The Sustainable Development Goals in curriculum: From experience to possibilities

Photo credit: Eleni Afiontzi, Unsplash CC0

In this post for the monthly series on ‘Embedding sustainability in the curriculum’, Catherine Dunn and Jack Reed, both former Masters students in Outdoor Education, reflect on engaging and concrete ways to incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in the curriculum…

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals that outline a shared blueprint aiming to enhance and strengthen the welfare of both humans and the planet. The goals are a critical call to action and range from intergovernmental level processes to the actions we all take as individuals daily; they represent what we should be striving towards in a progressively sustainable environment. In 2018, the University of Edinburgh signed the SDG accord, which recognises the centrality of education in delivering the SDGs whilst serving as a commitment to do more across the university to deliver the goals. The Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings in 2020 will also be assessing universities against the 17 SDGs. It is therefore important to consider the current place and possible impacts of incorporating the SDGs across the university’s curricula. To do this, we will first explore our experience of the SDGs on our programme, the MSc in Outdoor Education, before considering a critique of the SDGs and how curricula across the university could seek to include them in their aims and outcomes.

Our Experience

The SDGs have featured prominently throughout the taught component of our MSc programme. They have been brought to life through outdoor and environmental education and interdisciplinary learning; we have experienced the SDGs across a breadth of subject areas and have come to understand their inherent interconnectedness. Indeed, this became apparent on our very first course, titled Interpreting the Landscape, where we spent an afternoon exploring Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. On that sunny afternoon in September 2018, we engaged in a breadth of educational activities across the park, acknowledging the park’s human and natural history, its geology and link to James Hutton, and the impact of policy and politics on such Scottish landscapes. Within this one educational episode we covered four SDGs, including: Good Health and Well-Being (3); Quality Education (4); Sustainable Cities and Communities (11); Life on Land (15). These educational episodes were consistent throughout our studies and allowed us to fully appreciate the relevance of the 17 SDGs in everything we do, from our practice as researchers to our aspirations as future educators.

“The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals”

Thinking outside the 17 boxes

However, it is worth noting that, whilst seeking to provide a global blueprint for social and environmental equity and welfare, the SDGs can appear abstract and could be criticised for being too ambitious and too vague. Of course, the social and environmental betterment the UN’s 17 goals could achieve is undeniable; yet, with a realist’s hat on, broad goals that do not acknowledge the inherent complexity and intersectional issues bound within them may seem dangerously ideological. Such critiques often point to the overly bureaucratised process that shaped the SDGs in the first place, which begs the question: has developing a goal for everyone created too much for anyone? Yet, despite such criticism, the SDGs should hold a fundamental place in higher education. Why? Because they provide humanitarian and environmental goals that learners can use to frame their work, whether locally, nationally or internationally. Viewing the SDGs as singular outcomes rather than an untouchable set of internationally imposed ideals, higher education could provoke meaningful and fruitful action from its learners across all disciplines.

The SDGs in higher education

Having discussed our own experience of the SDGs in higher education and the potential limitations of the goals, it seems pertinent to outline exactly how the UN’s 17 goals can inform higher education. For us, the SDGs came to life when contextualised in real-world scenarios, when learning out-of-doors and when our learning was explicitly rooted in pressing human and environmental narratives. This allowed us to move away from the idea of the SDGs as abstract ‘mega-goals’ and towards a more accessible understanding of the UN’s call to action. This meant we were able to proactively respond to specific goals by viewing them as local and actionable issues that were directly impacting our communities; it really was a case of ‘think global, act local’. So, beyond informing our own practice as outdoor educators and researchers, what impact could embedding the SDGs across higher education curricula truly have? By positioning relevant SDGs as specific curricula outcomes and contextualising such outcomes within local communities, learners could be encouraged to think more broadly about how their future practice intersects with human and environmental sustainability. Here, learners can critically engage with the SDGs, ensuring University of Edinburgh graduates can model sustainable practice in all aspects of their lives.

Catherine Dunn
Catherine completed her MSc in Outdoor Education at the University of Edinburgh in January 2020 with a thesis assessing the impact of all-female outdoor experiences on the life narratives of adolescent girls. She has been heavily involved in climate activism at Edinburgh University and has worked extensively with both the university executive and student-body.

Jack Reed

Jack completed his MSc in Outdoor Education at the University of Edinburgh in January 2020 with a thesis investigating the place, use and impact of fear in outdoor adventurous education. His work on the climate crisis at Edinburgh University aims to critically engage students and staff in calling for a more sustainable and carbon-neutral university.

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