Attractor states in teaching and learning processes: a study of out-of-school science education

Carla H. Geveke, Henderien W. Steenbeek, Jeannette M. Doornenbal, Paul L. C. Van Geert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In order for out-of-school science activities that take place during school hours but outside the school context to be successful, instructors must have sufficient pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) to guarantee high-quality teaching and learning. We argue that PCK is a quality of the instructor-pupil system that is constructed in real-time interaction. When PCK is evident in real-time interaction, we define it as Expressed Pedagogical Content Knowledge (EPCK). The aim of this study is to empirically explore whether EPCK shows a systematic pattern of variation, and if so whether the pattern occurs in recurrent and temporary stable attractor states as predicted in the complex dynamic systems theory. This study concerned nine out-of-school activities in which pupils of upper primary school classes participated. A multivariate coding scheme was used to capture EPCK in real time. A principal component analysis of the time series of all the variables reduced the number of dimensions. A cluster revealed general descriptions of the dimensions across all cases. Cluster analyses of individual cases divided the time series into sequences, revealing High-, Low- and Non-EPCK states. High-EPCK attractor states emerged at particular moments during activities, rather than being present all the time. Such High-EPCK attractor states were only found in a few cases, namely those where the pupils were prepared for the visit and the instructors were trained.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAR
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2017


  • attractor states
  • complex dynamic systems approach
  • expressed pedagogical content knowledge
  • out-of-school science education


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