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Engaging with the Sustainable Development Goals – A Secondary Teacher’s Experience

Fri 17th August 2018 - Schools and early learning & childcare settings, Sustainable Development Goals

6 ways to improve secondary level engagement using the UN Sustainable Development Goals 

united nation sustainable development goals image

Through learner engagement with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, secondary teacher Jo Fraser has recognised the positive impact on the pupils she worked with and is excited about the diverse and significant opportunities for learning that arise when embedded throughout the secondary curriculum. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended for the pursuit of all: from individuals, through communities and local organisations, to governments and International Organisations.

In Scotland’s Year of Young people, it is widely recognised that our young learners can make substantial contributions to achieving these goals. In addition to ending poverty, fighting inequalities and tackling climate change, pursuing the SDGs provides opportunities for learners to personally benefit from the experience, as taking action towards the SDGs can be empowering and fulfilling. Utilisation of appropriate pedagogies develops learners’ skills and values. The aim of Learning for Sustainability is ‘transformative learning’, which results in behavioural change. This requires an understanding of the issues, solutions and their contexts, thus develops systems thinking. In addition, self-reflection is required for transformative learning and is co-dependent upon the learner’s developing values.

Aspects of the work shared here have been given recognition in the following ways: as the subject of a Round Square case study, to fulfil the requirements of the Keep Scotland Beautiful E3 Energy, Enterprise and Environment course, as a major component of my application for Professional Recognition in Learning for Sustainability which I was recently awarded by the GTCS, and as the basis for my nomination for ‘Global Educator of the Year award 2018’ by Global Action Plan’s ‘Water Explorers’.

From my experiences, here is my advice for other practitioners with notes on the particular approach I used in my school – with an emphasis on secondary education:

1. Generate awareness and understanding of the SDGs

Finding time for this aspect, particularly in Secondary school is challenging. The SDGs were first used as a focus for our work on Environmentalism in 2016. Engaging with the SDGs is now part of the success criteria required for schools to obtain their Green Flag award from Eco Schools Scotland. Why not make use of the resources provided on The World’s Largest Lesson website? After doing so, your work can be uploaded onto the website alongside all the schools which have participated worldwide, thus giving pupils a feel of being part of a global movement. In 2016 our Eco reps presented a lesson introducing the SDGs to their year group class. In 2017 we ran an assembly on the subject. Variation of the method of delivery from year to year avoids unnecessary repetition and maintains novelty.

2. Prioritise pupil voice to achieve maximum engagement

Holding an election to select a focus from the SDGs give learners an integral part in planning this aspect of their education. This year, pupils from nursery-1 to S6 voted. We included the whole school community by offering teaching staff, non-teaching staff and parents a vote. Our S5 Eco rep found Survey Monkey relatively easy to set up to capture the information needed. We also gave the local community input through a survey in the village, this gave the pupils involved a sense of responsibility and achievement. Thus far we have included only environmental SDGs (Goals 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). We plan to expand our election in September 2018 as our deeper understanding of the SDGs has allowed us to feel confident in linking environmentalism to any goal and also create opportunities to engage other aspects of the pupil experience including Service, Citizenship and Outdoor Education.

We also utilised House group time (a timetabled active learning lesson including pupils from P7-S6 and sometimes P1-S6) to engage pupils in the planning stages. S6 Prefects were given a valuable leadership experience when they instructed pupils to brainstorm the issues associated with each SDG. Pupils suggested actions to take under the categories of ‘individual’, ‘local/Scotland’ and ‘international/Global’ (SDG targets are useful for providing focus for this activity). The ideas were then refined by myself through consultation with Eco committee and Eco prefect (including representatives who are democratically elected by their year groups).

3. Turn planning into action using resources readily available

Implementing pupils’ ideas using internet programmes and resources already available cuts down on workload. Programmes can offer inspiration, context and often rewards to aspire to. We found that ‘Water Explorer’s’ provides ideal resources and activities to address Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. The programme has built in opportunities for pupil reflection on their values together with the activities they have done, as well as the competitive point gathering element and final in London.

All four of our House groups wanted to conserve bees in order to contribute to Goal 15: Life on Land. Grow wild lists a variety of community projects that can be linked to this SDG. We worked with ‘On the Verge’ to plant wildflowers in our Eco garden and are going to expand these into other areas of the school this term. Roots and shoots offers great resources and also has an award program which would complement several of the SDGs including Goal 15.

