Mapping the Perception of “Complex Systems” across Educational Levels through Cognitive Network Science

Massimo Stella

Complex Science Consulting, Italy



Abstract: Despite recent efforts promoting complexity science across different educational contexts, there is little literature about how school students perceive complex systems. This research report aims to quantify the current perception of “complex systems” among 159 Italian high school students, providing a data-informed map of the general attitude and knowledge structure towards complexity through tools from cognitive network science. Adopting the framework of forma mentis networks, i.e. conceptual networks where words are related by memory recall patterns and labelled according to their positive/negative/neutral sentiment, the students’ mindset or forma mentis towards “complex systems” was reconstructed and compared to the mindset of 59 international postgraduate researchers working on complexity topics. Despite studying multiple scientific disciplines at the same time, students perceived complexity as an abstract and negative entity, strongly associated to “complicated” and “difficult” whereas researchers identified complexity as a positive concept, with a stronger STEM-oriented, multidisciplinary connotation towards mathematics, physics, biology and other scientific disciplines. This comparison was discussed in light of relevant literature about silo mentality in education. Mindset reconstruction through forma mentis networks opens novel ways for quantifying current perceptions of “complexity science” in mainstream educational curricula, suggesting key challenges for developing complexity education through the mindsets of complexity researchers.

 Keywords: complex networks, education, complex systems, cognitive network science