Sustainability and Systems Thinking
Sustainability and Systems Thinking
Throughout the curriculum articulation process, the Middle School Humanities team have reviewed and created units of study in order to provide meaningful opportunities for students to develop their conceptual understanding within the discipline. One such example was the newly created unit for Grade 7: ‘Sustainability and Systems Thinking1’.
The creation of this unit has allowed the team to place Humanities at the heart of our College’s mission. Beyond ‘systems thinking’ and ‘geographical understanding’ the unit establishes strong links to our UWC values, in that the planned learning experiences encourage students to minimise their harmful impact on the environment. Furthermore, the unit connects to the qualities and skills of the UWCSEA Learner Profile, with ‘commitment to care’ and ‘critical thinking’ being at the core of the unit.
In recent years, the role of sustainability, both the concept and the movement, has shifted to become a more central theme within the discipline of geography, rather than an isolated idea or the basis of an ‘add on’ discussion. As a result, many educators now champion the way in which sustainability has given many subjects a new focus and status in the 21st century. Here at UWCSEA, with sustainability as our mission, and a world as our logo, it has been an easy and important choice to connect sustainability to the Humanities. Within the UWCSEA curriculum, the unit serves as a developmental stepping-stone, which builds towards the K-12 standard: Sustainable development requires people to participate in decision-making and to take informed action. This is one of nine standards in Humanities that students return to in spiral learning from age 4 to 18.
However, there is always a challenge! When creating this unit, it was important to recognise the wealth of experience, understanding and opinions that our Grade 7s have already accumulated and developed. Their work through service projects, outdoor education, classroom learning and the ‘Grade 5 Expo’ alone, informed us that many of our students are already convinced of the importance of sustainability. In fact, many of them are already turning their beliefs and values into action within our community and beyond. It was therefore important to plan a new perspective and experience as part of extending the learning offered through the unit. The idea of ‘systems thinking’, traditionally bound to the IB years and beyond, brought this new perspective.
The unit aims to develop students' ability to understand and apply 'systems thinking' to investigate sustainable issues and evaluate solutions in the world today. By studying the interrelated nature of our planet, and seeing our world and its problems as 'systems', human-created solutions to complex issues will (hopefully) become more effective. Using examples of successful circular systems from the natural world, such as ecosystems and the water cycle, students are able to adopt a 'big picture' view of interconnectedness, and reflect on the role, importance and value of each part of a system.
Their knowledge and understanding of sustainability is developed using the ‘Compass Thinking2’ tool which guides students through four crucial considerations to sustainability: Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing. The 'economy system' provides the main case study for the unit, and students identify the causes and consequences of this linear system, whilst exploring effective solutions currently being enacted in order to resolve issues of resource depletion and waste. Students then use these dimensions as the criteria from which to assess and evaluate their chosen solution. As geographers, the case studies are drawn across the world, allowing students to build their own ‘world view’ regarding the varying ways in which humans value and interact with their environments and natural resources.
Learning in their own environment
Students start their learning journey in their immediate surroundings, with a tour of (and as a result, an appreciation of) the sustainable features and behaviours of the Dover Campus and its community. Created by Gordon Hirons and the Environmental Stewardship Council, the tour highlights the ‘geography in action’ at play within the campus, as part of the Service Learning programme.
Building on the ‘out of classroom’ experience, the Humanities team also organise a sustainability field trip, this year held on UWC day, during which all Grade 7 students visit Marina Barrage and Gardens by the Bay. This provides an opportunity for students to better understand how the two sites work towards the four dimensions of sustainability, whilst also becoming better acquainted with their home, or home for now, Singapore. By exploring sustainability within Singapore, students are able to develop an important ‘sense of place’ and connection and care towards their environment, whilst deepening their understanding and respect towards the UWC movement and mission.
So what do the students think of the new learning brought about by curriculum articulation? Students in Grade 7 had the following comments on the Sustainability and Systems Thinking unit field trip:
‘I really loved the trip, and I find that my understanding of systems in general has developed quite a lot. This is especially true for natural systems, as we learnt how natural systems never have any wastage whatsoever. Though we had already learnt this in class, it was great to see this in action.’
“One of UWC’s greatest values is being sustainable so the unit helped us learn about it.” - Diya Narayanan
“I think that the opportunity to go to Marina Barrage helped enhance our previous learning on sustainability and it was also a great introduction to our new unit. I feel it is important for us to educate ourselves about the environment so we can minimize our impacts and teach others.” - Anoush van der Kam
The big picture
Nathan Hunt, UWCSEA’s Director of Sustainability reflects on how this type of work builds on the UWC mission, ‘Articulating the curriculum has been absolutely vital to furthering our aim to enable students to comprehend and take action to shape a better world. Having a curriculum that carries our students from K-12 is not merely ensuring a continuation of the learning from year to year, and developing a consistency of language and approaches, it is an essential part of how Sustainable Development is enacted through education. In their 2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development that launched the new Global Goals the United Nations3 declare that “the interlinkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realised.”
Articulating our curriculum is a process of ensuring that these interlinkages are made both conceptually, through shared understandings within Humanities and across other disciplines and practically, by allowing teachers to integrate their teaching with others areas of the Learning Programme such as Service and Outdoor Education. This ‘joining-up’ is exactly the intellectual and strategic thinking that is needed to ensure we achieve our mission.”
1. "Systems thinking describes habits of thinking about how systems work and how actions taken can impact results seen over time. They encompass a spectrum of thinking strategies that foster problem-solving and encourage questioning." - Waters Foundation, http://watersfoundation.org/
2. Compass Education, http://www.compasseducation.org/