).
Furthermore, Mayer (1995) mentioned that the Earth system can provide science
educators with a conceptual approach to curriculum integration.
Support for teaching and learning about "systems" in science has growing over
time (Chen & Stroup, 1993; Karplus & Thier, 1969; Mayer, 1995; Mayer
& Kumano, 1999). In the late 1980s, Project 2061 (American Association for
the Advancement of Science, 1989) recommended that all students should know
about "systems" as a common theme, and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy
(American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) suggests how student
understanding of "systems" as a thematic idea should develop over the school
More recently, the National Science Education Standards (National Research
Council, 1996) identified "systems" as a unifying concept that can provide
students a "big picture" of scientific ideas as a context for learning
scientific concepts and principles. Moreover, the idea of systems provides "a
framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting
components of the Earth system-geosphere (crust, mantle, and core), hydrosphere
(water), atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (the realm of all living things)"
(National Research Council, 1996, pp. 158-159).
Chen and Stroup (1993) emphasized several strengths of system theory for
* Toward integration: General system theory (GST) provides a set of powerful
ideas students can use to integrate and structure their understanding in the
disciplines of physical, life, engineering, and social science.
* Engaging Complexity: Complexity is the fundamental trait of the everyday
environment in which the student lives. Traditional science education has
avoided engaging complexity by promoting curricula built upon overly simplified
activities and frameworks. GST provides the tools for actively engaging
complexity. This offers the possibility of bridging the gap between the world of
the learner and the world of science education.
* Understanding change: The world as it is experienced is dynamic. To ignore the
centrality of change over time is to present a picture that is alienated from
reality. Traditional science education has tended to focus on static and rote
sequences. The system theory offers the intellectual tools for learners to build
understanding based on dynamics. (p. 448)
They suggest that system theory "takes up the challenge of creating a powerful
framework for discipline integration. As such it stands to provide a coherent
alternative to the current pastiche of reform efforts based on vague or
underdefined notions of what interdisciplinary science curricula might look
like" (p. 457).
As Mayer and Kumano (1999) argued, system
oriented science methods and content in school science curricula can effectively
help teachers teach about basic physical, chemical and biological processes that
act within Earth systems. It can demonstrate how basic processes operate within
systems and show how systems are changed by human interventions. Using a system
approach (e.g., Earth systems) as a conceptual approach to the organization of
curricula can replace many current interdisciplinary approaches to science
curricula or curricula integration. In particular, the Earth systems can provide
a rationale and organizing conceptual theme for developing new science curricula
for all students in the new global era. A recent case study (Lee, 2002) of a
teacher who developed his own Integrated Earth Systems Science Curriculum by
using an Earth system approach focused on locally relevant topics that lead to a
global perspective; the interaction of water, land, air, and life (human); and
the effect of human activities on Earth systems. The course has been very
successful and well received by students. Others have developed individual
activities that focus on the Earth system concept (i.e. Henriques, 2000). The
challenge is to expand the systems approach to science curriculum areas beyond
the Earth sciences.
"Digital Library for Earth System Education"
"Earth Systems Education"
"Earth System Science Education Alliance"
"Earth System Science Online"
Search the ERIC database
Note. Use "earth systems" as an Identifier
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