What The UN Sustainable Development Goals Can Teach Us
By Dana Mortenson
If 2020 has taught us one thing, it’s that our world is extraordinarily interconnected. The COVID-19 pandemic originated in Wuhan — a city that few people outside of China had heard of before January. Yet by March, the virus had spread to our own backyards.
This pandemic illustrates the complex ways in which our lives are linked with others across the globe. Many of our most fundamental challenges — public health, climate change, civil unrest — are those least likely to respect national borders. In a globalized society, impacts ripple; global issues become local and personal (Case in point: on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, Minneapolis, where World Savvy is headquartered, will host a panel discussing local human rights challenges from the murder of George Floyd to disproportionate health, economic, and social impacts of COVID 19). And the glaring inequities that have been exposed by this crisis — in healthcare access and health outcomes, income, housing, and education, to name a few — demand action. That’s why it’s more important than ever to teach upcoming generations to act as empathetic, engaged global citizens. And one of the best tools for building this skillset is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Since their adoption in 2015, the SDGs have provided a framework for global progress on a range of urgent and systemic issues, from extreme poverty to environmental degradation. Leaders across the public, private, philanthropic, and other sectors utilize the SDGs in determining where and how to invest time and money to change the world for the better. The SDGs are our most comprehensive roadmap to improving the lives of billions, with specific, agreed-upon targets to meet by 2030.
All of this makes the SDGs a perfect teaching tool. At World Savvy, we believe that for young people to learn, work, and thrive as responsible global citizens, they must develop global competence (our next introductory session on teaching with SDGs is Jan. 28). Our education system relies too much on standardization and rote memorization; but these skills alone won’t position young people for success in an increasingly diverse and connected world. Global competence prepares students for that world by helping them understand globally significant issues, practice empathy, consider different perspectives, use critical thinking, and problem solve collaboratively. By grounding this education in the SDGs, teachers can engage students in active thinking about real-world challenges — which is shown to increase student engagement and attention.
The SDG framework can help students make sense not only of global issues, but of what’s happening in their own communities. For example, in teaching SDG 13 on climate action, educators can lead conversations about the wildfires that continue to rage along the West Coast of the United States, which have affected many students or people they know. They can then expand that conversation beyond our borders: In Brazil, the worst fires in more than a decade are currently burning in the Amazon rainforest. What do these fires have in common? How are they each impacting local communities? What can be done to mitigate this challenge and prevent it from becoming worse in the future? In this way, the SDGs can help students unpack the complexity of both local and global challenges, while also thinking about how we can solve them.
In fact, that’s why teaching the SDGs is so critical right now. We are facing a series of overlapping crises, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic actually reverses significant progress made in the last five years toward the SDGs. The most recent UN progress report notes that 71 million people are projected to be pushed back into extreme poverty, up to 132 million more people may face undernourishment, and the education of more than 500 million students is on hold because they can’t access remote schooling options. To steer this ship back on course for the 2030 SDG targets will take a collective effort — one that must not be led by any one generation, but by all of us.
The UN’s resolution adopting the SDGs states that “children and young women and men are critical agents of change and will find in the new Goals a platform to channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.” From the movement for climate action to protests against police brutality, we can see clearly that young people are engaged and ready to lead. Growing up in the fully globalized, digital age, they are more tapped into current events than any generations before them. Young people know what’s at stake; they don’t need an invitation from the UN or national leaders to take action. But they do need our support.
As educators, it’s our job to provide our students with the skills and resources they need to be effective problem solvers, to grapple with different perspectives, and to speak their truth and be heard. Teaching the SDGs is one step on this lifelong learning journey.