Do current curricula hinder student understanding of complex global water systems?

Do current curricula hinder student understanding of complex global water systems?

Every day, we use water – either direct or hidden – from the moment we wake up until we go back to sleep. Water has multiple values and meanings in our communities, reflected in our languages and traditions in many spiritual, cultural, and emotional forms.1  Even though we appreciate the importance of water for life, the pressure that we put on water resources and aquatic ecosystems continues to threaten the future of our planet.2,3

We learn/teach about water as a concept from early childhood years to the end of high school. Water is considered as an important concept providing a basis for understanding of:

  •  weather and climate4
  • complexity of life and interconnectedness of the earth systems5
  • sustaining cities and ecosystems6
  • effects of water use on the environment7, economy8,9, and society10 such as water pollution, human health, food security, energy supplies, and climate change11.

Yet, we are not very good at understanding its working mechanism, engaging with water systems sustainably, or equipping educators with the necessary knowledge and skills to teach the dynamic, complex, ambiguous, and interconnected nature of water systems.

Researchers working on water concepts in science education (as well as environmental and sustainability education in general) have been providing powerful arguments about the dysfunctionality of current curricular practices that embrace a reductionist approach rather than a holistic approach to the natural systems. Current depictions of the water cycle in curricula usually focus on the phase change of water on Earth which hinders students from developing a holistic understanding of the issue, and limits progress towards the achievement of sustainable development goals including water and natural systems.

In this blog, I intend to summarise the arguments about the possible reasons students fail to develop a sound understanding of water system(s), and recap how to support middle school students’ learning based on both existing literature and our own research findings.

Students’ conceptions of the water system are generally composed of factual knowledge.

From the beginning of the integration of water into education in the 1960s,12 educational studies have consistently revealed that students have been developing only a rudimentary understanding of water and water-related concepts13,14.  

Some of the reviews in the literature reported that most elementary and middle school students have a naïve and fragmented factual conception of water-related subjects which solely require memorization.15,16 Thus, the water cycle becomes one of the challenging concepts to be fully grasped by the students in a middle school context.17 Several studies indicated that even though students can draw a water cycle which looks quite similar to the textbooks’ diagram and explain how water cycles, they fail to provide a scientifically correct answer to explain the procedures within the cycle.18,19

Research in Türkiye

In our research, we aimed to see if there are any similar patterns in a Turkish context and improve students’ understanding of water systems by examining their background. We collected data from the students who completed middle school, through conception tests (short, informal, targeted tests that are administered to help instructors gauge whether students understand key concepts), drawing tasks, and semi-structured interviews. We administered a concept inventory to a sample of 358 eighth-grade students from both rural and urban areas in five schools located in four different districts of Ankara, the capital city of Türkiye. Among them, six students were interviewed to gain a deeper understanding of their conceptions of water systems.

In terms of possessing factual knowledge, our research findings were compatible with the literature. For example, every interviewee stated that water cycles on Earth, listed the components and processes, and drew a cycle similar to their textbook, but they had limited answers about the processes in the water cycle. During the interview, we asked follow-up questions to understand the level of their procedural knowledge.

Even though they explained that water cycles on Earth using examples (factual knowledge), when we asked them if there is any starting/ending point of the water cycle, some of them said, “Yes”. Even if they said, “No”, they failed to provide a comprehensive answer for how it cycles. Further, some of the participants offered alternative conceptions such as “When water is absorbed by the soil, it is not involved within the cycle anymore”, and “Polluted water does not cycle anymore.” These responses might indicate that despite having the factual knowledge of ‘water cycles on Earth’, they still do have adequate procedural knowledge to explain how water cycles.

Students are often not able to transfer their knowledge from one context to another.

Another common finding in the literature was that even in the same course, students tend to learn things as “silo concepts”.20Students are taught about the law of conservation and mixture separation techniques in an elementary science course. In the same course, they also learn the basics of the water cycle. However, some evidence suggests that they have some difficulties integrating these concepts into explaining the water cycle.21,22

In our research, when we asked the participants, ‘What happens to polluted water in the water cycle?’, only a few students could transfer their knowledge on mixture separation to the water cycle context. Among the incorrect responses, there were some alternative conceptions such as, “Polluted water turns into acid rain”, or “Polluted water evaporates, and polluted rains make us sick”. In other words, most of the students failed to identify that (1) polluted water is a mixture, (2) evaporation is one of the separation techniques that water evaporates and pollutants remain, and (3) polluted water does not evaporate.

Curricular practices do not encourage viewing of the interactions among water systems.

