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How the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Can Transform Education

Alaka'i O Kaua'i Surfrider Foundation beach cleanup 2021

Educators have often based curriculum on a set of standards. In recent years, we’ve seen iterations from Common Core Standards to the Next Gen Science Standards and the ISTE Standards. Although these have been very impactful, many deeper-learning practitioners are advocating for something even larger. Enter the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These 17 goals, adopted by the UN in 2015, provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future. They represent an urgent call to action by all countries to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

A New Framework

International thought leader Nicholas Martino, an American educator now based in Mexico and known for his work with the Authentic Learning Lab and Think Global School, advocates for using the 17 goals as a framework for teaching and learning.

“The goals are broad, overarching, relevant and ambitious global topics,” Martino said. “Each of the goals has a number of targets, a matrix of standards.”

With the available research and data collection, the United Nations has essentially done much of the work for implementation in project-based learning.

“I can’t find anything that doesn’t fit into the goals,” he said. “They are project-based, interdisciplinary and relevant to all.”

SDGs, Social-Emotional Learning and the “Why”

“We’ve forgotten that education is about creating active, informed citizens who are good people,” Martino said. “The SDGs fulfill the goal of all learners becoming participatory citizens.”

Dr. Jennifer Williams, the cofounder of Teach SDGs, believes the SDGs provide a road map for educators looking for ways to take action for the planet and people through inquiry and collaboration.

“With the 17 goals, there is a place for everyone,” Williams said. “There are opportunities for teachers and students from any content area, any grade level, and any location to jump in and get right to work.”

Think ‘Glocally’

Many of us have heard the phrase “Think global, act local,” which has recently morphed into the word “glocal.” The SDGs provide global perspective and collective action, while allowing individuals to see the same challenges in their own local communities.

“Sadly, too many of our local communities are struggling with poverty, food insecurity, climate issues, sustainability, mental health issues, inequity, injustice and more,” Martino said. “For students, this is a critical opportunity to realize these are global, as well as local, problems.”


As Teach SDGs, Moving Worlds and the United Nations organize around these 17 goals, schools, networks and individuals around the world are also adopting the goals as their new operating standards.

Ultimately, this pivot to the SDGs is what many are looking for in redesigning teaching and learning. Williams believes we are in a moment of action in education.

“This is about action in the form of acceleration of use of technology and innovative teaching practices, action in the form of student activism and student voice, and action for social good as teachers and students come together as co-learners in classrooms across the world,” Williams said. “#TeachSDGs has become a movement but also a community of educators committed to making a difference in the world through teaching and learning.”

Martino said, “The SDGs represent the real work the entire world has to do. I believe education can change the world, not passively but actively. But first, we need to change education.”

A Sample Practice: The SDGs, iLEAD and Maker Learning Network

At iLEAD Schools and Maker Learning Network, many projects connect to the SDGs.

For example, iLEAD AV’s 5th and 6th grade Women’s History Project connects to several of the global goals including gender equality (goal 5), decent work and economic growth (goal 8), reduced inequality  (goal 10) and peace, justice and strong institutions (goal 16).

At Alaka`i O Kaua`i, the 3rd grade Oceans Project focused on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns (goal 12), climate action (goal 13) and life below water (goal 14).

And at iLEAD Lancaster, the 7th grade Inclusive Playground Redesign Project focused on good health and well-being (goal 3), quality education (goal 4), reduced inequality (goal 10) and sustainable cities and communities (goal 11).

In Closing

A close look at the SDGs reveals their mutual benefit for all. This is just one more rationale for using the SDGs in project-based learning.

Posted on June 17, 2021 in iLEAD Digest

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About the Author

Michael Niehoff is a teacher, leader, blogger, learner advocate, and the Education Content Coordinator at iLEAD Schools.
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Effective date: August 29, 2019

Maker Learning Network (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://ileadschools.org/ website (the “Service”).

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There is ongoing litigation between the California Department of Education and the Concerned Parent Association. A notice issued by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson states, “The lawsuit accuses CDE of widespread, systemic non-compliance by local educational agencies with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504. The CDE denies these allegations and is actively defending the litigation.”

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