A group of young students hold plants in a classroom.

Curriculum, Promising Practices, Sustainability

UN SDGs in Education

The what, why, and how

A poster showing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Image: United Nations


Sustainability gives purpose to education.1

THE IDEA of education for sustainable development is not entirely new. My introduction to it began in 2008, with a simple request. A group of students required a staff advisor in order to participate in the Plan International Canada program, Spread the Net. Co-founded by Rick Mercer and Belinda Stronach, Spread the Net was a friendly national fundraising initiative among K–20 institutions to engage communities in international development actions. As a science teacher, it was not lost on me that malaria had been eradicated in Canada for more than 60 years (70+ years today), yet it remained a challenge for some nations globally. Moreover, due to changing global climate systems, there was the potential for Canada to face similar challenges with malaria in the future.

Months later, I learned that the Spread the Net initiative was rooted in one of the United Nations’ eight international development goals, known as the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs). Spread the Net was my introduction to the world of education for sustainable development (ESD) and the work of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for global education. Because of this experience, my philosophy for “why I teach broadened in scope from subject-specific curriculum expectations to a more global perspective: How will students apply this information to address the complexities of today and of the future?

The What: The Sustainable Development Goals

On September 15, 2015 at the UN General Assembly, global leaders unanimously adopted Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a new set of progressive universal and transformative goals for global development. The new UN framework that superseded the MDGs was created so that nations could continue to reimagine and reshape the future, with one major difference – this framework had global significance and was positioned in a way that all nations could plan, act on, and measure their progress over a 15-year period. The resulting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets were developed with the input of people from all over the world to ensure they represented the needs of the global population. That is why the framework has come to be known in education circles as the Global Goals.

Building on the principle of “leaving no one behind,” the new Agenda emphasizes a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all. The 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development are integrated and indivisible.

The Why: What does this have to do with education?

The 2030 Agenda is an ambitious plan in which education is mentioned 28 times across six goals (#1, #3, #5, #8, #12, and #13), in addition to Goal #4, which is dedicated solely to education. Education is positioned as both an enabler and a driver of capacity building toward achieving the SDGs.

But the SDGs also bring to education systems an exciting new model on which to scaffold teaching through the 17 cross-cutting themes that intersect all societies, all grade levels, and all disciplines. Using the 17 SDGs as lenses for teaching presents subject-matter content in a relevant context, helping students to apply what they are learning locally to global conditions and current events.

The appeal of the framework for me is the interconnected, interlinked nature of the goals. At first glance the SDG poster with the 17 tiles, vivid hues of primary colours, and skillfully arranged composite of squares to form a rectangle, looked simple. But it is not. No tile exists in isolation! Once I ventured behind each tile, exploring each indicator (measure of progress) and tangential connection, I realized that in its wholeness these 17 tiles represented life’s challenges and opportunities that could be investigated and discussed in varying magnitudes/scales, e.g. individual, community, region, country, continent, and the world. I had discovered concrete and flexible ways to actively engage learners in critical thinking and systems practice.

Consider the discipline of science, my playground. It is a powerful tool that learners can use to understand natural and social phenomena in their communities. These phenomena, usually distilled into discrete subject areas, are presented in the SDGs with all their beautiful real-world complexities and nuances. Learners are required to mobilize knowledges (from areas other than science) skills, and attitudes – including the pan-Canadian global competencies2 – to identify local problems and action solutions. Since the SDGs serve to spark the problem-finding, the solutions that arise can have global application.

The SDGs position the subject-specific knowledges in their true form: multifaceted, multilayered, and complex. When learners apply subject-specific knowledge in a context that is positioned in local realities, they are empowered to explore, analyze, and engage with their environment, both natural and human-made, and to strengthen skills (global competencies) that will enable them to tackle complex issues that are affecting their communities now and in future.

Strength in purpose

When I agreed to contribute to this publication, I knew that the narrative I would share could not be my story alone. This was an opportunity to serve as a knowledge broker for the SDGs. I decided to provide space for more voices to be heard and posted a call for contributors via a brief survey to the TeachSDGs Ambassador Slack platform. It did not take long for responses to come in – from Greece, Canada, Lebanon, Nigeria, the U.K., the U.S., United Arab Emirates, and France – a global community bound together by their belief in the power of education to transform the world. Formal and informal educators, former teachers, and an administrator responded to the call.

My first question centred on the benefits of membership in a global community of practitioners (Teacher SDGs Ambassadors). Here are just a few responses:

“Sharing of best practices with each other. Networking with like-minded people from across the world. Learning from a global community to help prepare students to think local and act global.” – Anita Singh, teacher at a Farm School, United Arab Emirates

“… collaborating with other educators on ideas to teach the SDGs.” – Doreen N. Myrie, teacher-educator, U.S.

The main benefits are creating partnerships with each other to increase our implementation efficiency. These partnerships would be in different forms like sharing resources, expertise, affiliation, and all kinds of support.” – Jinan Karameh, school principal, Lebanon

Access to a community of like-minded practitioners who share the same vision and ultimately the same goal. Sharing best practice. Kept informed with current initiatives and learning development opportunities.” – Tim Black, former teacher, France

Reading these comments, a proverb came to mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Through the global collaboration and partnership enabled by the TeachSDGs Ambassador program, my voice, my work, and my contribution to education benefits many more individuals than I actually see, and every opportunity to collaborate serves to amplify the actions that support desirable practices in education.

Engaged teachers and learners

In order to engage students, teachers must understand the purpose of learning – the collective why – for themselves and the students. Whether it be social studies, the arts, science, or math, teachers must consider:

  • Why do students need to know this?
  • How will the material support students’ understanding of themselves and of the world, now and in the future?