Studies related to water-related subjects in education reported that curricular practices as well as science textbooks do not coherently link the interactions between water and other systems such as biosphere and anthroposphere.23,24,25  Not surprisingly, students have disconnected conceptions about the water cycle and its interactions with the other systems. These detached conceptions became evident in students’ drawings and statements pertaining to water systems.26,27 When students are asked to draw a water cycle, they usually tend to draw it without bio-spheric components.28,29 Similarly, when they are asked to draw or explain where the water comes from to their homes and where it goes after using it, they fail to fully explain the interactions between their residential area and the water system.30,31 It is argued that this disconnected nature of the curriculum has the potential to hinder students in developing a sound understanding of the water systems and their multiple interactions.32,33,34

The elementary science curriculum context, where our research was carried out, covers water-related concepts from 3rd to 8th grade with no explanation of these interactions. The curriculum involves water as a non-living substance, the percentage of water in our bodies, the importance of efficient water use, wastewater management, groundwater resources, surface water resources, phases of water, water pollution, water cycle, weather, and climate35 but it does not foster a holistic understanding of the interactions among these systems. Thus, participants of this study were expected to have a detached understanding of the interaction of these systems when they completed their middle school degree. Consistent with the literature, a few participants included bio-spheric components but none of them included human-engineered water systems in their drawings.

Students are not aware of their indirect water use, leading to underestimating their water footprint.

In addition to our direct use of water, we use water when we buy a product, use energy, and eat foods which is called indirect use of water. Our water footprint indicates how much water we use in our daily lives.36 To ensure the sustainability of global water systems on Earth, monitoring water consumption behaviour is considered essential but the concept of indirect use of water is not fully reflected in curricula, although some efforts are being made to increase awareness of this issue.37

Evidence suggests that middle school students are not aware of their indirect water use. 38,39,40 These studies report that primary and secondary students are not fully aware of their water consumption pattern, their self-report strategies are limited to their direct use of water, such as turning off the tap while brushing their teeth or taking a shower quickly, which are common suggestions in current textbooks.41 They think they use water efficiently, but this might not be an accurate assessment42,43 because most of them fail to share their strategies for reducing indirect water use, such as changing their shopping habits or eating less meat. This lack of knowledge of indirect water use also contributes to the inability to see the interactions between personal water consumption habits, local, and global water issues. In our study, the participants believed that they use water efficiently but when examples were requested of their efficient water use strategies, they provided examples of how to monitor their direct use of water in their daily lives, which was comparable with the previous studies.44 ,45,46

What teachers can do to improve students’ understanding of water systems

Students tend to explain phenomena based on either their formal educational background or daily life observations, which creates both challenges and opportunities for education policymakers and educators. Recommended within the literature are some extracurricular activities for teachers such as providing real-life experiences47,48,49, tailoring the human effect to the water cycle951, linking conceptual knowledge and practical experiences52,53, showing alternative models54,55 to enhance primary and secondary students learning’ on the complex nature of water systems.

Key Messages

  • Students need support to understand water as a system on Earth.
  • Students may struggle to grasp the dynamic and complex interactions among (in)direct water use, local, and global water issues.
  • We are failing to teach young people how water systems work, how we engage and affect those systems, and how we ensure the sustainability of these systems.
  • Revising current curricular practices and building capacity for teachers is critical in order to enhance students’ procedural knowledge and nurture their conception of systems.
Dr Sinem Demirci

Dr Sinem Demirci

Lecturer in the Statistics Department at California Polytechnic State University

Sinem Demirci is a Full-time Lecturer in the Statistics Department at California Polytechnic State University. Before joining Cal Poly, Sinem worked as a Postdoctoral Visiting Researcher and Lecturer at the Department of Statistical Science at University College London. She received her PhD (2021) in elementary (science) education, MS (2018) in Statistics, MS (2014) in elementary science and mathematics education and BS (2011) in elementary science education from Middle East Technical
University, The Republic of Türkiye. Sinem is a teacher educator whose interdisciplinary research interests include Statistics & Data Science Education and Environmental & Sustainability Education.

This blog is based on the literature review and pilot study conducted during Dr. Demirci’s dissertation, which was also featured in her ECER presentation.

For more information about Dr. Demirci’s research interests,

Personal Website:



Other blog posts on similar topics:

References and Further Reading

[1], [6], [11] United Nations (2018). Value Water.

[2] Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Galetti, M., Alamgir, M., Crist, E., … & 15,364 Scientist Signatories from 184 Countries. (2017). World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice. BioScience67(12), 1026-1028.

[3] Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Barnard, P., Moomaw, W. R., & Grandcolas, P. (2019). World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency. BioScience.

[4] Sadler, T. D., Nguyen, H., & Lankford, D. (2017). Water systems understandings: a framework for designing instruction and considering what learners know about water. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water4(1), e1178.

