Lesson 3: Understanding the Compass (Preview)


The aim of this lesson is to provide participants with an understanding of a simple yet powerful tool that can help educators to develop sustainability mindsets in their students that support such learner profiles and mission statements.

If education is based on an ecological worldview that necessitates systems thinking, teachers will need tools and methods to help them develop students with a systems thinking capacity. The Sustainability Compass is the foundational systems thinking tool of Compass Education. It was created by Alan AtKisson and evolved out of the work of leading systems thinkers such as Donella Meadows and Herman Daly. The beauty of the Compass is in its simplicity and metaphorical power. It provides a holistic lens through which to interpret any facet of life and helps foster the development of sustainability mindsets. Additionally, the metaphorical and symbolic power of the Compass make it extremely memorable and thus user friendly in a classroom context.

In this lesson we use a number of “cards” with two different tools: The original pyramid (developed by Daly) with a hierarchical format and the Compass with a more horizontal approach to systems analysis. The intent here is to introduce participants to how the Compass came to be and how its current form has been adapted through time. It is important to note that in a real life context facilitators can incorporate any information and focus on a theme/topic as broad or as specific as makes sense for your context. In some contexts, in fact, facilitators might opt to not provide any information at all and, instead ask participants to develop the content of the analysis. Examples of this will be shared in a later lesson.

Essential Question: How can the Sustainability Compass assist us in developing sustainability habits of mind?

Outcome: Understand the development of the Compass as a whole system thinking tool supporting sustainability habits of mind.


  1. WATCH: Origins of the Compass (below) 
    • Print and cut out the “cards to sort” provided (below)
    • Categorize the cards using The Sustainability Compass (below)
    • 3(a) Categorize each of the statements (found in “cards to sort” below) into one of the four categories on The Sustainability Compass
      • NOTE: If you feel that the statements are too numerous feel free to use less for the purposes of this activity.
    • 3(b) Reflect on the decisions that you made and write an explanation of your choices
    • Using a context appropriate to your setting, use a topic (as a ‘starting point’) that is focused enough to allow for deep analysis using the compass
      • Examples: Water bottles in school; school uniforms; paper use
    • Complete the Sustainability Compass with your choice of topic
      • Place your topic at the center of the Compass
      • Expand your thinking by placing your ideas in each of the four categories as you see appropriate
      • Make connections (with an arrow) between different ideas on your Compass to make your thinking visible and recognize the inter-relationships between items
    • Feel free to do this is a group (e.g. with other faculty members in your school or in this course)
    • 3(c) Reflect on the decisions that you made and write an explanation of your choices
    • 3(d) Reflect on the extent to which the structure of the Pyramid and the structure of the Compass might influence the way that you categorized the statements?
    • 3(e) Copy a picture of your completed Compass in Activity 4 into your workbook.
    • 3(f) Reflect on the lesson essential question: How can the Sustainability Compass assist us in developing sustainability habits of mind?


Templates to adapt


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Compass Education Level 1: Sustainability Education

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