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Teaching U.N. Sustainability Goals to Create Global Citizens

By Craig Perrier — April 17, 2017 5 min read
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How can teachers integrate the teaching of the UN Sustainable Development Goals into their classrooms? Through project-based learning, argues Craig Perrier, High School Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Social Studies, Fairfax County Public Schools. Join Craig for an in-depth discussion of this topic on Twitter, this Thursday, April 20 at 8pm Eastern time during #Globaledchat. (Just type #globaledchat into the search box to join the conversation).

Education has really embraced a growth mindset thanks to the realities of globalization. Specifically, the increasing complexities and interconnectedness of humanity; the heightened rate of political, social, economic, and cultural change; and the democratization of information creation and access are but a few of the global changes that impact contemporary teaching and learning. One way to summarize this is in the words of University of Bath professor, Dr. Mary Hayden:

“Even for those school-age students today who will never in adulthood leave their native shores, the future is certain to be so heavily influenced by international developments and their lives within national boundaries so affected by factors emanating from outside those boundaries that they will be hugely disadvantaged by an education that has not raised their awareness of, sensitivity to and facility with issues arising from beyond a national ‘home’ context.”

In short, educators today must be prepared to teach their students to succeed in a globalized tomorrow. Primarily, this requires a revision of (at least) three areas—content, instruction, and assessment. Another way to put this is that educators must reflect upon and revise these three curriculum questions:


  • What is most important for students to know?
  • What is most important for students to be able to do?
  • What kind of person do we want students to be?

Global Education and Project-Based Learning

One way to shape your students’ experiences in order to teach for tomorrow is to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) into your curriculum. An even better way is to utilize project-based learning (PBL) for your instructional and assessment models.

UN SDGs provide teachers and students with a range of options that are applicable for every content area and grade level. Moreover, it is important to remember that using these goals in your class does not necessarily mean you have to take your students beyond your community (your community and the US are part of the world, not separate from it!). In fact, asking student to address any of these goals at the local level means that you are working toward them on a global scale.

Additionally, consider this insight (especially if your school district is excited about work-based learning) from the Brookings Institute’s Better Business, Better World laying out the economic case for businesses to embrace the SDGs.

“The report identifies a $12 trillion market for achieving just four of the 2030 goals--food and agriculture, cities (investments such as housing, transportation, and water), energy and materials, and health and well-being—that would produce 380 million jobs. Factoring the SDGs into business strategies will open new business opportunities, introduce efficiencies and innovation, and improve reputations.”

Utilizing project-based learning shifts instruction from a teacher-dominated model to a student-centered, inquiry-based approach. The culminating assessment requires students to create and/or take action in an authentic context. Student work should be an informed output that has impacted their thinking and engages a broader community.

Both the Buck Institute for Education’s Golden Standard Model and the C3 Inquiry Model for College, Career, and Civic Readiness provide models for PBL design. What is essential is that both models embrace a driving question, utilize a range of resources, and require students to create something in the public sphere. The chart categorizes each model’s approach.

Globalizing Your PBL

Design matters. Introducing your PBL in conjunction with one or more of the UN SDGs can be staged in multiple ways. Consider these approaches as you begin to integrate SDGs and PBL into your class:


  1. Solve a Real Problem: SDGs are real problems! Being explicit with students and connecting their work locally to SDGs frames their PBL work as global citizens.
  2. Meet a Design Challenge: Informing the public about the UN SDGs is an important task. How will students do that? Who will their audience be?
  3. Explore a Question: Students explore large questions about the world that cuts across cultures and nations.
  4. Conduct an Investigation: Does your community have clean water, provide a quality education, or promote responsible consumption? Investigating these goals yields answers to the UN SDGs and can be shared.
  5. Take a Position: What are your students’ worldviews on any of these topics? Who informs them and how do they communicate that view? Comparative approaches are effective.

As you move toward developing an SDG/PBL unit for students, I suggest modifying one that you aren’t fully happy with. For example, consider these driving questions used by my colleagues this past year. Each teacher merged the UN SDGs with their PBL units to connect historical events to modern-day challenges:


  1. Can one person make a difference?
  2. What about Medieval Europe informs your understanding of a UN SDG?
  3. Why has the UN failed to prevent genocide?

Globalization demands that all of us understand, navigate, and succeed in a dynamic world. By integrating SDGs and PBL in your class, you can instill a global mindset (be), use purposeful assessment in an authentic context (do), and inform students about issues that are relevant (know). This combination teaches—and prepares—students for tomorrow.

Connect with Craig and Heather on Twitter.

UN Sustainable Development Goals poster image used with permission of the UN. The Center for Global Education at Asia Society supports the Sustainable Development Goals.

BIE/C3 comparision chart created by author and used with his permission.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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