Design Principle

Explore Complex Causality

Explore the many causes and consequences of human behaviors, including complex systems interactions across levels of organization in biology and society

  • Make the theme of complex systems and causality explicit

  • Engage students in reflecting on the complex causality of everyday experience

  • Use a diversity of teaching tools to make complex causality accessible and relevant to our everyday experiences

  • Compare diverse examples of complex systems across biology and society to make explicit the dynamics that are and are not transferable across systems

Teaching tools for complex systems thinking

Systems thinking is one key competency in Education for Sustainable Development. This is because sustainability issues are about the consequences of complex relationships in social-ecological systems. If we want to change those outcomes towards more desirable ones, we need to understand these causal relationships, so that we know how changing one factor might lead to changes in other factors.

We can use a diversity of teaching tools to help students engage the complex causes of the human behaviors relevant to sustainability and everyday well-being:

Tinbergen's questions can help organize complex causality of behaviors and other phenomena across time, from immediate factors to development to population history and phylogeny.

Causal mapping techniques can be used in the classroom to represent and visualize, analyze, discuss, reflect, and assess understanding of complex causal interactions between different factors.

Payoff matrices can help students reflect on the possible causes of behaviors in term of conscious or unconscious motivations (thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs, constraints, goals, values, needs, preferences, ...) as well as the possible outcomes of behaviors, especially as they emerge from social interactions.

References and Links

Jacobson, M. J., & Wilensky, U. (2006). Complex Systems in Education: Scientific and Educational Importance and Implications for the Learning Sciences. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(1), 11–34.

Jacobson, M. J. (2001). Problem Solving, Cognition, and Complex Systems: Differences between Experts and Novices. Complexity, 6(3), 41–49.

Medicus, G. (2005). Mapping Transdisciplinarity in Human Sciences. In J. W. Lee (Ed.), Focus on Gender Identity (pp. 95–114). New York, NY, USA: Nova Science Publishers. Retrieved from

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of Ethology. Zeitschrift Für Tierpsychologie, 20(4), 410–433.

O’Brien, D. T., & Gallup, A. C. (2011). Using Tinbergen’s four questions (plus one) to facilitate evolution education for human-oriented disciplines. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4(1), 107-113.

Sapolsky, R. M.. (2018). Behave. The biology of humans at our best and worst. Vintage.