A group of students are doing a science experiment with water outside.

School Community, Sustainability, Teaching

A Whole-School Approach to Teaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Making your school culture the catalyst for change

COVID-19 has put students in a unique situation when it comes to reflecting on our planet’s future. Difficult as it is, the pandemic has been instructive. It shows how we are interdependent, sustained by nature, and that our actions matter. This experience provides a timely opportunity for students and educators to focus on sustainability action, using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The UN’s goals, agreed on by Canada and nearly all other countries, are far-reaching and important. They target 17 areas directed toward sustaining life on Earth – human and all other forms – as well as ending poverty and inequity, achieving social justice, and combating climate change.

As sustainability becomes ever more important, strategies are emerging to help schools and educators inspire students to understand that their learning and community action contribute to progress on the Global Goals. These approaches make the goals both real and achievable, as youth begin to see new ideas and progress scale up across nations and regions of the world.

Using strategies to integrate the SDGs within a whole-school approach is a key focus for Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF). LSF is a Canadian charity whose mission is to promote, through education, the knowledge, skills, values, perspectives, and practices essential to a sustainable future. Working with schools, school policies, and curricula is a core part of LSF’s activities, explains the organization’s President and Chief Executive Officer Pamela Schwartzberg.

LSF began its whole-school approach with support for Belfountain Public School in Ontario in 2005 and continued with the first Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Lighthouse School project at Stouffville District Secondary School in 2006. In 2007, in partnership with the UNESCO Chair in Reorienting Education for Sustainable Development, York University’s Schulich School of Business, and its Faculty of Education, LSF began Sustainability and Education Academy (SEdA) seminars to engage senior education officials from school boards across Canada in:

  • understanding education for sustainable development (ESD)
  • envisioning how it could be embedded into school board policy, programs, and culture
  • providing a SEdA framework to assess their current sustainability initiatives
  • developing action plans for change.

How a whole-school approach can advance the SDGs

The whole-school approach is designed to help students, teachers, principals, staff, parents, and community members integrate the SDGs into school culture, teaching and learning, facilities and operations, and community partnerships. “We get farther, faster if we work as a whole school,” says Pamela Gibson, LSF consultant. A whole-school approach helps reinforce engaging teaching methods and moves schools toward practising sustainability. It optimizes learning in synergistic ways and models 21st century skills – collaboration, innovation, and action.

Global Competencies and the SDGs

In 2016, the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) articulated six broad Pan Canadian Global Competencies to: “provide learners with the abilities to meet the shifting and ongoing demands of life, work, and learning; to be active and responsive in their communities; to understand diverse perspectives; and to act on issues of global significance.” With some variation across the provinces and territories, the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed for 21st century citizens include:

  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • collaboration
  • innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship
  • learning to learn/self-awareness and self-direction
  • communication
  • global citizenship and sustainability.

These Global Competencies support SDG 4.7 (Global Citizenship and Sustainable Development) as well as the education component of all of the other 16 SDGs.

By the same token, applying an SDG lens to course content and class work gives students the opportunity to practise all six competencies relevant to school success and their future roles. Any local or school issue embraced by students needs to be supported by specific instruction and guided practice of oral, written, and digital communication skills in order to gain support, design innovations, and find partners for collaboration. Students need to learn methods of collecting, organizing, and critically reflecting on data and research to determine best options for action. Educators have both the curriculum and the instructional strategies to build these competencies and help students practise them on a project that, whatever its size or scope, can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Greening a school playground with support from a local plant nursery and hardware store? Think about Goal 15: Life on Land; Goal 13: Protect the Planet and Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Taking action involves many stages and steps requiring organization, planning, and self-regulation skills when plans don’t go as expected or take more time. The competencies build core functional skills, a big-picture perspective, strong learning skills, and resources for well-being. The SDGs give practice a purpose.

Strategies to engage students with the SDGs

Introduce students to environmental, social, and economic issues. These will vary based on the community, and might include, for example, dealing with single-use plastics, exploring green jobs, understanding food insecurity, etc. Finding community partners is a great first step to making issues relevant and including practical experiences.

Provide context and purpose. Learning is more powerful when it’s applied. For example, data management comes to life when you step outside the classroom and learn to measure and graph the amount of food waste your classmates diverted from landfill and the compost that resulted. Relating this work to specific SDGs (See Goal 12 and Goal 15, for example) helps make abstract ideas real.

Transform teaching strategies and thinking tools. Using inquiry, systems thinking, and other tools for student engagement can link curriculum and local issues, leading to action projects that relate to SDGs. This extends learning, develops hands-on skills, provides valuable life/work experiences, and more. For example, researching and planting native plants can be linked to Goal 13 (Climate Action) and Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).

Use SDGs to guide curriculum and practices. Educators can tap into nearby nature and the surrounding built, natural, or cultural community to see how their learning can be used to improve or support innovation right where they live. They can embed this process in curriculum learning – for example, integrating environment-based budgeting into math or working on advocacy skills in writing. This place-based approach to learning is applicable to all grade levels.

