Teaching the Crosscutting Concept of Emergent Cause-and-Effect to Overcome Misconceptions

Principal investigator

Michelene Chi

Award start date


Award end date


Originating sponsor

U.S. Department of Education

The challenge

How do we explain to students the difference between “sequential,” or cause-and-effect processes for some concepts and emergent causal effects for other processes? Most people are familiar with simple sequential cause-and-effect concepts, such as a child kicking a ball and the ball hitting and breaking a window. Science processes based on a sequence of events are easily understood by most students. But many people are less familiar with processes that have emergent causal effects in which collective interactions create a detectable pattern.

For example, pilots flying their planes in a “V” formation are participating in a sequential process in which actions have a specific, understood order. The pilots receive instructions from a designated leader. However, when geese migrate and form a “V,” this is an emergent process. While the pattern of the pilots’ planes and the geese flying in a “V” appear to be the same, the cause of the patterns is different. All geese are instinctively seeking locations of minimal air currents, usually behind another goose, in order to minimize their energy expenditure during flight, resulting in the emergence of a collective “V”-pattern.  

The project team believes that most people lack an understanding of the hidden nature of emergent processes and are unable to fully understand emergent concepts. Since many science concepts that students must learn are emergent, this misunderstanding leads to robust science misconceptions that are difficult to address with traditional instruction.

The approach

The project team is developing an online module for high school students that contrasts the distinct characteristics of sequential and emergent processes. The researchers predict that students who are trained to recognize characteristics of emergent processes will more quickly and accurately learn the science material than a group of control students who are not trained in the same way.

Findings and impact

Pilot studies with students were conducted, and the project team found this type of training is beneficial for learning emergent science concepts. They are revising the module and anticipate that the final module will be an effective, low-cost way to improve science learning for high school- and college- level students. The impact of the project has not yet been reported.