Threads of local continuity between centralized and decentralized causality: Transitional explanations for the behavior of a complex system

Lauren Barth-Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


One line of research on student understanding of complex systems has tended to emphasize discontinuities between common misconceptions and relatively more sophisticated understandings. Other work has focused on instruction while acknowledging the existence of other ways of understanding complex systems, but less emphasis has been on examining the knowledge structures within these intermediate ways of understanding. This study takes a microgenetic approach to examining student’s explanations for the behavior of complex systems. Using the Knowledge-in-Pieces epistemological perspective, the analysis documents a continuity of reasoning patterns across less prototypically centralized and more prototypically decentralized (a more sophisticated causality) explanations while explaining the movement of sand dunes. The first analysis examines 31 interviews and shows that many reflected a general reasoning pattern that encompassing some combination of an initial centralized explanation, a final decentralized explanation, and transitional explanations. A second analysis examines a single student’s reasoning pattern and finds that the activation of relevant intuitive knowledge pieces (p-prims) and transitional explanations function as threads of continuity across the continuum of reasoning patterns. These findings suggest that students are able to exhibit a continuity of reasoning patterns across centralized to decentralized causality and are able to access productive intuitive knowledge about complex systems that are applicable to both the macro and micro levels of sand dune movement. Implications suggest that future research investigate these transitional explanations along with the mechanisms of shifting explanations that can account for this robust continuum.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)681-705
Number of pages25
JournalInstructional Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Complex systems
  • Conceptual change
  • Explanations
  • Learning mechanisms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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