Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals – also known as the SDGs or the Global Goals – came into effect on January 1, 2016, following a historic United Nations Summit in September 2015. 193 governments from around the world agreed to implement the SDGs within their own countries in order to achieve what has become known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To meet these new SDGs, countries are to mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change, all while ensuring that no one is left behind. To achieve this global challenge, everyone must take action both here and around the world. We know that these goals highlight issues that affect our students and communities as well as the broader world, and offer powerful points of connection to engage students on global issues in the classroom.
Global citizenship, the idea that the actions we take here can affect lives all over the world, is a compelling lesson for the classroom. Engaging students on global issues, and especially taking action locally, can spark exciting projects and build global awareness in students. Students who understand these local-global connections are building their understanding of issues facing the world today, developing compassion for the world around them, and discovering the power of taking action.
The Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC) has a long history of engaging students in classroom workshops and student conferences that are focused on educating students about global issues and empowering them to take action. If you need ideas on how to bring the SDGs into your classroom, we’ve developed Sustainable Foundations: A guide for teaching the Sustainable Development Goals, a new bilingual resource for educators that includes multiple lesson plan ideas and action steps for each SDG. The guide includes lesson plans for Grades 2–12, but largely focuses on Grade 5+, where the content around global issues is more relevant to the curriculum.
Taking an inquiry approach, each chapter in the guide offers an overview of a specific goal, including learning objectives, a summary of important international targets, and the ways to tell if we are on track to reach the goals. Each chapter offers inquiry-style questions that connect back to the curriculum, exploring some key questions, such as: Where did this goal begin? Why does this issue matter? Who and what are affected? and What is being done?
The guide explores the interconnected nature of the goals, taking care to highlight, for example, how we can’t reach Goal 1: Zero Poverty, without also reducing inequalities (Goal 10), ensuring decent work and economic growth (Goal 8), protecting life on land (Goal 15), and many others. There are many connections between each goal, and students can quickly begin to see how the success of one goal is tied to another.
Each chapter also highlights the consequences of inaction, sharing what might happen if we do nothing to reach the goal, and offers further reflection questions, inspiring quotes, and more. Of special importance to educators are the sections with resources, including ideas for taking action, lesson plans, activities, and video educational resources for use in the classroom.
Teaching Goal 1: Zero Poverty
For example, how can you teach your students about Goal 1: Zero Poverty? For students in Grades 5–8, consider the lesson “The World is Not Equal. Is that fair?” from the World’s Largest Lesson website and featured in the guide. This lesson highlights different types of inequality and helps students explore the impact inequality has on the wider society and economy. The lesson starts with students receiving an unequal amount of something (candy, stickers, etc.) and moves from fairness to a discussion on equality.
MCIC has also created lessons you can use in your classroom, now available directly on our website at mcic.ca. First, for students in Grade 5+, considering using the “Building Blocks for a Good Life” lesson, where students order a list of items from most important to least important for a good life. This lesson opens a discussion about poverty and what it means to have a good quality of life. Students will explore poverty as a “lack of opportunities” rather than a “lack of basic needs.” Framing poverty this way allows students to appreciate the complexity of the issue and promotes empathy in lieu of judgment.
Students work in groups to decide which items (a range including access to food, a television, cell phones, shelter, toys, health care and more) are most important and which are least important to a good life. Labels are provided that can be placed on blocks so students can build structures, or you can print a list of the items and cut them into individual squares so students can order them individually on their desks or at home.
This lesson has also been successfully used with high-school students, and we recommend leaving more time for older students to discuss differences of opinion and the debrief questions. Many great discussions can arise with all ages, based on student perspectives of the items on the list. There are several discussion questions and prompts included in the lesson, such as asking students if everyone needs the same things for a good life, a prompt that can be used to expand the conversation and include global perspectives. Do we need the same things as other countries? Use student answers to these prompts and differences in their prioritized lists to spark conversations about basic needs and lack of opportunities in the world.
Another MCIC activity with more global perspectives is “Breaking the Cycle,” for students in Grades 5–8. In this activity, students learn that poverty is not a result of individual choices alone; it is affected by societal systems. Students travel in groups through four different stations, making decisions about health and the environment inside scenarios from around the world, choosing how to spend their resources to survive. Focused on the themes of poverty and the poverty cycle, barriers associated with poverty, and a lack of access to health care and education, this activity brings home the real-world challenges people can face and opens a conversation about inequality around the world.
Putting learning into action
Learning about global issues is a great start, but true impact and passion can be inspired by taking action on the issues. Students who take action in their communities to effect change become engaged global citizens, learning powerful lessons about how their actions can change the world.
To encourage your students to take action, consider the ideas in the “How to Take Action” section included for each chapter of the guide, or the general tips on taking action in the introduction. For example, students could be encouraged to support a local organization through creating a fundraiser, or writing to their local government representative about the issues. Explore dosomething.org to find an issue your students care about and to find ways to take action on the issues. You can also see examples of how other students have taken action on the MCIC Take Action Blog, or consider connecting with an international cooperation organization working around the world. You can find examples of these organizations and their work through the case studies in each chapter of the guide or by contacting MCIC or another Council for International Cooperation in your area.
One school’s journey
At our Generating Momentum for Our World student conferences, and as we share classroom resources, we encourage educators to let us know how their students take action on global issues. Following a student conference in rural Manitoba where students learned about the SDGs and how to take action on the issues, we heard about an exciting project one school had undertaken in their community.
With the support of their teachers, middle-years students created an “SDG Week” where they connected with their peers on a different goal each day. For example, when they talked about Goal 2: Zero Hunger, students baked and offered everyone in school a muffin. They hosted assemblies, shared information, invited MCIC to lead workshops, and created posters to share. One day they planted fruit trees on the school property, as a way to help reach several goals (no hunger, climate change, life on land, and more). With a new project each day, it was a great way to share what they learned with their fellow students and take action on the SDGs.
It was exciting to see how students took the knowledge gained about the SDGs and turned it into action, while sharing with their schoolmates.
AS EDUCATORS, you know that you hold the power to transform your students’ understanding of the world. As you teach them the universality of the SDGs and the issues facing the world today, we encourage you to also teach your students to be good global citizens who take actions that change the world for the better. Students who understand that they have the power to help reduce inequalities around the world and create a more sustainable future for all, are students who will take knowledge and turn it into action, making a more just world for everyone.
Resources for Teachers
MCIC offers many free classroom resources at mcic.ca:
- Sustainable Foundations: A guide for teaching the Sustainable Development Goals (2018) (English and French versions available)
- Online resources for teaching the SDGs at home (or remotely)
- Lesson plans, classroom posters, reading lists, and more
- Global Citizens, Local Classrooms e-newsletter with monthly resources for educators
- Classroom workshop bookings (currently virtual)
- Take Action Blog showcasing examples from educators and students taking action on global issues: https://takeactionmanitoba.org
See also the World’s Largest Lesson website, with lesson plans and other classroom resources searchable by type of resource, age group, and duration:
Photos: courtesy MCIC