OneThing29: systems thinking tools give sustainability deep traction

US Partnership for Sustainable Development publishes education standards

In October 2009, the US Partnership for Sustainable Development published Version 3 of its National Education for Sustainability K-12 Student Learning Standards.  It is an attempt to codify what “students should know and be able to do to be sustainability literate.”   The Student Learning Standards are also called “Essential Understandings” by the US Partnership.

EfS Standard 2 focuses on understanding systems

The three pillars of sustainability. Click on ...

Three pillars of sustainability

Students recognize the concept of sustainability as a dynamic condition characterized by the interdependency among ecological, economic, and social systems and how these interconnected systems affect individual and societal well-being. They understand and experience their connection to interdependence with the natural world.

This deliberate call for a systems understanding of three complex aspects of our world requires a new way of thinking, something that is seldom taught in K-12 schools.  The “dynamic condition characterized by the interdependency” is not something readily understood through words, much less mathematics.  You need a picture to get it.

Here’s a systems tool used to provide at least some insight into the interconnectedness inherent in sustainability:

This is called a Causal Loop Diagram.  In this method, the systems thinker can draw specific connections among key elements and flows within a broad, interlaced system of interdependence.  This helps people follow a storyline, trace the feedback loops through a long causal chain.

One can begin to imagine that causality sometimes moves through an intricate, sometimes surprising path.

This diagram has the benefit of clarifying connections people are discussing.  Composing a diagram as a group exercise can be very beneficial – everyone’s thinking sharpens.

Sustainability e-Journal at Ohio State University . . . thanks!

The Stock and Flow Diagram (left, created by) shows the varied connections both within each system and between the two major systems. What’s truly valuable here is that this diagram is quantifiable and testable.  Each of these STOCKS has impacts throughout the lake biophysical system (Lake Erie) and the social systems dependent on that lake.  Imagine a sudden change in any one of these stocks and how that change might redound through the whole combined system.

Learning the tools of systems thinking provides students and teachers more leverage

In systems parlance, leverage is everything.  Knowing where the places of leverage are in a system gives leaders and societies power.  In this lake/city system, there are multiple leverage points . . . and one can push those levers in selfish, money-grubbing but unsustainable ways, in well-meaning, but wrong-headed ways, and, well, the list goes on.

It is a brave and difficult thing to keep the levers adjusted so that the whole system thrives . . . sometimes, parts of a system have to bend for the health of the whole system.  Still, there will be surprises!

Systems Thinking and System Dynamics possess the very thinking and conceptual tools required for a more pervasive and interdisciplinary approach to Sustainability education, from middle school social studies to senior high chemistry and ecology.  For all those headed to Camp Snowball in Tucson (July 21-25) where systems thinking and sustainability meet, you enter into new learning at a moment when the world so needs it.

Get your thinking caps on!

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2 comments on “OneThing29: systems thinking tools give sustainability deep traction

  1. Pingback: OneThing30: learn to love the dominant loop « itsallonething

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