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Using Visible Thinking Tools in a PYP Grade 5 Unit of Inquiry


A little background about me and my school. I was in my first year as a homeroom teacher in Grade 5 at a PYP international school in Germany, Frankfurt International School (FIS), when the Associate Principal told me that I should take the Compass Education course Level 1. This was my first homeroom teaching position, and I was feeling crazy busy. Hanging on by a thread, as first-year teachers so often are, I thought, well it couldn’t hurt my teaching. If she (our associate principal) thought it would be worthy, then it must be good. Fast forward two months, and I was hooked on the values and tools that are taught in Compass Education. I decided to use the Compass tools in our Unit of Inquiry, Where We Are in Place and Time, focusing on Economics. If you would like to view the unit lesson plans, click here.

Like everyone, I started with the Sustainability Compass: Nature, Economy, Society, and Well-being, but I didn’t want to stop there. We jumped into the Systems Triangles game with our economic terms and the Causal Loops tool tracking supply and demand. In this post, you will read our experiences in Grade 5 with these tools: Systems Triangle Game and Causal Loops.

Systems Triangle Game

My first experience with this game was with our Assistant Head of School, Mike Johnston, in a Leadership for Learning event with colleagues from FIS. I was confused, very confused about what we were doing, following people around randomly in the auditorium. I am the type of person that has to learn a board game by playing the game and reading the directions while playing. There were only two directions: pick two people, stay in an equilateral triangle. The Systems Triangle Game is really a precursor to the Connection Circle which helps identify leverage points, making the Triangles a sort of foundation game.

The Triangle Game is a big movement game that requires you to just start moving so you can make mistakes in order to get better. You have to play this a few times, have misunderstandings, and finally clear up misunderstandings before you can “get” what this game is about. After learning more about the Systems Triangles through the Level 1 Compass Education course, I found clarity and decided to use it for our unit lessons. The Systems Triangle Game would be a way for the students to interact with the economics terms they are learning. Rather than just defining, they can begin to see how the terms and concepts affect other things. My procedural mistake was trying to link the game to academic learning straight away. The goal should have been focusing on understanding the concept of the game, before moving on to linking the game to academic terms. Anyway, the outcome was fun, and even though a bit confusing, I think it was something that did help them build memories with the terms through the physical movement. The students made some connections – see images 1 & 2 of student journal entries about connections students made to various terms. Given a few more times of playful Systems Triangle Games and then moving onto academic terms, we probably would have developed a deeper understanding of systems thinking using the Systems Triangle Game tool.

Lesson Progression
Session 1: location – in the classroom

  • First- select an economic term from the list (see table 1: economic terms)
  • Second – define your term you have
  • Third – find two terms that your term connects to and explain why (see student journal image again)
Economic Terms
Duane’s connection
Luisa’s connection

Session 2: location – in the outdoor learning area, lots of room to move

  • First attempt: similar to Session 1, where students follow two terms they believe
    connect to the term they hold (see image below), except it was outside and they were
    supposed to keep their chosen terms a secret. 

  • Why didn’t this work? A lot of people ended up picking the same term to follow, and some terms were not chosen. Several students communicated who they chose, which was sort of against the “rules.” It was quite hilarious. A few ended up being followed around by many. Which is what the leverage point is all about, but they did not quite understand the game enough to come up with that conclusion.

  • Second attempt: Now just choose two random terms to follow around regardless of their connection to a student’s term.

Here is where you can view a video of how our Systems Triangle Game went in Session 2 (start 0:50 to 1:43).

Causal Loops

During the Compass Education Course regarding use of the tools, we had to try each tool out with a familiar situation to us. This was to use the tools for the sake of getting to know them. I chose to analyze being tired and having too much coffee/treats to make it through the day – something I am very familiar with (see my Causal Loops image below created using the Kumu website).

Sleep Deprivation Causal Loop

I chose the Causal Loops thinking tool as a challenging way for the Grade 5 students to really dig into a specific situation of supply and demand during the pandemic, a time they have experienced themselves. Giving them an article and using their own experience of the toilet paper supply and demand during the early stages of COVID-19, allowed them to build their own models of the causal loops. This proved to be such a powerful tool and one that really exceeded my expectations as far as a thinking tool. It required having a specific scenario to study, and the article we read provided all the details we needed to investigate.

Lesson Progression
Materials: Article printout for each group, When Kids Ask Why is There No Toilet Paper (McDonald, 2020) an article about the toilet paper shortage during COVID-19, large whiteboards/whiteboard tables/wall hanging whiteboards, whiteboard markers (3 colours per group), whiteboard erasers/rags, laptop, Loopy webpage.


  1. Read the article as a whole class about the toilet paper shortage during COVID-19.
  2. Show students a model of the Causal Loops (I showed one I made about sleep deprivation and coffee in image 5) and discuss how to use the nodes, arrows, and plus/minus symbols.
  3. Explain they will create Causal Loops with the information they just learned through the article and their own background knowledge.
  4. Create random groups. Each group has access to one writing surface (whiteboard), whiteboard markers of various colours, whiteboard erasers, their own laptops, and a printed copy of the article. Students can also use Loopy if they already know how to use that or want to experiment with using it.
  5. Discussion is a necessity, and students should be encouraged to make easy use of the whiteboards/Loopy website to add or erase or change as often as they want.

The Result: I was blown away by the visible thinking that took place! I really could not have predicted how successful this tool would be at creating connections between cause and effect. The video I created for the certification process documents the Causal Loops tool. Time stamps on the video above for Causal Loops are from 1:43 to 6:05.

Students work on Causal Loops using a whiteboard table
Group member explains his group’s thinking (watch the video above from 2:36 to 3:56 to see some of this
group’s explanation)
Group member explains his group’s thinking (watch the video above from 2:36 to 3:56 to see some of this
group’s explanation)


You never know how something will work until you try it. That is the case with the Systems Thinking tools from Compass Education. I mean, you will know generally what to expect, but you will never know the ideas and thinking that comes from the minds of the students without the use of these tools. I can tell you from my own learning experiences that those games and activities with lots of movement and visible thinking stick with my mind. Especially when retrieving the information. The tools take thinking from inside the brain and put it out into the world for others to see, work with, build onto, and evaluate.
One thing I wish I had thought to do was receive feedback from the students to see what they got from the different activities. I know what I saw, but I’m not sure what has stuck with them. That is something I would strive for is the self-reflections from the students. I’m grateful for the tools and will continue to use them in my future teaching.

Check out Caprice's full lesson plan 'Grade 5 Social Studies: PYP Unit of Inquiry How We Organize Ourselves - Economic Systems' here.

Caprice Schupp

Caprice Schupp

Caprice Schupp lives in Germany and teaches at Frankfurt International School. Caprice has been working in schools and German kindergartens for twelve plus years, and she completed her Masters of Education in 2021 with a focus in Multilingual Learning. Caprice is a wife and mother of two daughters who keep her curious about life and teach her how to do good and be good.

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