Pay attention. Feel connected. Take action.
These three guiding principles are the blueprint for project- and problem-based learning through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Teachers around the globe have embraced the SDGs as a teaching tool, and with good reason.
When students apply what they learn in class to real-life problems that exist in their community and beyond, learning becomes powerful, deep, and relevant. Students take charge of their own learning and feel empowered by it. Community stakeholders become involved in supporting student-led initiatives to make the world a better place.
When teachers give students the tools and resources to be global problem-solvers, students get a head start on developing 21st century skills, which are competencies for ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working, and skills for living. These are critical elements for success in school and in the workplace and prepare students to be effective, engaged citizens in their community.
P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning breaks down these competencies into three categories: learning and innovation skills; information, media, and technology skills; and life and career skills. This framework also includes the following 21st century themes:
- Global awareness
- Financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy
- Civic literacy
- Health literacy
- Environmental literacy
These themes are interwoven into all of the SDGs, and opportunities to use 21st century skills abound when students follow the guiding principles: pay attention, feel connected, and take action. Let’s see how each principle provides students the opportunity to develop these skills.
When we pay attention, we begin to see a problem, understand its causes, and recognize that it may look different in our community than in other parts of the world. This is where information, media, and technology skills come into play.
Imagine that students are focusing on SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. Students might investigate how a water crisis looks different in Newark, New Jersey; Chennai, India; and Cape Town, South Africa. In order to learn more about this issue and how it might be alike and different in these places, students must rely on digital literacy skills.
Through the use of technology, they might consult a variety of sources on the subject and evaluate their validity. At the same time, students would engage in cultural awareness skills to think critically about the perspectives represented in the sources they read.
Once we recognize and begin to develop an understanding of a problem, we are able to connect information and data with experience—both our own and that of others. We may wonder, What would we do if our school or our community didn’t have access to clean water? or, depending on our context, What could we do if we didn’t have access to clean water?
When students step into this space of empathy, they begin to develop the social and emotional awareness that compels them to take action. Teaching the SDGs builds bridges among those competencies for ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working, and skills for living that 21st century skills provide.
At the same time, 21st century skills enable students to test answers to the questions, What would we do? or What could we do? Students in North Carolina might learn more about the global water crisis first-hand through a virtual exchange opportunity with students in another part of the world.
Likewise, in a documentary film or photo essay, they may hear the story of someone in another part of the world grappling with a global challenge and recognize how that challenge affects all of us. Critical thinking, collaboration, and effective communication will all enable the principle, feel connected.
Once students connect to a global issue with empathy and understanding, they are primed to take action. What might that look like in an SDG-focused classroom?
Fifteen-year-old Shreya Ramachandran explored the use of grey water for irrigation in her drought-prone home state, California. A finalist in the 2018-19 Google Science Fair, Ramachandran has created a nonprofit organization encouraging water conservation. Creativity, innovative thinking, collaboration, leadership, and media skills are at the heart of student-led projects like this one.
When teachers introduce project- and problem-based learning through the SDGs, they encourage students to develop a mindset that will make them engaged citizens who recognize challenges in their communities. They develop the perspective, confidence, and sense of personal responsibility needed to tackle them. Collaboration, critical thinking, and innovative problem-solving are crucial 21st century skills that students will build when they engage in learning that is focused around addressing the SDGs.