Adopt inclusive models of planning and decision-making that consider the SDGs. Students, teachers, parents, and community members are valued voices in making decisions and problem solving. They can strengthen relationships by consulting each other, through interviews, questionnaires, or small focus groups. Other models include a Council of All Beings, where participants take on roles of different stakeholders in a decision including the people, plants, and animals. Important to include are Indigenous community partners or Elders as well as local experts. The SDGs gives discussions a wider context that can help build consensus.

A framework for Sustainable Future Schools in Canada

LSF is now piloting a Sustainable Future Schools program (see Figure 1) promoting a whole-school approach using the SDGs and the global competencies as a foundation.

“The program will be a resource for schools to design their own path for advancing the SDGs. It is not set out as a prescribed journey, but rather as a map and set of planning tools using the SDGs as a lens,” Schwartzberg says.

It provides tools and strategies to monitor and evaluate progress, crucial for support from the board and parents.                

Outcomes of a Sustainable Future School

  • Enhanced and diverse learning opportunities
  • Authentic experiences and action-based learning
  • Opportunities for students to engage in sustainability projects
  • Improved educational outcomes
  • Development of informed citizens for future success
  • Development of skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to create positive changes in the school and/or community.

 Figure 1: LSF’s Sustainable Future Schools Framework

The Sustainable Self and Four Human Attributes

The circular structure of the program framework allows schools and classrooms to start anywhere. The “Sustainable Self” is every individual child in our care at school, putting the student’s growth and well-being at the centre of the learning community. Students build awareness, caring relationships with others and with nature, learn new skills and knowledge – all in support of taking action to better their lives and communities.

Ten Elements of Practice

The ten pedagogical elements are cited by research and practice as transformative tools for change. Educators’ depth of understanding and implementation for each practice may vary. Resources and professional learning on each are available and accessible. Teachers can learn independently, or with a teaching colleague, course, local partner, or faculty as a professional learning community.

  • Focusing on place-based inquiry  Encourage, through place-based inquiry, a shared respect and responsibility for learning, for each other, and for the land.
  • Deepening reciprocal relationships  Develop and sustain school and community practices by collaborating with others. Schools model interdependent, complementary relationships that are connected, balanced, and mutually beneficial. The key to creating reciprocal relationships is a respect and appreciation for the common goal.
  • Connecting with nature  Connect all learners to the wonder of the natural world, our interdependence with it, and the skills needed to protect it.
  • Supporting well-being in a changing world  Maintain physical and mental well-being to build resilience, emotional strength, and self-care in the face of complex challenges.
  • Including all voices  Foster inclusive, collaborative, and equity-centred leadership in schools and community partnerships. Everyone – students, teachers, parents, and local citizens – has a voice.
  • Seeking diversity and justice  Show respect for alternative perspectives and diverse ideas; seek to understand and innovate together in the pursuit of social and environmental justice.
  • Embracing systems and future thinking Use systems thinking tools to help students engage with complex questions, leading to sustainable solutions. Including the future as an important voice in all decision-making helps us to “think long” and avoid the problems caused by short-term thinking. This also reflects Indigenous teaching about respect for the land and people, now and in the future.
  • Transforming learning for global competencies Build on a strong foundation of numeracy and literacy by incorporating the six global competencies to prepare students for a complex and unpredictable future with rapidly changing political, social, economic, technological, and ecological landscapes (UNESCO, 2020).
  • Acting on real-world learning Connect curriculum concepts and knowledge to issues that students have encountered or are likely to encounter in life. This brings relevance, complexity, and motivation to their learning. (Kozak & Elliott, 2012).
  • Practising active citizenship  Through community experiences connected to their learning, inspire the values and build the skills for active citizenship.

The Sustainable Future Schools pilot

Logo for Sustainable Future Schools / Logo des Écoles pour un avenir durable

LSF launched the Sustainable Future Schools pilot program in 2020, with support from 3M Canada, at Belfountain Public School. In early 2020, all classes at Belfountain learned about the Sustainable Development Goals. Using reflection time over the year, teachers asked students how their course content, information, or projects could be linked to one of the 17 goals. Noting these connections on a learning wall and in class discussions helped teach the SDG framework. It also provided evidence that students were understanding the goals over time. The connections showed the students the relevance of what they were learning at school. Students could link their own assignment goals to a website about an SDG initiative, showing how their work aligns with positive action taking place around the world.

For the 2020–2021 school year, the Sustainable Development Goals have become more integrated in classes throughout the school. The program began with a virtual school assembly in October, with a call to action on food waste and SDG 2: End hunger and achieve food security. In November each class shared their learnings and actions on the SDGs through videos, songs, and writings.

School culture is key

Starting from a shared understanding of a school’s culture and its unique sense of place ensures that success is not wholly dependent on one principal, teacher, or club for leadership and energy! The next step is to link the local action to one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals. Framing school learning to the wider world of the SDGs in school priorities is critical to the success of a whole-school approach. When the school is connected to local partners and tuned into real-life concerns, students, staff, and parents can work together on actions rooted in what matters to them, making acting on learning motivating and sustained over time.

