The educator helps learners to develop an understanding of the world as an interconnected whole and to look for connections across our social and natural environment and consider the consequences of actions.

Learning Outcomes

The educator helps learners to:

Underpinning Components for the educator

In order to achieve the above Learning Outcomes the educator should be able to:

Example activities for teaching Systems

1 Finding connections
  • Suggested duration: 15 mins
  • Technique used: Group ice breaker (From ‘Linkingthinking’ by Sterling: WWF Scotland)
  • Materials required: Marker pens, flipchart paper
  • Aim of activity: To look for any links between members of the group and to show these links on a flipchart. This would help the group get to know each other better, but also illustrate that, as individuals, we are more interconnected than we perhaps first realised.
  • Underpinning components: UC1.2a; UC1.2b; UC1.3a 
  • Connection with other competences: Transdisciplinarity

Short description

Group is divided into subgroups of around 4-6 and given a sheet of flipchart paper and pens. They are asked to look for anything that members of the group might have in common or are connected by and to show this somehow on the paper.
Afterwards, groups can comment to the rest of the group as to what they found.
At the end, the group leader should draw the activity to a close by highlighting the fact that we are interconnected in many different ways – often without realising and therefore part of a complex system.

This should lead to input on systems thinking, boundaries around systems and feedback within systems

2 The webbing game
  • Suggested duration: 20 mins
  • Technique used: Simulation 
  • Materials required: Large ball of string, sticky or pinned labels
  • Aim of activity: To illustrate how things are interconnected and reliant on each other.
  • Underpinning components: UC1.1a; UC1.1b; UC1.2a; UC1.2b
  • Connection with other competences: Attentiveness

Short description

Various pictures of wildlife are distributed amongst the group, e.g. oak tree, hawthorn, fish, bird of prey, spider, hedgehog...
Members discuss together what they know about each.
Group leader then moves randomly amongst the group asking what connections each thing has with other items. A ball of string is then passed between each to show the connections and to gradually build up a web between them.
Group leader then creates a scenario whereby one of them is removed, and then another and the web starts to collapse.
This should lead to input on the meaning of and models of sustainability.


Ask students in their assigned role to find something that eats them or that they eat, hold a length of string tightly between them and use additional string to add other connections. At the centre of the web should be one student who is assigned as an oak tree. The leader moves among them, distributing lengths of string and ensuring that everyone is connected at least once to the central web. Once everybody is connected the leader acts out the role of woodcutter (pretending to use an axe or chain saw for dramatic effect) and fells the oak tree. As the oak tree student falls to her knees she holds tightly to her lengths of string. Each student that feels their piece of string being pulled must also fall to their knees while holding tightly to their strings. Very quickly the entire class will fall to their knees showing how the loss of one key species can affect many others.

3 Milling around
  • Suggested duration: 10 mins
  • Technique used: Simulation 
  • Materials required: None
  • Aim of activity: To illustrate how things can just emerge and that what emerges can influence other things and cause change
  • Underpinning components: UC1.2a; UC1.2b 
  • Connection with other competences: Action; Futures

Short description

Whole group is asked to simply stand up and wander around without further instructions or explanations.

Eventually things will happen e.g. people will stop and talk, will sit down, will start to protest.

In plenary the group are asked to reflect on what happened e.g. what patterns emerged and what behaviours emerged. This could then lead on to discussions of emergence, autopoiesis and the ripple effect.

4 Models of sustainable development
  • Suggested duration: 15 mins
  • Technique used: Jigsaw discussion
  • Materials required: Printed models (diagrams)
  • Aim of activity: To raise critical awareness and understanding of models of sustainable development 
  • Underpinning components: UC1.1a; UC1.1b; UC1.3a 
  • Connection with other competences

Short description

Small groups. Each given a different model of sustainable development to a) discuss and interpret, b) consider what they like about it, c) consider any reservations they may have about the model.
Reformed groups containing a person representing each model. a) each person their model and their thoughts b) discuss together which model they prefer and why c) discuss which they feel are the earlier versions and which later and why.
Plenary share thoughts.

5 Exploring an everyday item
  • Suggested duration: 25 mins
  • Technique used: Research
  • Materials required: Internet access or suitable reference material
  • Aim of activity: To raise awareness of the impact of our shopping habits
  • Underpinning components: UC1.1a; UC1.2a; UC1.2c; UC1.3a; UC1.3b
  • Connection with other competences: Attentiveness; Transdisciplinarity

Short description

Group is divided into small groups and asked, as a pre session task, to research an everyday item such as a pair of trainers, or a mobile phone. They should investigate the following and prepare a presentation for the rest of the group:

  • What’s it made of?
  • Where do these things come from?
  • What’s the production process and where does it take place?
  • What type of companies/people are involved in the production of the item?
  • Are sales of the item increasing/decreasing?
  • How useful/necessary is the item?
  • What happens to the item once it is no longer needed/used/broken?
  • What is the impact of any of the above? (Social? Ecological? Economic? Political?)

