Want to change the world? Set yourself a goal …………

If you made a list of goals to make the whole world a better place over the next 10 years, what would be on your list? Ending poverty? Tackling climate change and ensuring sustainable consumption? Stopping hunger? What would be your priority and why?

This is the question we posed at the start of two sessions with Year 12 students on our Sygnature Skills programme being delivered as part of School 21’s ‘Real World Learning Project’. Having explored individually, and then in small groups, some of the key global challenges and issues as they saw them, the students were introduced to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. None of the students in the class had previously heard of these reflecting a statistic that only approximately 1 in 10 people know about them in the UK. However, all of them recognised the goals as necessary given the issues they had witnessed and defined in their own lives.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (aka the SDGs or Global Goals) were developed in consultation with field, policy and scientific expertise around the world and underpinned by a commitment to human rights. Different from their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, 193 countries signed up to the SDGs!  As a class of 20 we stopped for a minute to reflect on how challenging this process must have been. 

The Goals are a collection of interconnected global issues that are being scrutinised and monitored by many countries and organisations. Launched in 2015, their themes range from ending poverty to tackling poverty, hunger and gender inequality, to improving quality education, sustainability and climate action (amongst many others). Their interconnectedness makes them complex and oftentimes competitive.

Engaging with the Global Goals and their associated targets presents a wonderful opportunity to both engage young people and their whole school in that they foreground the relationship between the local and global. There is a strong argument that young people need to know more about how to access and evaluate reliable evidence about local, national and global issues in the age of social media and news-distortion, and SDG data is an excellent way of doing this. To learn more about how schools and teachers can include the SDGs in their teaching and curricula, a useful resource from Oxfam is free to download here.

In our sessions dedicated to the SDGs, we explored the issues and the skills, values and tools required by students to address these challenges.  Our particular focus was on making sure we could frame the issues and see all sides of the story (we took a glimpse at the fantastic Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi on the ‘Dangers of a Single Story’). 

The sessions had the following objectives:

Session 1 Session 2
To introduce why the SDGs are needed by providing a historical and data context. To consider the interconnections between the goals and targets
To introduce the SDG framework, role of UN and sustainable development. To introduce the SDG targets and focus in on 2-3 SDGs 
To reflect on local and national action for change. To reflect on the interrelationship between local, national and global action for change.
To introduce why the SDGs are needed by providing a historical and data context. To consider how to reframe questions and issues to engage alternative perspectives.
To start to consider how we measure social, environmental, economic and political progress in the 21st century and what skills are required for doing so.
To help students to begin to decide which themes and issues they would like to explore more and develop into a group action project.

SDG Activity: Students choose a global issue or challenge (e.g. pollution or something more specific), find its main global goal home and then work out which other SDGs link via coloured wool. Once students explain the link and give an example, they then throw ball of wool to the person standing near that linked goal. 

Extension activity: move on to dive deeper into local issues which might become themes for student action projects (e.g. homelessness) by adopting systems thinking approach to explore multiple perspectives and agendas of individuals/organisations involved. Explore power relations and cause complexity.  

In both sessions on the SDGs, students were encouraged to share their perspectives and learnings. They most especially enjoyed unpacking the different layers of local and global issues (like plastic waste or pollution) by thinking about the different goal dimensions of every issue. For example, in using different coloured wool we talked through as a group how an issue like homelessness was covered by a large percentage of the 17 sustainable development goals and their 169 targets (picture above). Resources produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the World’s Largest Lesson on challenging common conceptions and the circular economy, were also used and helped students further develop their skills in reframing questions and seeing alternative perspectives on an issue. 

Having engaged with the SDGs framework, students now have the opportunity to lead on real world issues to develop key skills and improve their wider learning. This will inform their small group projects designed to address real issues in their local community.

Watch this space for more on School 21 and the Sygnature Skills class of 2020


Author: Dr Harriet Marshall, Routes to Resilience Faculty, School 21 UK

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