The SDGs as a radical curriculum alternative?

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

This is the presentation I made at the CPRT conference last week in a small group session about global leaning and sustainable development, chaired by Kevin Bailey:

The SDGs as a radical curriculum alternative?

The sustainable development goals were agreed by the UN last December, and the world has signed up to them.  They are about transforming people’s lives.  They follow on from the reasonably successful MDGs but are both more extensive and less well defined.  It’s widely agreed that they have the potential for focusing attention on ways to address, and perhaps even resolve some of the huge range of problems the world faces today.  In particular, the breadth of the issues covered by the Goals has the power to be bring teachers, students, leaders and external activists together.  That’s because the SDGs seem to offer a currency and a means of exchange that all can understand and get involved in.  For example, every UK university already has teaching and research that is focused on a range of the Goals, usually in partnership with others.

But what about schools?  A recent conference in Germany explored the idea of a school where learning based entirely around the Goals.  This was a so-called global goals curriculum.  But we have to ask, is this just another marginal approach that will distract people from the issues?  Or is it something quite radical that could really be an effective approach to transforming lives?  This transformation idea featured in the UN Secretary-General’s recent synthesis report about sustainable development.  Here’s the report’s title, which shows the challenge:

The road to dignity by 2030: ending poverty, transforming all lives and protecting the planet.

Let me risk being provocative at the outset by saying that I think that these ideas are in the wrong order.  I’d have put it like this:

The road to dignity by 2030: protecting the planet, transforming all lives and ending poverty

That’s because, unless we protect the biosphere from the damage we are doing to it, there’s no chance of ending poverty.  Indeed, it will increase.  I also think that we’re more likely to end poverty by transforming lives – rather than the other way round.  This is an extract from the Secretary-General’s report:

  • Transformation is our aim.
  • We must transform our economies, our environment and our societies.
  • We must change old mindsets, behaviours and destructive patterns.
  • We must build cohesive societies, in pursuit of international peace and stability. ...

There is no mention of education, but how do you do all this without education?  The Secretary-General’s report went on to say that all this is possible if we mobilize political will and the necessary resources, and if we work together.  But the gulf between this vision, and where we are now, seems to be getting wider week by week.  So, how are we to do, what seems like a hugely difficult task?

For many, this will seem like a call for nothing less that the development of new worldviews to address, what some call, the sustainability problématique.

How can we all live well, without compromising the planet’s continuing ability to enable us all to live well.

We might differ, however, perhaps widely, on what the outcomes of such transformation ought to be.  We also might differ on how it’s to be achieved.  And differ, as well, on the role of education within it.  The UN report does address education.  It says this …

It is important that young people receive relevant skills and high-quality education and life-long learning, from early childhood development to post-primary schooling, including life skills and vocational education and training.

Of course, this is just to restate the 4th Goal.  Clearly, many educators think that education is the key to transformation, and this idea was a strong theme of some of the meetings leading to the Paris Agreement on climate change, although not of the Agreement itself.  If so, then a focus on the Goals will be necessary.  The mix of policies and practices necessary to achieve these will involve all kinds of social groups and institutions working together.   These will be public and private, governmental and NGO, local, national and international, and large and small.

It’s clear that many groups already see the goals as a conceptual frame around which to build their policies, strategies, and evaluation.  For example, the UN Global Compact has produced, with others, a ‘SDG Compass’ to help business maximize its contribution to the Goals.  And many universities are already beginning to use the goals to bring their activities together.  For example, teaching, research, student activitism, work with community groups, a focus on social accountability, and institutional business practices.  As one activist said to me:

“these internationally agreed goals give focus to the often sprawling scope of sustainable development.”

The Compass idea could be very helpful here, and all the universities I know well already focus directly on issues represented by the goals.  It’s less easy in schools, of course, but those interested in global learning might say that this is exactly what they have been doing for some time.  The advantage of a focus on the goals is that they make SD more concrete.  After all, unlike ESD, which is, at best, a mysterious process, they are real, and you don’t have to go round persuading people of their merits.  So, what can schools do?

Well, if we’re to think about what schools might do in relation to the goals, it’s important, first, to think about outcomes, and at a basic level, perhaps we have 4 kinds of responsibility as citizens:

  • understand that the Goals are important
  • think about these in relation to people’s lives and interests
  • weigh arguments and discuss possibilities and practicalities
  • get involved whilst reflecting on the appropriateness of actions

So what can schools do as a preparation for such a citizenly role?  And what are the practical ways forward?  Perhaps educators also have four kinds of responsibility:

  • help learners understand why the goals ought to be of concern to them
  • enable learners to gain plural perspectives from a range of viewpoints
  • provide opportunities for an active and critical exploration of issues
  • encourage learners to come to their own views and to get involved

Doing less than this seems neglectful; doing much more runs the risk of indoctrination as we need to stimulate without prescribing.  And we need to see conceptual frameworks as scaffolding to build learning around, rather than as cages to restrain ideas and creativity.  This is, of course, a liberal educational view that puts student learning first.  This view says that educational institutions must always prioritise student learning over institutional, behaviour or social change.  It also says that we should make use of any change that’s happening, to support and broaden that learning.  In this sense, it’s fine for a school, college or university to encourage its students to become involved, and through that involvement, enhance social justice, save energy, create less waste, promote biodiversity, etc.  To do otherwise is to forget why educational institutions exist.  Being restorative of social or natural capital is laudable, but not if it neglects or negates the development of learning.  Thus, a successful liberal education today will be taking these goals seriously in everything it does.  At its heart will be students asking critical questions of society, of their institution, and of their learning – looking for the need for change, and getting involved.  In this sense, schools are important in nurturing thinking and learning about what might constitute appropriate futures, and in helping students develop skills and competences by doing so.

But there are limits.

Jensen and Schnack make the point with force that the crucial factor must always be what students learn from participating in such activities.

“… it is not and cannot be the task of the school to solve the political problems of society.  Its task is not to improve the world with the help of pupils’ activities. …  The crucial factor must be what students learn from participating in such activities …”

So, our young people can be helped to understand the issues, to understand how to make themselves heard, and how to make a difference.  And this can be in schools across the age range.  Paradoxically, it may well be through such small-scale, on-the-ground, open-minded, developments that the potential for transformation may well be enhanced.


Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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  • Nice blog Bill - and you just outlined ESD in your responsibilities, because to do them requires critical thinking,participation, understanding interconnections and systems and action learning!
    The mystery about ESD is about 2 things - those who like to keep the 'debate' alive (for their own model/career, or denial of the need for change in education), or the shallow approach (those who have just adapted what they do or picked the low hanging fruit - currently this is the biggest group!)
    I love the responsibilities and completely agree that we have for too long left a vacuum filled by activists. That is not education.
    That is why we have designed an SDGs programme for young people that fits your responsibilities! Can I use them?

    Hope you are well

  • Hello Bill,
    i am writing a short (1500 words) descriptive piece on the SDGs and a generic conceptual framework - called Hodges' model. The model is also suited to helping with curriculum planning and development and so I struck by your post with a found doing some research.
    Hodges' model can act as a compass -
    - and a framework for the SDGs, it highlights areas that the SDGs miss and which need to be highlighted. Do you have any sources which develop your thoughts here and the discussion that was had?
    Many thanks and all best for 2018....!
    Peter Jones
    Lancashire, UK