After the presentations, the group leader should ask questions leading the group to reflect on the sustainability of this practice drawing attention to the fact that some of the items involved in manufacture are finite and thus running out, that increases/decreases in production might have environmental, economic and social impact and that the production is probably linear and resulting in waste.

This should lead to input on linear and circular economies.

Groups are then asked to either redesign their item according to circular economy principles, or to find an existing product that is already designed in that way and to present and discuss their findings.

Additional Activities
  • Fair trade: A simulation game that will help players understand the benefits of the fair trade and realize that our decisions and choices impact the lives of other people worldwide.
  • “Publishing the secret archives of a desalination unit that causes the pollution of the water and leads thousands of people to death or accept all the money and the cure that the company that built the factory is giving me to safe my child from the serious disease that causes from the pollution of the water”: Moral dilemma aiming to make us to understand that the environmental and sustainable development issues are driven by social, ecological and personal values which determines our decisions. For decisiveness is very crucial to clarify our values for an issue as a means for redefining our decisions.
  • Climate changes: causes, roots, actions. Applied of a concept map for designing in details the causes, the impacts, the measures, the accountability in social, economic and political level.

Example activities for teaching Systems Sustainable Development Goals

Systems SDG1 No poverty

Understand the worldwide and/or local systems that cause or diminish poverty.

Systems SDG2 Zero hunger

To understand how global economic systems contribute to the phenomenon of hunger.

Systems SDG3 Good health and well-being

Consider the socio-political-economic dimensions of health and wellbeing systemically.

Systems SDG4 Quality education

Discuss the importance of education and lifelong learning opportunities for all (formal, non-formal and informal learning) as main drivers of sustainable development, for improving people’s lives and in achieving the SDGs.

Systems SDG5 Gender equality

Consider the systemic view underpinning rights and duties & challenges and opportunities and the implicit and customary rules that in a given context regulate relations between genders. Be aware that many of the problems relating to gender differences are complex and ‘wicked’, the causes of which originate from many interdependent factors and therefore require long-term institutional and cultural transformations.

Systems SDG6 Clean water and sanitation

Address water issues in a systemic way, in order to ensure access for all (under acceptable sanitary conditions) and ensure sustainable management of the resource.

Systems SDG7 Affordable and clean energy

Visualise differences in access to natural resources at different levels and through different dimensions (social, political, economic, ecological…).

Systems SDG8 Decent work and economic growth

Discuss the inherent contradiction between economic growth and wider global crises. Consider how a systemic view underpins the circular economy. Recognise the complexity of the knowledge economy and how this differs from traditional economic models.

Systems SDG9 Industry, innovation and infrastructure

Understand how local, national and international industry, systems and infrastructure are connected.

Systems SDG10 Reduced inequalities

Make responsible decisions about own food and shopping and consumption habits that are in the interests of sustainable agriculture.

Systems SDG11 Sustainable cities and communities

Consider societal systems as complex systems that are connected to physical, social, psychological human needs over time and in different contexts.

Systems SDG12 Responsible consumption and production

Understand production and consumption patterns and value chains and the interrelatedness of production and consumption and how individual lifestyle choices influence social, economic and environmental development.

Systems SDG13 Climate action

Understand how natural and human phenomena which cause climate change are interconnected and be aware of the responsibilities of the dominant current development paradigm. Apply the systemic view and approach to forecast possible future scenario, to take decisions in conditions of uncertainty and to assess risks and impacts and therefore ensure the necessary flexibility.

Systems SDG14 Life below water

Understand the links between climate change, sea-level rise and over-consumption of seafood products.

Systems SDG15 Life on land

Understand how human life depends and impacts on natural habitats and their biodiversity and how current socio-environmental systems are having a serious impact on earth and oceanic habitats and biodiversity.

Systems SDG16 Peace, justice and strong institutions

Understand how power imbalances affect situations and how conflict or insecurity can have unforeseen consequences (e.g. movement of people).

Useful reading for Systems

  • Geisen G 2014 Autopoiesis. Perspective on sustainable, meaningful education. Utrecht: Duurzaam Door.
  • Henderson, K and Tilbury, D 2004 Whole-School Approaches to Sustainability: An International Review of Sustainable School Programs. Report Prepared by the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) for The Department of the Environment and Heritage, Australian Government
  • Raworth K 2017 Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. Random House (see chapter 4 – Get Savvy with Systems) – A useful way of showing how environmental and social concerns can guide economic development.
  • Scott W & Vare P 2018 The World We’ll Leave Behind. London: Routledge. (In particular chapter 33 Systems and systems thinking) – Very short, readable chapters introducing a wide range of sustainability issues.