Lynda Ralph is Head of Community at the Traidhos Three-Generation Barge Program which has worked in Thailand in environmental education for 20 years.

Today, we are all undeniably citizens of a global world. From the clothes we wear and the food we eat, to the technology we communicate through, we are dependent upon global resources, a global workforce, global transportation systems and a global economy. We contribute — sometimes unknowingly — to global problems including climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation and the pollution of the air and of the seas. Despite all of this, our attempts at solutions and policies to address the problems often remain parochial.

Our individual thinking and our education should lead students to explore systems, to identify stakeholders and their viewpoints, to consider relationships across time and across geographical borders, and to synthesise information from economic, natural, social, cultural and personal well-being perspectives. The way forward seems as complex as the problems we face. How can we make these things accessible to children in primary schools?

Education for Sustainable Development

The UN Decade of ESD challenged us to think more holistically about how we presented the idea of sustainability to students. I was working with students from international schools, students who could talk knowledgeably about the street food of Asia and the art of Europe or of how they had lived through floods, earthquakes and political coups; the global reach of the world today and how interconnected each part has become.  To more fully embrace ESD, we needed a tool which helped students to think systemically, recognizing the joined-up nature of today’s society and empowering them to see where changes could be made to promote more sustainable living.

The AtKisson Compass of Sustainability was incorporated into our investigations and discussions. I saw first-hand how motivated and excited students became when using systems thinking. Working with young people through the Traidhos Three-Generation Barge Program, an experiential watershed program, I became aware of the new role we took as facilitators.  Systems thinking allows the elements of good environmental education, namely development of awareness, attitudes, knowledge, skills and participation, to be set in a big-picture context.

The Compass of Sustainability develops around the idea that just as a regular compass shows direction, the compass of sustainability points the direction to suggest where to make a system more sustainable. The North, East, South and West of a conventional compass are replaced with the lenses of Nature, Economy, Society and Well-being.  During the investigation, students are grouped into one of these four compass lenses, allowing them to focus and collect information from different perspectives. Prior to visiting the study community, students brainstorm questions to ask, consider things to observe and discuss ideas that they want to know more about, according to their compass point perspective.

Students in our programme spend typically sixty to ninety minutes exploring the community, interviewing local people, observing life and what is happening in the community. On returning from their visit, they prepare short presentations about what they have seen from their compass point perspective. Students make connections across the compass points and start to see how things they observed have either a positive or negative influence on another groups’ observations. To make this process more concrete, they connect to each of the other groups’ compass points using strips of coloured vinyl. Students as young as 10 years old soon recognize that changing one thing in the community will impact on other things. Without realizing it, they are verbalizing the essence of systems thinking, recognizing feedback loops and suggesting leverage points where implementing innovations could change the system.

Recently I worked with a Year 6 class at a fishing community at the Gulf of Thailand, a new environment for children used to traffic and high-rises in Bangkok where seafood was presented in restaurants rather than entwined in nets or wriggling in a bucket.  EE games were used to introduce some of the issues affecting fish and fishermen: students playing a version of ‘Common’s Dilemma’ and an adaptation of ‘Fish-hooks and Ladders’. Having explored the ideas these games raised, students were introduced to the Compass of Sustainability and worked in four compass lens groups to brainstorm what they wanted to find out in the real community. Student questions included wanting to know times of day fish were caught, who did the fishing, whether the catch was always the same, and if the fishermen were happy in their jobs.

The brainstorming exercise enabled the children to interact more confidently with the fisherfolk, asking questions while watching them at work or observing the environment.  Later, as students shared their findings, the depth of their understanding of connections between the four lenses became apparent. The Nature group reported that fewer fish were being caught close to the village than when these fisherman were young. The Economy group responded that more money would be spent on boat fuel and make fish more expensive. The Well-being group saw a connection that if fish were more expensive, people would eat less fish and some fishermen might be out of a job.

Finally, the children imagined outcomes of changing the system. Some saw the lack of fish and the reduction in fish size as key and suggested stopping fishing when fish had young. So that the fishermen still had income for their families, boat rides for tourists was suggested.

Using the Compass to explore sustainability gives students a simple tool which they understand quickly AND empowers them to identify systems, to think critically and creatively about a wide range of issues. I have now worked with students across three continents using the Compass in many settings. It allows students to identify different stakeholders and different perspectives, seeing connections between parts of the whole. It has helped pupils to develop as global citizens, equipping them with skills to understand increasingly complex societies.

There’s more information on all this here: and here:


This article was first published in NAEE’s Autumn 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 113).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment