Dynamic Systems (Complexity) theory as a new conceptual model for researching PBL in dental education


  • This paper emerged from discussions between Professor Townsend, Dr Kim and Dr Sankey at an International Symposium titled ‘A two-way road to dental competence’, held in Gwangju, South Korea in 2010 to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the founding of the School of Dentistry, Chonnam National University. Professor Townsend’s presentation at the symposium was titled Research on PBL in dentistry: past, present and future, while Dr Sankey’s topic was Perception and the dynamics of learning and teaching. Dr Kim was one of the invited discussants at the session.

Professor Grant Townsend
School of Dentistry
The University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Tel: +61-(0)8-8313-5968
Fax: +61-(0)8-8313-0793
e-mail: grant.townsend@adelaide.edu.au


Although problem-based learning (PBL) was introduced into dental education some 20 years ago, there have been relatively few well-designed studies carried out to clarify whether, how or why it works in a dental context. This paper introduces the Dynamic Systems (Complexity) theory as a new and potentially productive theoretical framework for researching PBL in dental education. This framework emphasises the importance of emergent self-organisation, perception and brain plasticity in learning. In this paper, a brief overview of the history of PBL in dentistry is presented and then the fundamentals of a Dynamic Systems Approach (DSA) are explained, drawing on two recently published papers advocating the DSA in medical education and teacher education. We focus on three key points related to this new approach: emergent self-organisation rather than simple construction of knowledge; the notion that perception drives the learning process; and the brain as the substrate of all learning. The paper also suggests how the DSA can help us move forward, both in terms of the future application of PBL in dental education and also in relation to posing new types of research questions.