Systems thinking with the SDGs in the classroom

Meryl Batchelder

Many of you may know about the study by the late, great Ken Robinson on divergent thinking which asked: ‘how many uses can you think of for a paperclip?’.1 On average people usually come up with 10 to 15, but a few come up with around 200. Children tend to do a better job than adults, and the survey found that over time the education system can limit creative thinking, such that older children and adults are not nearly as good at coming up with novel uses for the paper clip.

Personally, I score around 12 uses of a clip. I don’t have the IQ of a genius and I don’t think of myself as particularly creative, but I do understand that in problem solving alternative ways of thinking are really important. In the classroom, metacognitive techniques such as modelling thought processes make this much easier. Once someone has demonstrated how to think divergently it all becomes clearer. In the case of the paperclip, of course, we could link lots of paperclips together to make a chain rope, or unravel a clip to make a cable tie or to pick a lock.

However, creative thinking – which considers things from different angles – or divergent thinking – which is used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions – are not enough when a problem is particularly complex and includes many causes and several potential solutions.

Understanding and solving global issues using the SDGs

If the role of a teacher is to provide their students with the best possible education, one that prepares them for the future, then an understanding of systems thinking is one of the most versatile tools you can provide them with. Young people are becoming increasingly familiar with many of the serious global issues they face so they should be equipped with the skills they need to help solve these complex problems.

Systems thinking focuses on the way a system’s constituent parts interrelate internally, how they change over time, and how they operate within the context of larger systems. Systems thinking processes can be used to chunk down bigger problems, like we do with complicated maths problems, to better understand the causes of the problem and how to construct the best solutions.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all about systems thinking; the Goals were never intended to be used independently. Issues such as poverty, climate change or plastic pollution, are all interconnected and interdependent. Systems thinking features in the UNESCO report on Education for Sustainable Development Goals Learning Objectives, and is considered to be one of the key competencies of SDG4 (Quality Education) as it encourages the abilities to recognize and understand relationships; to analyse complex systems; to think how systems are embedded within different domains; and to deal with uncertainty.2

So how can we use systems thinking and the SDGs to understand and solve global issues? Firstly it is important to map out the problem. Concept maps visually present the system’s elements, concept links, proposition statements, cross-links and examples. The Post-it note approach with lots of ideas linking issues to the Goals which can be moved around and arranged by pupils is very effective. Alternatively a simple grid can be used to list the causes and consequences of a problem. Then, by understanding the background issues, the SDGs can help identify the possible solutions. Because there are 17 defined Goals providing a ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future’, they are a lot more useful than those six thinking hats.

Once pupils have identified the main issues of a complex problem and considered some of the possible solutions using the SDGs then they can decide how to take action. It is through actively working on implementing a solution, even locally on a small scale, that they can gain a tangible feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Examples for the classroom

Systems Thinking with the SDG's

Let’s consider how the SDGs can be used to understand three serious global issues: plastic waste, food security, and climate change.