Belfountain Principal Lynn Bristoll says, “When I was new, I sent out a short questionnaire to parents to find out their priorities and concerns and what they loved about the school. Overwhelmingly important for them was the environment and getting students outside.” For many years, Belfountain staff, students, and parents have connected to nature and the community.

“This is a core value of the school and a foundation to its culture. Students apply their lessons to making a difference, globally and locally,” says Bristoll. “For example, they participate in an annual Garlic Mustard Festival – a program that engages the public to identify and remove invasive garlic mustard from local green spaces. That underscores the importance of integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into our thinking and action.” (See Belfountain Grade 4 Water Inquiry for a class example).

The Sustainable Development Goals also help build awareness and understanding for other important social issues that are school priorities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and Indigenous knowledge. Bristoll explains, “The goal is that students will leave the school knowing they can act on what they have learned.”

Belfountain Grade 4 Water Inquiry

Photo of children near a body of water

Grade 4 students wanted to learn and do something about water. They live in homes with well water, so potable water is important for them. They are concerned about a possible new development in the area and what might happen. SDG 6 is about Clean Water and Sanitation and SDG 14 is about Life below Water, so making the local relate to the global need was a clear imperative.

“Take them to the river,” LSF consultant Pamela Gibson advised the teacher. “I told her that the students are like investigative journalists, finding out what’s important for them and their community. That way they are attached to what they are learning, dialed in.”

The students observed and collected data on the river near the school. They had many questions from this initial visit. What will happen to the water table? Where is the water coming from and where is it going? Is it clean water? Their questions directed their lessons and research back at school. They learned about artesian wells, surface water, and underground rivers. The students could proceed in many directions with many projects, simply through collecting information and using their learning. The teacher could find many curriculum links through this process across several subject areas. Key to this was the outdoor experience.

It is important that teachers view the process through their curriculum. There were links to Science, Social Studies, Math and Language right from the start. Teachers can see what is possible and can guide learners to the curriculum concepts and the big ideas. Through the river and water experience, the teacher saw how her curriculum, the SDGs, and the integration of new pedagogies could all be linked.

Gibson says, “The idea is to reflect on learning experiences through the SDGs. Ask questions: How does this relate to our own future? To our local community? To global challenges?“


Make it real

Belfountain kindergarten teacher and LSF Consultant Janice Haines has been part of the sustainability culture of the school for many years. “To make the goals understood you have to make them real for children. Big ideas need to be connected to their day-to-day experiences,” Haines explains. “For example, children can grasp a science idea like adaptation when they see the animals outside managing to survive in winter. They really get it.” Finding community partners is especially helpful. “A parent got us working on squirrel conservation a few years ago and we continued with it for five years,” she says.

It’s important to offer context and reassurance to students that what they are doing makes a difference. “We don’t stress them with catastrophes, but instead relate it to what is happening in their school playground,” Haines says. “My ultimate vision is of happy kids who are eager to learn and do more in their community. They know they have a voice.”


World’s Largest Lesson

Posters and Lesson Plans https://worldslargestlesson.globalgoals.org/resource/introducing-explorers-for-the-global-goals/

Intro to Goals video: Sustainable Development Goals: Improve life all around the globe

Resources from Learning For a Sustainable Future (http://lsf-lst.ca)

Webinars: http://resources4rethinking.ca/en/outdoor-learning
These webinars introduce teachers to the SDGs and provide opportunities to share ideas and resources for integrating key SDGs into lesson plans and action projects.

Resources for Rethinking: www.R4R.ca
A free online database where educators and the general public can search, by the SDGs, for the highest quality, peer-reviewed, curriculum-matched teaching resources, children’s literature, videos, outdoor activities, and apps/games.

Our Canada Project: www.ourcanadaproject.ca
Allows schools to share their sustainability action projects with others to inspire youth agency, access resources, and apply for funding. More than 850 projects are currently posted and searchable by SDG.

Youth Leadership Forums: www.Bit.ly/LSF-Forums-2021
These forums engage students in local sustainability issues, equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to make a change, and empower them to take action.


Banner Photo: Adobe Stock

Images courtesy of Learning for Sustainable Futures

First published in Education Canada, March 2021

Read other articles from this issue


Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. (2016). Pan-global competencies.

The Global Goals. (2015). The Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Kozak, S., & Elliott, S. (2014). Connecting the Dots: Key strategies that transform learning for environmental education, citizenship and sustainability. Learning for a Sustainable Future.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The 17 Goals. United Nations.

UNESCO International Bureau of Education. (2020). Canada establishes a Pan Canadian Global Competencies Framework for Education. UNESCO.

Meet the Expert(s)

Susan Elliott

Education Consultant and Facilitator, Learning for a Sustainable Future

Susan Elliott, PhD, is a former school administrator. She works with Learning for a Sustainable Future, teaches the Environmental Education AQ at OISE/UT, and is co-author of Connecting the Dots: Key strategies that transform learning for environmental education, citizenship and sustainability.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network