The 17 Global Goals offer teachers myriad ways to educate students about global complexities through local contexts. Research on Education for Sustainable Development supports this approach for enhancing student self-esteem, character development, empathy, and empowerment. Framing the learning at the community level also provides students the chance to apply knowledge to authentic contexts. In addition, ESD pedagogies encourage teachers to consider more learner-centred approaches, enabling students to be self-governing in their learning. Schooling must now prioritize the development of competences for sustainability3 that support participatory action of students by identifying alignment between curricula and perspectives that the 17 Goals and 169 targets provide.

Since my induction into ESD, my role in education has shifted from classroom teacher to a curriculum developer working at the ministerial level. To demonstrate the potential for SDGs to positively impact education, I defer once again to the educators from the TeachSDGs community. I asked them to share their insights on how framing subjects through many perspectives of the UN SDGs empowers learners. Here are a few responses:

“When you bring the Global goals to a local level, and the students can make the connection with what you are learning and discussing in class and their life and lived experience, it is a powerful combination. If you can ignite a passion within a student to work to make a positive change in the world, what could be better?” – Mahfuza Rahman, teacher (Science) and technology coach, Canada

Learners… realize the need for inclusive solutions (Leave No One Behind) and develop their critical thinking, innovation, and creativity trying to help the future of our planet.” – Stavroula Skiada, teacher (ICT), Greece

“Encourages broader thinking. Helps them [students] become global citizens and can inspire them [students] to take action as a global change-maker.” – Kirsten Thompson, former teacher, U.K.

“Learners are empowered to problem solve, to use their voice to teach others to make a change and a difference about issues that they care about. They are empowered to learn about cultures and see the value in learning about other cultures and the world.” – Lynn Thomas, teacher (English Literature), Canada

Students see and experience the world as an interdependent ecosystem and acknowledge, create, and find their place in it.” – Julia Fliss, teacher (English Language Arts), U.S.

Kristen Thompson summed it up nicely when she reflected that framing subject matter through the many perspectives of the SDGs, “brings education to life for students by focusing on real-world issues.”

The How: Weaving the Global Goals into your practice

Currently, there are many challenges to embedding the Global Goals into our teaching practice – such as communication gaps within ministries and districts/school boards, competing interests and priorities within public education, and a lack of professional development opportunities for interested teachers on SDGs topics. But difficult is not impossible. An important driver for reorienting education is knowledge mobilization, sharing of resources, and professional learning support.

Since the inception of the Global Goals, a flood of resources have been created by ESD champions and developed by teachers to support related work on regional, national, and international levels. Schools that put the Global Goals at the centre of their approach to education are part of a greater whole. There are multiple on-ramps for individual teachers as well as school communities to get involved.

Wondering how you can start weaving the Global Goals into teaching and supporting a sustainability mindset for learning in school communities? Here are a few accessible suggestions:

  • Commit to becoming a globally competent educator. Strive to value multiple perspectives and promote equity, keep abreast of local and current events, and cultivate a learning environment that values diversity and global engagement.
  • Read A Curriculum Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals (Osman et al., 2017) or Education for Sustainable Development Goals – Learning Objectives to identify areas where you can apply theory to practice.
  • Start small – examine how you might map your teaching and learning onto the SDGs.
  • Learn from educators proficient with theory of practice rooted in ESD and SDGs.
  • Join a community of practice (e.g. TeachSDGs) to share promising ESD practices.
  • Scale up when you are ready: involve schoolwide actors, conduct a curriculum audit4, and evaluate the physical facilities using the SDG framework.
  • Create opportunities for students to identify the social, economic, and environmental challenges to well-being in their local community and innovate developmentally appropriate solutions.

Call to action for Global Goals knowledge brokers

My discovery of ESD and the 17 Global Goals has led me to bring a more holistic approach to my practice and served as a window to the world by opening my professional community to places and people in ways that I could have never imagined! Good news stories in the education sector (or at least the dissemination of them) are typically in short supply, and I hope that by sharing my story, readers will come to understand the many ways the Global Goals will provide learners – both teachers and students – with on-ramps to meaningful community-based learning that has global significance. Education in 2021 is glocal!

Information about the UN SDGs and their potential to positively impact teaching and learning is sorely required, especially now. September 2020 marked the five-year milestone of the 15-year action-oriented framework and launched the Decade of Action: a call to accelerate sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges by 2030. The clock is counting down. Let’s continue the good work of making the world a safe, just, and equitable place through education, for everyone.



The What

Video: UNESCO: The Lab of Ideas, the Lab for Change!

The Why

Teach SDGs Manifesto: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1CUlNQpAd4YfwC8QjC1MK8qNQV3lUr67U/view

The How

These are my go-to resources that I access regularly.

Banner Photo: Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, March 2021

Read other articles from this issue



1 Source: G. Connelly, former Superintendent of Toronto Board of Education. Education for sustainable development is designed to raise students’ awareness of and encourage them to become actively engaged in working for a sustainable society.

2 Articulated by the Canadian Ministers of Education (CMEC) in 2016:

3 Competencies for sustainability include systems and future-oriented thinking, normative competency, strategic competency, critical thinking, collaboration, integrated problem-solving, and knowledge about planetary phenomena.

4 A curriculum audit involves surveying courses offered to identify which units/topics currently include sustainability topics and mapping them to the 17 Goals (and 169 targets).

Meet the Expert(s)

Janice Williams

Janice Williams

Educational Consultant, Pinnacle Educational Services

Janice Williams is an Ontario certified teacher and independent educational consultant who specializes in interdisciplinary curriculum design and competency-based education.

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