Using complex systems approach to study educational policy

October 8, 2010

Educational policy is controversial: positions on achievement gaps, troubled schools and class size are emotionally charged, and research studies often come to very different conclusions.

But what if there was a new way of looking at the problem -- a way that treats education as a complex system (taking into account all interactions) and uses computer modeling and network analysis to provide a comprehensive look at the outcomes of policy choices?

Researchers at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and School of Education and Social Policy argue in an article published Oct. 1 in the journal Science that such an approach can help integrate insights and better inform educational policy. By breaking down policies into simple rules and computationally modeling them under different conditions, professors Uri Wilensky and Luis Amaral have found a promising new way to understand policy issues such as school choice and student tracking.

Wilensky, professor of learning sciences and electrical engineering and computer science, and Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering, authored the paper with several of their current and former graduate students and colleagues. The article grew out of a three-year, National Science Foundation-supported project they conducted.

In the article, Wilensky and Amaral argue that current educational policy research often falls into two categories: effects-based, which focuses on quantifying "what works" in education, and mechanism-based research, such as ethnographies, case studies and laboratory experiments that focus on individuals and "how it works."

But to get a complete view of education, researchers must use methods that integrate insights about micro-level processes (the student) with macro-level outcomes (student achievement). To do this, Wilensky and Amaral look at education as a complex system: a system with many interacting parts that only can be understood by examining the interactions of the parts and the networks that connect them. Knowledge of the parts alone doesn't lead to understanding of the whole system.

"Considering all the published research, it is hard to draw conclusions on educational policies," Wilensky said. "In this modeled world you can simulate all kinds of alternative policies and conditions and then better understand their implications."

Engineers and scientists conducting research on use what is called agent-based modeling to simulate, explore and predict such systems. Recently, social scientists have been developing and computationally simulating scenarios. This allows them to see how individual and group-level behaviors relate to system-wide outcomes.

In the article, the authors cite several other studies and their own research as evidence that this approach works. Wilensky and Amaral, along with Louis Gomez, formerly with Northwestern and now professor of learning sciences and policy at the University of Pittsburgh, and Spiro Maroulis, Wilensky's former graduate student and now a visiting professor and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, have used a modeling approach for a hot educational issue: school choice.

They use Wilensky's NetLogo agent-based modeling software along with student and school-level data from Chicago Public Schools to better understand the sensitivity of district-level outcomes, such as mean achievement to differences in the ways students choose schools. In one modeling scenario, they allowed for schools with a greater ability to increase student test scores to enter the district and found that when students valued a school's test scores much more than its geographic proximity, it could constrain improvement in the district. That is because it made it more difficult for new schools to survive.

"The schools that initially look very good get swamped, and they get overwhelmed and tend to close," Wilensky said. Such research could pave the way for new school-choice programs.

In another study, Wilensky, Amaral and their students used surveys to look at friendship networks among high school students. "We were able to use algorithms developed by Amaral to separate out sub-communities -- the friendship groups -- and figure out who were the key pivotal players and how they affected the group," Wilensky said.

The researchers examined groups comprised of both high achievers and low achievers. They found that in a group that contained mostly high achievers, the low achievers tended to improve. In a group that contained mostly low achievers, the high achievers tended to do worse. Moreover, students in the high-achieving friendship groups improved their scores more than students in the low-achieving groups.

"Ultimately, a complex systems-based approach provides a new way of looking at educational and social policies and should be incorporated into graduate training programs," Wilensky said.

"It's a new form of argument that will help resolve disagreements," he said. "By breaking down a complex system and figuring out the rules that generate it, we can grow the system in the computer and create models that can guide us towards leverage points that will help us determine which policies will work."

Explore further: Attitude determines student success in rural schools

Related Stories

Attitude determines student success in rural schools

June 20, 2008

[B]Study investigates qualities of high-achieving schools[/B] While most of the country focuses on ACT scores, student-teacher ratio and rigorous curriculum to increase student success, it may be the commitment to excellence ...

As graduation rates go down, school ratings go up

February 14, 2008

A new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin finds that Texas' public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower ...

Small classes give extra boost to low-achieving students

October 14, 2009

Small classes in early grades improve test scores in later grades for students of all achievement levels, but low achievers get an extra boost. That's the finding of a study on the long-term effects of class size in the November ...

Relationships Improve Student Success

June 29, 2009

( -- When students are underachieving, school policymakers often examine class size, curriculum and funding, but University of Missouri researchers suggest establishing relationships may be a powerful and less ...

Recommended for you

Metacognition training boosts gen chem exam scores

October 20, 2017

It's a lesson in scholastic humility: You waltz into an exam, confident that you've got a good enough grip on the class material to swing an 80 percent or so, maybe a 90 if some of the questions go your way.

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

Six degrees of separation: Why it is a small world after all

October 19, 2017

It's a small world after all - and now science has explained why. A study conducted by the University of Leicester and KU Leuven, Belgium, examined how small worlds emerge spontaneously in all kinds of networks, including ...

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

October 19, 2017

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Oct 09, 2010
The problem with all this, of course, is the validation of the individual agent-based rules contained in the system. Sometimes actual "real life" outcomes tend to be counter-intuitive, and if modeled in a way that "just makes sense" they lose connection with the real world.

But this IS a very powerful and welcome tool to add to the analysis of educational policy. BADLY needed.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 09, 2010
They found that in a group that contained mostly high achievers, the low achievers tended to improve.

I knew that in 1979.
The real issue is why don't more people embrace and understand systems thinking?
Could it be the education system itself teaches reductionism and not holism?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.