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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future” by 2030.

These 17 goals address the global challenges we face – from poverty to climate change to inequality (United Nations).

While some progress has been made since 2015, the UN has more recently launched the Decade of Action to call for more urgent, ambitious action to meet these goals by 2030 (United Nations).

These 17 global goals are deeply connected, as are the systems attached to these goals.

For this reason, in my classroom, I like to teach about the Sustainable Development Goals through a Systems Thinking lens.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking is an approach to teaching and learning where students identify and explore the interconnectedness of systems in our world.

By investigating systems, students can uncover how parts of a system impact the whole.

You can read more about Systems Thinking in this blog post.

Teaching the SDGs with a Systems Thinking Lens

As a teacher, I believe that before my students can successfully solve a problem, they need to know how to identify a problem, and more specifically, understand the context of that problem.

Since the SDGs encompass the world’s problems, they prove to be a great framework for teaching students problem-solving skills.

Let’s take a look at an example.

Preparing for a Systems Thinking Lesson

My 4th grade students are currently learning about the ocean system. We are exploring the essential question: How might we help fix / solve a problem in our ocean system?

For our first lesson, we might focus on the sub-question: What are the systems connected to the ocean system?

If you wanted to highlight the SDGs more explicitly, you could use: What are the systems connected to “Life Below Water?”

To prepare for our lesson, I would write this question at the top of the board. Then, in the center of the board, I would write “Life Below Water.”

Identifying Systems in the Ocean

I would start off the lesson asking students, “What are the systems connected to the SDG Life Below Water?”

I would call on students and ask them to share their ideas.

As students share, I would begin mapping their ideas out on the board. To do this, I would (1) write the name of the system, (2) circle the system, and (3) based on student ideas, connect systems using lines.

For example, in response to the question, “What are the systems connected to the Life Below Water?” a student might identify, “The Water System.”

Digging Deeper with Connected Systems

I would then probe students to consider other systems that are connected to the Water System.

Students might identify systems like the condensation, precipitation, collection, or evaporation systems.

Sometimes, the Systems Thinking process isn’t quite so structured.

I might ask students to share a system connected to the water system, and a student might say, “this doesn’t answer your question… but what about the trash system?”

That is okay! In fact, that’s great! Systems Thinking isn’t meant to be a linear process.

Completing Your Systems Map

I usually spend about 30 minutes on a systems map with students, but the time allotment is up to you! Do what’s best for your classroom and your students.

In the image below, you will see an example of a completed systems map I might make with my 4th graders.

I remind students that there are no right answers! “This systems map shows our class’ thinking and ideas.”

I also might tell students, “There are so many other systems we could add to this map. There are so many other connections we could make. For example, we could connect ‘Lifeguards’ to the ‘Work’ system. Or, we could connect the ‘Extinction’ to ‘Climate Change.”

Identifying Human-Made, Natural, and Broken Systems

In looking at the completed systems map as a class, I would ask my students to share out which systems are human-made. I would label these systems using a color, like red in the image below.

Once we have identified human-made systems, we would highlight natural systems (in blue below).

Now, you might notice that some systems (i.e. climate change and ocean warming) have been identified as both human-made and natural. Systems can belong to multiple categories, and in my experience, students typically make this connection without guidance.

Finally, we would identify broken / unbalanced / harmful systems (indicated with a star below).

Learning About Broken Systems (AKA the SDGs!)

After students have identified broken, unbalanced, or harmful systems, we would then shift our focus to explore one of those systems in depth.

We might do a design thinking activity to design a solution.

Or, we might read a book about one of these systems.

Or, we listen/read news about this system.

There are endless opportunities!

In drawing these connections, students are able to look at the SDGs through a systems lens and develop a better understanding of how to tackle these problems.

Back to the SDGs

As a teacher, I use Systems Thinking – and systems mapping specifically – as a framework to teach about the SDGs. I use Systems Thinking to help students identify the context in which these global goals exist.

In doing so, I can help guide students to practice solving real-world problems, within the walls of our classroom.

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about Systems Thinking and the Sustainable Development Goals. If you want to share your thoughts with me, please leave a comment down below, DM me on Instagram @edtechclass, or write me an email

Additional Resources

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