By Emily Reynolds

22 July 2016 - 16:19

Three young girls sitting side by side smiling at the camera
At some schools, even the youngest children know what the Sustainable Development Goals are. Photo ©

Mat Wright

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals defined by the United Nations to tackle the world's biggest problems by 2030. Emily Reynolds of our schools team explains why it is in students' interest to know about the goals, and how teachers can teach them.

Why teach the UN's latest development goals?

The goals form a useful lens through which to look at the most pressing global issues. Hundreds of millions of people don't have enough food to eat; women still earn less than men and have fewer rights; plant and animal species are rapidly vanishing; and the gap between rich and poor is indeed getting wider.

More than 40 per cent of the global population are between the ages of ten and 24 – the largest youth population ever. To solve the world's problems, the next generation needs to know what those problems are. A good way to ensure this is to teach them about the SDGs.

Studying the goals is part of a broader, international approach to learning. Our research shows (PDF download, 0.8 MB) that this improves academic skills, helps learners’ mental and moral development and motivates them. It also helps students find jobs (PDF download – 0.2 MB) when they leave school.

For teachers, it's energising to teach fresh material. It can give their professional development a boost, especially if there's the opportunity to take online courses or to lead a programme on the SDGs.

For schools, there's a positive influence on their ethos and relationship with the local community. Plus, learning about the wider world helps schools meet inspection requirements.

How can teachers start teaching the SDGs?

You could start by working out what subject matter related to the 17 goals already exists in your curriculum. If you make small changes to increase that focus, it becomes more manageable. Even the most enthusiastic teacher will struggle to prioritise the goals in their day-to-day teaching, if it means a lot of extra work.

For an introduction to the SDGs, you could show pupils The World’s Largest Lesson, an animated film written by Sir Ken Robinson and introduced by Malala Yousafzai. After watching the video, you might ask your students to choose one of the goals and design a campaign poster to promote it, with a practical suggestion on how the goal could be met.

You can also tie the goals into classes you're already teaching. Project Everyone has some good examples of how you can use the 17 goals in the classroom. Let's take the second goal, 'No Hunger', as an example. You could incorporate it into an English class by asking students to analyse media stories on hunger; a maths class by asking pupils to calculate daily nutrition requirements; a geography class by showing students the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Hunger Map;  or a history class by asking students to research and compare characteristics of historic famines.

Ideally, the whole school should be involved. You may have to win over colleagues at first, by talking about the SDGs at school meetings and sharing examples of what's possible. You could also organise a student ‘task force’ on the goals, giving children the chance to lead assemblies and blog about their topic.

What other resources are available for schools that want to do this?

Oxfam has lesson plans with SDG themes for different age groups, plus advice on incorporating global themes into the whole school's activities. UNICEF's resources give a general overview of the goals. Finally, Practical Action has free resources for teachers, specifically designed to help them teach the goals.

A further idea might be to look for a school partnership through the British Council. We have collaborative project templates for lessons based on the Sustainable Development Goals, which you can adapt to match your school’s needs. They’re also available to partner schools abroad.

Can you give an example of a school that's doing this well?

At Torriano Primary School in London, even the youngest children in the nursery classes know what the SDGs are. The headteacher worked with an external consultant to map the goals onto the existing curriculum, organise staff training days, and encourage teachers to read about them. They decided to teach one SDG theme per term to the whole school.

At the school, one teacher acts as a central co-ordinator on the SDGs. Other subject teachers lead on goals related to their area of expertise, and share resources with their peers.

Another school that's approached the SDGs in a creative way is the D.A.V. Public School in Ludhiana, India. This school is taking part in our International School Award, which encourages an international outlook in schools. The students are planning to hold Skype sessions with other school groups around the world to discuss the goals, and are also organising a series of after-school debates with other local schools on themes related to the SDGs.

What about getting parents and the community involved?

Children may enjoy teaching their parents about the SDGs. At Torriano Primary School, pupils asked parents and carers to complete a questionnaire about the SDGs, with questions asking how many goals there were, and whether they could name any. Next, the pupils plotted a graph comparing which SDGs the parents and children saw as the biggest priorities. The parents were set 'homework' on the SDGs, to be evaluated alongside their children's, to see whether there was a shift in attitudes.

The students also opened a successful food waste café at a school exhibition on climate change. Inspired by the twelfth goal, 'Responsible Consumption', they collected unused and nutritious ingredients from friends, families, the school kitchen, and shops in the community.

At D.A.V. Public School in India, the students are developing a public Facebook page to encourage their local community to get involved in discussions about the SDGs. The students also had the idea of engaging with other people living in Ludhiana on issues related to the goals through the Smart Cities Challenge. This is a competition that is meant to get city officials to come up with ways to improve people's lives, and Ludhiana has been nominated to take part.

Download lesson plans and resources to take part in The World's Largest Lesson on 19 September 2016. 

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