PBL and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are designed to address global challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The Goals interconnect and leave no one behind.

The world in which students live is ever more globally connected. These goals can help students relate to their world thinking locally, nationally, and globally. For our students, it is important for them to understand what is happening around them before they can think bigger in terms of national and global connections. Using the Gold Standard PBL model from the Buck Institute as a framework for pedagogical consideration of the UN Sustainability Goals, consider the connections below:


Connecting the UN Sustainability Goals and Gold Standard PBL:

  • Authenticity: The sustainability goals connect to every student’s future. Depending on age and experience, these goals can connect to a student’s personal life and/or be adapted to national and global ideas encouraging students to apply knowledge and skills to extend their thinking.
  • Challenging Problem: The U.N Sustainability Goals provide challenging issues that the people of the world will need to deal with in the coming decade. These problems cut across a variety of academic disciplines with areas of concern including Earth Systems, Human Activities, and the Earth, Poverty, Health, Equality, Economics, and Food Security.
  • Sustained Inquiry: Regardless of the sustainability goal addressed, students will need to engage in the asking of questions and the defining of problems. This activity will require students to conduct research in a variety of ways which will lead to more questions. The information gathered will help to decide on potential solutions to problems and the application of knowledge and information.
  • Critique and Revision: As part of the potential solution process, students will give and receive feedback to/from peers, group members, and teachers. They will apply these ideas to improve processes and products.
  • Reflection: Throughout all aspects of the learning experiences students will need to reflect on their audience, the problem/project, processes, potential solutions, and the strategies and potential issues throughout the experience.
  • Student Voice and Choice: As the students work through a performance task associated with a sustainability goal the students may be given choices related to the project, processes, solution, and how they create the solution. The teacher determines which choices to provide for the students and how much voice they have in the decision-making process. This may be determined based on student experience and knowledge.
  • Public Product: The importance of the student’s work for their own learning and for the many benefits beyond the classroom, students should have the opportunity to share their work with a public audience. This audience may be in the form of local, national, or international stakeholders. If this is not possible, other students and/or classrooms may serve as the public helping to provide meaning and appreciation for what the students have accomplished.

Educators and educational leaders can connect the U.N Sustainability Goals to the classroom curriculum through the determination of the Key Knowledge that students will need to begin solving the challenge associated with the goal. Providing authentic learning experiences through the sustainability goals gives students opportunities for the transfer of knowledge and application of content and skills.

Defined Learning provides many performance tasks that connect the Sustainable Goals to classroom curriculum through PBL.

Here are 3 performance tasks that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

  • Elementary School Task: App Developer: Friendships. In this task, students will explore what friendship means to them. This ties to the theme of UN SDG #17: Partnerships.
  • Middle School Task: Endangered Species Biologist. In this task, students will explore Goal #15: Life On Land; This goal addressses working together to protect our planet's plants, insects, and animals.
  • High School Task: Civil Engineer: Urban Heat Islands. This task connects to Goal #11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. It places each student in the role of an environmental consultant who works with major developers of urban areas to encourage the use of green strategies.
Looking at these sustainability goals through the lens of problem and project-based learning, the possible authentic learning experiences aligned with standards are enormous.

About the author:

Dr. David L. Reese serves as Chief Academic Officer for Defined Learning. During the past twenty years, Dr. Reese has served K-12 students as a science teacher, Curriculum Specialist, and Central Office Administrator. He has taught Masters and Doctoral courses in all areas of curriculum and professional development leadership. His work has focused upon providing students with engaging, relevant learning opportunities designed to encourage students to apply content from a local, national and international perspective.


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