Could the SDGs be our curriculum?

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One of the benefits of the summer break is having some time to think. Enjoying time surrounded by my grandchildren means that at least some of that thinking time is devoted to their education, their future, and how well they are being prepared not simply to survive, but to thrive in the world they will grow into.

For some time now I’ve been one who has advocated for a complete redesign of our education system. I’ve found myself aligned with the views of other educators, politicians and policy makers who are concerned that our schools aren’t properly preparing students for the world we live in. Observing and listening to my grandchildren through the break has simply reinforced this position for me.

Without argument, the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy remain important, as are the oral and aural skills that are essential to effective inter-personal communication and the sharing of ideas. These things I don’t question. It’s more the context within which they are developed and practised that I believe requires rethinking and re-design.

In 2012 the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) drew together more than ten years of national and international research on the future of learning, including new data on the practices of innovative school leaders and teachers. The research identified key themes for a connected and coherent future-oriented learning system. These themes included:

  • a commitment to personalising learning,
  • a curriculum that uses knowledge to develop learning capacity,
  • the rethinking of learners’ and teachers’ roles, and
  • the forging of new partnerships with the wider community.

The report contains the following as a case for why this change is required…

During the latter half of the 20th century, international thinking about education began to shift to a new paradigm. This shift was driven by an awareness of massive and ongoing social, economic and technological changes, and the exponentially increasing amount of human knowledge being generated as a result. International thinking began to seriously examine questions about the role and purposes of education in a world with an unprecedented degree of complexity, fluidity and uncertainty.

Alongside economic, social, political and technological changes, many serious challenges characterise the 21st century world. Some authors describe these as “wicked problems”. They are “highly complex, uncertain, and value-laden”, spanning multiple domains: social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral. It is argued that learners-and teachers, school leaders and families/communities-need support to actively develop the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21st century wicked problem solving.

Many significant international projects have considered how schooling might change to better match the changes that have taken place in the 21st century. Two important ideas that underpin this work are (1) a shift in the meaning of “knowledge”, and (2) the need to build education systems based around what we now know about learning.


Almost a decade later, the progress toward seeing such future-focused approaches feature as a regular part of the school programme has been slow to say the least. And yet, at every turn, we are faced with the sorts of ‘wicked problem’ highlighted in the NZCER report. The consequences of the national and global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated only too well just how complex, uncertain and value-laden such problems can be – certainly when one considers the impact of the responses made on the lives of different groups of people in our society.

And that’s just one of the areas of concern, albeit immediate because of the lives at risk. In addition we have the global concerns about threats to democracy, the consequences of climate change and of human interaction with the environment, to name a few. The solutions that will need to be found for these and many other concerns aren’t found in any existing “playbook”, they are indeed complex, uncertain and value-laden – ‘wicked’ problems that will confront the current generation of learners as they grow beyond their years at school.

The NZ Ministry of Education is currently working on a review of the New Zealand Curriculum, and ahead of that we’re already seeing a number of early changes or additions to what schools are expected to be focused on – NZ Histories, strengthening local curriculum, Digital Technologies Curriculum, Inclusive Education, Early Literacy and School Leavers toolkit to name a few.

While all of these things are arguably important and deserve to have a place in our school curriculum, the bigger question is ‘how do these things (and others) address the ‘wicked problems’ that NZCER have signalled should be the focus of our efforts to develop in our learners the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21st century wicked problem solving.

Don’t get me wrong, in order to achieve this it will be important to understand our place in the world, and be aware of key aspects of New Zealand’s histories and how these have influenced and shaped the nation. Likewise, it will be important to ensure that all learners have the opportunity to become digitally capable individuals – just as much as they will need to be literate and numerate in a range of areas. But the boundaries need to be pushed further in the activity in schools, so that our young people are able to take these areas of skill, knowledge and disposition, and apply them in ways that will contribute to meaningful change in areas that are currently threatening our ability to sustain ourselves on this planet.

These are the ‘wicked problems’ that have been identified, written about and given priority by the UN in their Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. What could be more important than that in the lives of those such as my grandchildren and the millions of others like them?

So how could the SDGs be used in schools? Might they simply provide a context for learning, or could they be something more? What if they became the framework for the curriculum itself? What if, as way of understanding the impact of our education system we could provide measures based on the extent of change being made in each or any of the 17 areas identified in the SDGs?

Dr. Jennifer Williams,  Co-founder of TeachSDGs, believes that the Sustainable Development Goals provide a roadmap for educators looking for ways to take action for the planet and its people through inquiry and collaboration. Around the world there are a growing number of educators who are taking this challenge, revising and reforming the way they operate and the design of their curriculum. For example, Authentic Learning Lab and Think Global School.

The exciting thing here is that the SDGs can provide a context for both large scale, global projects as well as locally focused action. They cannot be addressed without considering the things that have occurred in the past, the histories that have led us to this point. And addressing them requires the ability to communicate, research and share information, including digitally. As such, all aspects of the NZ Curriculum could be adequately addressed – plus some! We’d actually see a change being made that may bring hope to the corners of our world that are currently looking bleak.

More importantly, we’d see some of that hope ignited in the minds and hearts of our young people – giving them a confidence that these ‘wicked problems’ that they face are indeed able to be faced, just in ways that are different to the ways that the generations that preceded them were taught.

As we look ahead to a new school year in 2021, perhaps there is time to reflect on how the SDGs might feature in the curriculum in your classroom or school? There’s so much of this happening already in pockets around the country – but what if we embraced the SDGs as the framework for our national curriculum? Imagine what we might be able to achieve.

There is no more powerful transformative force than education—to promote human rights and dignity, to eradicate poverty and deepen sustainability, to build a better future for all, founded on equal rights and social justice, respect for cultural diversity, and international solidarity and shared responsibility, all of which are fundamental aspects of our common humanity.”

Irina Bokova, former Director-General of UNESCO

[To find links to readings and teacher resources for the SDGs check out my SDG page on the FutureMakers website]

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