An experiential account of navigating Sygnature Routes at Hilton College – Term 1 & 2 2020

During this strange and somewhat surreal 2020 academic year, 13 students from Hilton College completed the first half of the Routes to Resilience Sygnature Skills programme: a journey during which they have been developing their collaborative skills and immersing themselves in learning about the complex climate and sustainability systems that encompass their daily lives. 

Because of the coronavirus restrictions, classes take place over long and lively Zoom sessions for between 2.5 – 3 hours each Friday night, and special events like the marketplace and Conversations at a Crossroads happening on Saturdays and Thursdays. There has been no shortage of demonstrable grit, agility, curiosity and flexibility in this group – they are flowing – like water.

Starting with collaboration skills

Over the first three sessions, Hilton students discovered a range of strategies that can be employed in collaborative learning spaces, including the enemies and allies of learning, and the landscapes of listening and observation. Following these sessions, participants were tasked with completing an observation narrative to consolidate their understanding and practice of suspending judgement, deep listening and concentrated observation. Below is an excerpt from one of their observation narratives: 

‘I sit alone on the wall, bathing in the artificial golden light. Cracks beneath the socks on my feet stare up at me like gaping mouths. The stars of Joburg blink in and out of existence on the tapestry of darkness, a milky haze of light marking the horizon. My company is the ghosts of breath that ride May’s chilling breeze. Dying autumn trees cast gnarled claws over the empty street. There is no other person in sight.’

Taking stock of the world in a full-day digital immersion programme

After these first three sessions, the participants were ready for the full-day digital immersion programme, which took place during half term and focused on ‘taking stock of our world’. Here they grappled with constructing their diverse understandings of the changing planet, economic growth and inequality, how humans use resources, and biodiversity. The students shared their thinking by recording a Flipgrid reflection on a pressing issue around human consumption.

The immersion day concluded with a collaborative biodiversity game, where the participants learned how to map out the interconnected relationships of a complex ecosystem – a skill they would put to use in creating their systems maps during the Term 2 holidays.

Mapping the interconnected relationships of a complex ecosystem

Communication is a key life skill, particularly when rallying people to tackle important problems. Together the participants created this blog post to mark the International Day for Biological Diversity, outlining their perspectives on the relationship between humans and the planet.

Understanding the great acceleration and the rise of the Anthropocene

To reflect on how we have arrived at this polycrisis, we went back to the beginning.  Under lockdown conditions, our ‘Deep Time Walk’ was converted into a “listen-alone” podcast, reflecting on 4.6 billion years of planetary change that contextualises the miniscule proportion of time that humans have spent on the planet. The idea of the ‘Anthropocene’, linked to pressures on earth systems and trends and trajectories of change were elaborated upon in a session with guest sustainability expert Dr Andrew Venter, the Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in South Africa (CISL-SA). 

Session with guest sustainability expert Dr Andrew Venter, the Director of CISL-SA

The students consolidated what they learned in Dr Venter’s presentation by preparing for a Harkness discussion on the following core topics: ‘The Anthropocene/Great Acceleration’, ‘Philanthro-capitalism’ and ‘Environmentalism from the Global South’. Their discussion was wide-ranging and impressive, with all participants having prepared questions on the complexity of economic growth in developing contexts, inclusive activism and determining the beginning of the Anthropocene. For one of the participants, this was the most valuable session they had attended: ‘we had the opportunity to have some constructive discourse around the readings we’d done. It was fun and productive to voice opinions, analyse articles and keep up with current and intellectual affairs.’

Developing a systems-thinking approach

Key to the Sygnature Skills programme is an understanding of systems thinking and carrying capacity. Alexei du Bois from Hilton College and CISL-SA’s Elspeth Donavan facilitated sessions on these topics; in order to develop a systems thinking approach that recognises the complexity and interconnectedness of sustainability issues, the learners produced systems maps of a sustainability issue in their communities, related to the SDGs.

A systems map – produced by one of the participants

Creating pertinent social action projects

As the term neared its end, the skills and knowledge that the participants had developed could start to be applied in a real-life context. In one of the final sessions of the term they did a critical analysis of the Sustainable Development Goals and how they could use them as a springboard for their own social action projects. Their creativity and analysis were fuelled by ‘Conversations at the Crossroads’ webinars hosted by the Impact Trust, where Dr Gary Kendall led discussions on how our collective reluctance to shift paradigms commits us to a future of growing systemic risk. The students were invited to attend these sessions, and encouraged to participate so as to help shape a process that reflects a diversity of views, voices and experiences that could support, design, create, contest, challenge and regenerate a common future for all. 

Identifying purpose and connecting with those who can help to make it a reality

Returning from their holidays and holiday projects, the focus turned inward, with a ‘Finding Why’ workshop led by Mike Freedman, helping them transform their thinking and conversations into purpose statements that they wrote and then presented. This was followed by a ‘Sustainability Market Day’, with nine presenters speaking about their work promoting sustainability. This high energy, engaging networking session helped the students connect with people who could help them fulfil their purpose. The feedback from all parties was very supportive: 


The Sustainability Market Day was fantastic! I see great opportunities for those or similar businesses in the rest of Africa. – Parent


I really enjoyed that! I’m going to get hold of Angus and Debra and see if they would be interested in a session with my G12s. So chuffed that our son is part of this programme. Money well spent. – Parent


Thank you for this opportunity. Seeing bright young minds with so much passion for the Earth is wonderfully inspiring for me. – Presenter


With the cohort now in a future-facing mindset, starting to consider how their careers could help forge a better world, they concluded the term with a fascinating workshop facilitated by Catherine Cameron, looking at the future of work and how what we understand as work is changing.

The future is bright with young people like these as leaders

The Hilton College students have been outstanding ambassadors for their school, as well as engaged, committed participants in the Sygnature Skills programme. It is a privilege to take them on this journey and look forward to completing the second half of the programme with them next term. We finish with some of their thoughts on what they have gained on their journeys.


This program is an ideal introduction into the mistakes of the past, the thinking of the present, and the problems of the future.


This is a programme which has challenged the way I view the world and drastically changed the way I think about it. This growth will be a necessity in my transformation from the youth of today into a leader of tomorrow.


It has been incredibly insightful and knowledgeable. Never would we be able to cover things like this in class. I have loved learning thus far and cannot wait for the next half.


This program has opened my eyes to see the world totally differently. I now see what needs to be done in order for our environment to live on for generations.


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