Introducing Systems Thinking in Fifth Grade Social Studies

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Submitted by Danielle Metzler, 2017, while serving as 5th Grade Teacher at
Colegio Maya, Guatemala

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In January, 2017, many teachers at Colegio Maya had the fantastic opportunity to attend a two-day workshop run by our director, Michael Johnston, one of Compass Education’s master trainers, with assistance from several teachers who had previously completed the Level 1, Compass Practitioner training. I’m so glad I was able to participate and walked away feeling invigorated and excited about teaching children about systems and how we can use this knowledge to positively impact our world in a meaningful way.

My class and I got started right away in Social Studies. In fifth grade, we study Ancient Rome. This year, our essential questions were: How do systems work? and How did the Roman Empire get so big? The children were fascinated to see videos depicting the rise of the Roman Empire and its rapid expansion. We chose the second question because it’s a great systems thinking question and allows us to dig into all the factors of the time that contributed to building an empire unparalleled in human history.


In the first week we examined the Geography of the Italian peninsula and made inferences about how the geography could have impacted the expansion. We started to dig into the deep learning and difficult work of mapping systems with concept maps.

The plan was to expand on our understanding of systems, the various types of systems in our world, how they work and the BIG IDEA –> Every part of a system is interconnected, and changes to one part can and will affect the rest!

The goal in this unit was to be able to step back and view one factor like “Rome had access to the Mediterranean Sea” in context and examine how that impacted Rome’s Society, Economy and the Wellbeing of its citizens. The goal in the future is to leave students with the skills to apply this kind of thinking to solve contemporary problems that matter to them and the tools to have a real impact on making the world a better place.

Students making inferences about the natural landscape of Ancient Rome


In the second week of the unit, we continued to emphasize our essential questions: How do systems work? and How did the Roman Empire Get so Big? While reading about Ancient Rome, we also incorporated important nonfiction reading skills such as: close reading for details, visualizing and making inferences.

In the first week, we focused on Geography and how natural systems created opportunities for expansion. This week we learned about the Roman Army and examined factors that led to its success. As I explained previously, throughout this unit, we will continue to expand on our understanding of systems, the various types of systems in our world, how they work and the BIG IDEA –> Every part of a system is interconnected and changes to one part can and will affect the rest!

This week, we learned that all systems will have or experience:

  • Nodes (the individual ideas/concepts that connect)
  • Connections and relationships between nodes. Sometimes cause/effect relationships. Sometimes not.
  • Growth & Decrease
  • Strengthening & Weakening
  • Balancing & Reinforcing Loops

This was all really new language for us, and we’ll have to continue practicing it in context to master it. Concept mapping was also a completely new and challenging skill; however, I was really proud of the students’ enthusiasm and their deep thinking. One student said, “This is fun!” Another student said, “We should do this always with everything!”

We used the Sustainability Compass to learn about four different types of systems in our world: Wellbeing, Nature, Society & Economy, and how they can connect and affect each other.

We expanded our concept maps from last week to add more nodes, more connections across different types of systems, reflect and make inferences.

Students used a Sustainability Compass Organizer to expand their concept maps, connect ideas and make inferences about Roman Expansion across systems

Examples of some connections students made:

“Soldiers are well paid and get land. Money spreads, and people get richer!”

“Fertile farm land is a resource. People get food, eat well, stay healthier and are stronger to attack their enemies and defend themselves.”

“The army had good training which means they were disciplined and more successful at conquering cities. More cities under Roman control meant more resources and on and on.”


In addition to practicing nonfiction reading skills like close reading for details, visualizing and making inferences, in the third week, we really focused on ASKING QUESTIONS. Asking great questions and essential nonfiction reading skills are at the heart of successful research.

Thinking About Questions
One interesting way of thinking about questions comes from The Right Question Institute. We read, looked at pictures and captions to generate questions, then we categorized our questions as OPEN or CLOSED. Open questions lead to answers with big ideas, complex answers, more questions, connections, etc. Closed questions lead to simple, yes/no, or fact-based answers. Both kinds of questions are useful in research. Knowing the difference helps students either narrow their focus or open it up according to their needs.

Sorting out questions by systems

We also categorized our questions by system: Society, Economy, Wellbeing & Nature by placing our questions written on post-its on “systems question charts”. This week students practiced reading closely for information and answered as many questions as possible that we had up on our systems question charts. They also kept adding new questions as they thought of them. Categorizing questions by system provided another opportunity to see connections. One student said, “The question was in Society, but the answer should really be in Economy!”

As & Bs – The Relationships in Systems
This week students also played a morning game called “As & Bs”. The rules are simple: Sit in a circle. Randomly select an “A” person and a “B” person silently and secretly. After selection, your goal is to move about the room staying as close to your A person as possible and as far away from your B person as possible (or vice versa depending on the round). When you achieve your goal, you can stop moving.

How did we relate this to systems? Watch this video to find out!


This week each student chose a system area to focus their research in order to become an “expert” in that area. We’ve practiced some really important notetaking and research skills like:

  1. How to use tools like a table of contents and an index to find information about a topic
  2. How to cite sources
  3. How to keep notes organized
  4. How to paraphrase information in our own words
  5. How to read closely for details
  6. How to distinguish relevant information


This week our goal was to all come back together, pool our knowledge and resources to make connections between the systems and attempt to understand the full complexity behind our big questions: How do systems work? and How did the Roman Empire get so big?

We convened in teams once again. This time, on each team, there was an “expert” from each systems area based on what he or she researched the previous week. Planning for our final project had three steps:

  1. Review our previous concept maps
  2. Review our research
  3. Make a new concept map using the sustainability compass that combines information, makes connections and captures big ideas and new understandings about Roman Expansion

Next, students consolidated their learning and decided on a way to present their ideas creatively. They needed to think: What were their big ideas? How do they want to show others? Options included posters, skits, slideshows, and anything else they could think of. Three groups chose to present their ideas in a skit, and one group chose to do a slideshow.

A slide from the slideshow by Jana Calzada, Jasper New, Zohar Azar and Max Engelhard. Click here to see the full slideshow!

In the end, I’m so proud of the students and their hard work. They did some deep thinking and grappled with complex concepts. They have shown their understanding in various ways of the big ideas in this unit, for example:

How do systems work?

  • There are four systems that govern how our world functions: Nature, Economy, Wellbeing and Society.
  • These systems interconnect in complex ways.
  • When something changes in one system, it can affect all the other systems.
  • When systems are in balance, they function well. If not, systems can fail.

How did the Roman Empire get so big?

  • Many factors (or nodes) in all the systems combined and contributed to Roman expansion.
  • Factors in one system connected to, affected or reinforced factors in other systems.
  • Factors included: natural surroundings, the Roman army, roads, trade, social and economic structures like slavery, and many more.

Click here to see students explain it in their own words in a skit.
Click here to view student exit tickets about their systems learning.

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