Humans produce far too much plastic and only recycle around 10% of plastic produced. Asking pupils to consider how plastic impacts on our life on Earth may initially lead to links with SDG14 (Life Below Water) as we’re all getting pretty familiar with the dreadful images of turtles eating plastic bags that look like jelly fish, or sea birds with balloon ribbons around their necks. But if you delve in further plastic can also link to SDG3 (Health and Wellbeing) as plasticiser chemicals can cause health issues, to SDG12 (Responsible Consumption) as single use plastics in particular are causing huge problems with waste management, and to SDG13 (Climate Action) as millions of tonnes of plastic are burned in incinerators causing further greenhouse gas emissions. Once they understand the bigger picture, pupils can then consider how to reduce reliance on plastic by considering the life cycle analysis of different objects, then how this links in to a circular economy or how alternatives to plastic could be used so that the idea of Responsible Consumption becomes more concrete. The Plastic Free Humans produce far too much plastic and only recycle around 10% of plastic produced. Asking pupils to consider how plastic impacts on our life on Earth may initially lead to links with SDG14 (Life Below Water) as we’re all getting pretty familiar with the dreadful images of turtles eating plastic bags that look like jelly fish, or sea birds with balloon ribbons around their necks. But if you delve in further plastic can also link to SDG3 (Health and Wellbeing) as plasticiser chemicals can cause health issues, to SDG12 (Responsible Consumption) as single use plastics in particular are causing huge problems with waste management, and to SDG13 (Climate Action) as millions of tonnes of plastic are burned in incinerators causing further greenhouse gas emissions. Once they understand the bigger picture, pupils can then consider how to reduce reliance on plastic by considering the life cycle analysis of different objects, then how this links in to a circular economy or how alternatives to plastic could be used so that the idea of Responsible Consumption becomes more concrete. The Plastic Free Humans produce far too much plastic and only recycle around 10% of plastic produced. Asking pupils to consider how plastic impacts on our life on Earth may initially lead to links with SDG14 (Life Below Water) as we’re all getting pretty familiar with the dreadful images of turtles eating plastic bags that look like jelly fish, or sea birds with balloon ribbons around their necks. But if you delve in further plastic can also link to SDG3 (Health and Wellbeing) as plasticiser chemicals can cause health issues, to SDG12 (Responsible Consumption) as single use plastics in particular are causing huge problems with waste management, and to SDG13 (Climate Action) as millions of tonnes of plastic are burned in incinerators causing further greenhouse gas emissions. Once they understand the bigger picture, pupils can then consider how to reduce reliance on plastic by considering the life cycle analysis of different objects, then how this links in to a circular economy or how alternatives to plastic could be used so that the idea of Responsible Consumption becomes more concrete. The Plastic Free Humans produce far too much plastic and only recycle around 10% of plastic produced. Asking pupils to consider how plastic impacts on our life on Earth may initially lead to links with SDG14 (Life Below Water) as we’re all getting pretty familiar with the dreadful images of turtles eating plastic bags that look like jelly fish, or sea birds with balloon ribbons around their necks. But if you delve in further plastic can also link to SDG3 (Health and Wellbeing) as plasticiser chemicals can cause health issues, to SDG12 (Responsible Consumption) as single use plastics in particular are causing huge problems with waste management, and to SDG13 (Climate Action) as millions of tonnes of plastic are burned in incinerators causing further greenhouse gas emissions. Once they understand the bigger picture, pupils can then consider how to reduce reliance on plastic by considering the life cycle analysis of different objects, then how this links in to a circular economy or how alternatives to plastic could be used so that the idea of Responsible Consumption becomes more concrete. The Plastic Free School campaign has loads of ideas and resources.3

Our second issue is human food security. Can you think which SDGs it may link to? SDG2 (Zero Hunger) is obvious but other possibilities include SDG3, SDG4, SDG5, SDG11, SDG12, SDG13 and SDG15. Again, pupils can use systems thinking to identify solutions to the problems. SDG12 comes into play again as they could consider how to reduce food waste in school; they could try to grow, harvest and cook some of their own vegetables so they have an appreciation of the steps needed to put food on to the shelves of the supermarket. They could undertake a project on pollinators and plant bee-friendly flowers around the school grounds and they could calculate the air miles needed to import different foods and whether there are locally grown alternatives which have less of an environmental impact.

The biggest issue young people face is Climate Change. This is where the SDGs really come into their own. Pupils could draw a concept map of how the SDGs all link to SDG13 (Climate Action). This would then give them the ideas they need to address the problem in all aspects of life – from choosing what food they eat, clothes they wear, energy they use, how they travel, and how to use their voices to demand businesses and politicians act to protect their future. The Zero Carbon School campaign is a great place to start looking for ideas.4

The time is now

The SDG’s 2030 agenda may seem like they are getting a little out of reach. In just nine years the aim is to achieve all 17 Global Goals. However, a sense of urgency can bring a wave of productivity and we must remind ourselves that the Goals were only introduced six years ago so we’re not even halfway through the time frame and we have already come a very long way. That said, there is no time for complacency as the horrific images of floods, fire and drought in the media are becoming an almost constant reminder that we are already feeling the effects of climate breakdown.

My aim is to develop my pupil’s grasp of global issues and build a feeling of shared responsibility for taking action. The SDGs make learning relevant and engaging and can be linked throughout the curriculum. As students get older they should feel empowered and confident enough to demand action from politicians, industry and business. There are very few quick wins to many of the challenges young people face but systems thinking is an essential tool in their metaphorical toolbox and one which may enable them to construct a better future.

References and resources:

  1. Divergent thinking by Ken Robinson and the RSA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHMUXFdBzik
  2. UNESCO UNESDOC Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000247444_eng
  3. Plastic Free Schools: https://plasticfreeschools.org.uk/
  4. Zero Carbon Schools: https://letsgozero.org/