A Game-Based Pedagogical Framework for Promoting Systems Thinking Skills

(1/1/16-8/31/17), Spencer Foundation, PIs: Oleg Pavlov (WPI) and Yoon Jeon Kim (MIT)

The systems thinking skills required to understand complex systems have been recognized in education as a core aspect of science literacy and more recently as critical 21st century skills that young Americans need to succeed in today’s competitive global society. The current national standards for science education reflect this perspective by explicitly calling for the incorporation of systems thinking concepts and practices into science education. While this perspective represents an important step forward, how can teachers actually put it into practice? Video games offer affordances to support systems thinking skills. Using games in STEM domains can increase students’ interest and engagement. However, despite increasing research interest, little is yet known about designing game-based curricula that facilitate systems thinking skills. Simply playing a game without a systematic pedagogical approach is insufficient because the game remains a “black box” to students even if they implicitly understand how the system operates. To address this gap, we propose Game-Based Structural Debriefing (GBSD), a pedagogical innovation to help teachers cultivate systems thinking skills by introducing games into the classroom. The framework is based on the literature of systems thinking and system dynamics modeling. This study uses the design‐based research method to refine the framework and investigate its efficacy at both teacher and student levels.



Oleg Pavlov, PhD: an associate professor of economics and system dynamics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is an expert on systems thinking and system dynamics in both K-12 and higher education settings.
Yoon Jeon Kim, PhD: Yoon Jeon Kim is a research scientist at the MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Her research centers on the design and development of learning and assessment in technology-rich environments, particularly video games and simulations.


Lees Stuntz: Director of the Creative Learning Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching systems thinking in K-12.

Master Teacher:

Steven Roderick, MA: a public high school biology teacher in Massachusetts. Steve has been developing and teaching science curricula that incorporate systems thinking and computer modeling for over 25 years.


John Storella-Mullin: Former engineer, has been teaching engineering at a middle school for 10 years.
Patrick Kerrigan: Science teacher at an urban charter school, premed and biology major in college, 2+ years of teaching.
Brad Cranston: 10+ years of teaching life science. A biology major in college and has a Master’s degree in neuroscience.



Pavlov, O. and Y.J. Kim. “A Learning Sciences Investigation of Game‐Based Structural Debriefing.” Department of Social Science and Policy Studies Working Paper No. 2017-001, 2017.

Pavlov, O. and Y.J. Kim. “A Learning Sciences Investigation of Game-Based Structural Debriefing.” In the Proceedings of the 35th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society. Boston, MA. July 16-20, 2017.

Kim, Y.J. and O. Pavlov. “Game-Based Structural Debriefing: A Design Tool for Systems Thinking Curriculum.” In the Proceedings of “EDULEARN17: 9th International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies.” Barcelona, Spain. July 3-5, 2017.

Kim, Y.J. and O. Pavlov. “Game-Based Structural Debriefing: Development of a Pedagogical Framework for Promoting Systems Thinking Skills.” In the Proceedings of the 2016 AERA Annual Meeting. Washington, D.C., April 8-12, 2016


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