4. Add variety and maximise impact by participating in activities at different levels

These are other activities that we have found to be successful for Secondary pupils:

  • Individual level:
    • Pupils made pledges to change their behaviour or carry out an activity of their choice e.g. water saving pledges written on water droplets or bee-conserving actions on a hexagon (SDGs 6, 15).
    • Assessing personal energy consumption using meter readings (SDG 7, 11, 12) or environmental footprint (SDG 7, 11, 12, 14, 15) using the WWF calculator.
    • Participating in Citizen Science through zooniverse including Orangutan nest watch and the Plastic Tide.
    • Writing letters to companies: in 2016 we asked cosmetics companies to remove microbeads from their products.
  • Class/school level:
    • I would recommend the following POD activities, which can involve monitoring if so desired: Whats under your feet? (SDG 11, 15), Waste week (SDG 7, 11, 12, 13, 15) and Switch off Fortnight (SDG 7, 11, 12, 13, 15). S1 pupils gave an assembly to primary pupils on their POD campaign, this could form part of a transition programme.
  • Community level
    • Our Eco committee picks litter in the local community annually (SDG 11, 12, 14, 15). Keep Scotland Beautiful provides a clean up kit and resources for such activities.
    • In response to pupil interest in plastic pollution, a temporary pupil focus group was formed to take action. One of the things they elected to do was to host a community event (SDG 12, 14, 15, 17), this was prompted by my participation on E3 Energy, Enterprise and Environment course. A community event is a logical way to extend pupils’ actions beyond the school and could help create useful contacts. The pupils gave presentations and delivered active-learning based tasks designed to generate ideas to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. As a result, myself and an IT teacher are liaising with the University of Stirling to offer a joint project between a Computing Science MSc student and Beaconhurst pupils involving the creation of an app to combat plastic pollution.
  • National/international level
    • We have worked with Fairtrade Stirling to raise money for Fairtrade Rice Growers in Malawi to purchase a solar-powered water pump (SDG 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 17)
    • The Eco committee and Service committee ran a dress down day with a variety of activities to raise awareness and money for the Oxfam Haiti Hurricane appeal (SDG 2, 3, 6, 9).
    • The Eco committee upcycled items to sell at the PTA fair along with donated sketches, and donated the proceeds to The World Land Trust to purchase and conserve rainforest (SDG 11, 15).
    • Pupils took the decision to have an Eco focus, ‘Building a Sustainable Scotland’, for the European and Mediterranean Round Square conference we are hosting in January 2019. We will recruit guest speakers and create a spirit of collaboration between pupils from participating schools.

5. Invest time for pupil reflection to achieve transformative learning

With time pressures, it is all too easy to indefinitely postpone reflection time. The sense of achievement felt through reflection and the opportunity to then create informed, specific and practical targets are one of the most beneficial aspects of the LfS experience. I am currently trialling an ‘Eco passport’ in which pupils record their LfS experiences. Experiences are documented according to the school value that the pupil chooses to link their learning to, thus encouraging the skills of evaluation and synthesis. The passports can then be shared with tutors and parents.

6. Share and celebrate achievements

This is a no-brainer… if it’s worth doing then it’s worth sharing within and beyond the school. These are the ways we have acknowledged pupils’ achievements, thus instilling self-worth and inspiring others: celebrations at assembly, Head Teachers certificates, prize giving awards for Service/Ambition/Integrity/Respect, and as posts on the school’s Eco facebook and twitter feeds. We have also shared our work beyond the school in the form of blogs, news stories and teaching experiences and resources on Sustainability-related websites such as water explorers. As a result, LfS has a higher profile within our school and we will have a specific school calendar for LfS activities for the next school year. In addition, we plan on using LfS as a way of developing pupils’ health and wellbeing through our values-based education in year group classes. We are also considering creating a new Prefect role of ‘Global Guardian’ based on the work of Mary Robinson. This role will be strongly linked to the SDGs and provide a voice for future generations within our school. I anticipate that this will lead to further innovations.

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I hope that by sharing my experience of engaging with LfS and the SDGs, I have highlighted the benefits to pupils and inspired other teachers to engage and investigate some of the resources linked in this blog. Please get in touch if you have any questions, want to collaborate or simply want to chat about LfS.