[5], [17] Brody, M. J. (1993). Student Understanding of Water and Water Resources: A Review of the Literature. the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, (s. 1-18). Atlanta. Retrieved April 2019, 2020 from 

[7], [22], [53] Österlind, K., & Haldén, O. (2007). Linking theory to practice: a case study of pupils’ course work on freshwater pollution. International Research in Geographical & Environmental Education, 16(1), 73-89. doi:10.2167/irg207.0

[8], [10], [41], [44] Wood, G. V. (2014). Water literacy and citizenship: education for sustainable domestic water use in the East Midlands. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham].

[9], [50] DeLorme, D. E., Hagen, S. C., & Stout, J. I. (2003). Consumers’ Perspectives on water issues: directions for educational campaigns. The Journal of Environmental Education, 34(2), 28-35.

[12] Ewing, M. S., & Mills, T. J. (1994). Water literacy in college freshmen: Could a cognitive imagery strategy improve understanding? The Journal of Environmental Education, 25(4), 36-40.

[13] Ben-Zvi-Assaraf, O., & Orion, N. (2005a, March). Development of system thinking skills in the context of earth system education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(5), 518-560. doi:10.1002/tea.20061

[14], [20], [21], [24], [30], [34], [54] Covitt, B. A., Gunckel, K. L., & Anderson, C. L. (2009). Students’ developing understanding of water in environmental systems. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(3), 37-51. doi:10.3200/JOEE.40.3.37-51

[15], [26] Dickerson, D., & Dawkins, K. (2004). Eighth grade students’ understandings of groundwater. Journal of Geoscience Education, 52(2), 178-181. doi:10.5408/1089-9995-52.2.178

[16] Havu-Nuutinen, S., Kärkkäinen, S., & Keinonen, T. (2011). Primary school pupils’ perceptions of water in the context of STS study approach. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 6(4), 321-339.

[18], [23], [27], [28] Shepardson, D. P., Wee, B., Priddy, M., Schellenberger, L., & Harbor, J. (2007). What is a watershed? implications of student conceptions for environmental science education and the national science education standards. Science Education, 91(4), 554-578. doi:10.1002/sce.20206

[19] Forbes, C. T., Zangori, L., & Schwarz, C. V. (2015). Empirical Validation of integrated learning performances for hydrologic phenomena: 3rd-grade students’ model-driven explanation-construction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 895-921. doi:10.1002/tea.21226

[25], [33] Shepardson, D. P., Wee, B., Pridy, M., Schellenberger, L., & Harbor, J. (2009). Water transformation and storage in the mountains and at the coast: midwest students’ disconnected conceptions of the hydrologic cycle. International Journal of Science Education, 31(11), 1447-1471.

[29], [31], [49] Gunckel, K. L., Covitt, B. A., Salinas, I., & Anderson, C. L. (2012). A learning progression for water in socio-ecological systems. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(7), 843-868. doi:10.1002/tea.21024 

[32] Ben-Zvi Assaraf, O., Eshach, H., Orion, N., & Alamour, Y. (2012). Cultural differences and students’ spontaneous models of the water cycle: a case study of Jewish and Bedouin children in Israel. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 7(2), 451-477.

[35] Ministry of National Education [MoNE]. (2018). İlköğretim fen bilgisi dersi öğretim programı 3-8. sınıflar. Retrieved from 

[36] Water Footprint Network (2023). What is a water footprint?

[37] United Nations (2023). UN 2023 Water Conference.

[38], [40], [46] Benninghaus, J. C., Kremer, K., & Sprenger, S. (2018). Assessing high-school students’ conceptions of global water consumption and sustainability. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 27(3), 250-266.

[39], [45] Fremerey, C., Liefländer, A. K., & Bogner, F. X. (2014). Conceptions about drinking water of 10 th graders and undergraduates. Journal of Water Resource and Protection6(12), 1112.

[42] Venckute, M., Silva, M. M., & Figueiredo, M. (2017). Education as a tool to reduce the water footprint of young people. Millenium, 2(4), 101-111.

[43], [47] Amahmid, O., El Guamri, Y., Yazidi, M., Razoki, B., Kaid Rassou, K., Rakibi, Y., … & El Ouardi, T. (2019). Water education in school curricula: Impact on children knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards water use. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education28(3), 178-193.

[48] Endreny, A. H. (2010). Urban 5th graders conceptions during a place‐based inquiry unit on watersheds. Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching47(5), 501-517.

[51] Ben-Zvi-Assarf, O., & Orion, N. (2005b, September). A study of junior high students’ perceptions of the water cycle. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(4), 366-373.

[52] Jacobson, M. J., & Wilensky, U. (2006). Complex systems in education: Scientific and educational importance and implications for the learning sciences. The Journal of the learning sciences15(1), 11-34.

[55] Duffy, D. L. F. (2012). The nature and role of physical models in enhancing sixth grade students’ mental models of groundwater and groundwater processes. [Doctoral dissertation, Old Dominion University]. Old Dominion University Theses, United States.