Bring the SDGs into Your Teaching

Broad Overview

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide a useful lens for aligning content in your module or programme with broader societal challenges.   As a lens, the SDGs can enable teaching staff to:

  • Demonstrate ways to advance sustainability from a discipline
  • Frame inter- and transdisciplinary discussions
  • Highlight issues of local and regional concern
  • Connect the curriculum to global issues and expand students’ world views

Global challenges such as climate change, mass human migration or biodiversity loss connect with a number of SDG targets which demonstrates the need for inter or transdisciplinary responses.  The SDGs provide a common language and an action-oriented framework to bridge the gaps between academic disciplines and create partnerships amongst governments, business sectors and educational institutions.  SDG Target 4.7 perhaps best articulates the role of teaching staff with regards to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD):

By 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

In the Irish context, culture has been proposed as a fourth pillar for ESD along with environment, society and economy since culture can be viewed as a key enabler for effective societal transitions1.

Disciplinary Linkages with the SDGs

Disciplinary expertise is critically important for creating new knowledge and innovations needed to advance the SDGs and overarching 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Direct linkages can be made between specific SDG targets and most modules, courses and disciplines.  For example, the research, teaching and learning within health sciences inherently work to advance SDG 3 targets such as vaccine development, cures for communicable diseases and reducing maternal mortality.  Engineering can often map to SDG 7 Clean Energy production or SDG 11 Sustainable Cities while the social sciences connect directly with a variety of SDGs targets focused on social justice or equality. 

The connections between some disciplines and the SDGs might be less obvious or need further development/articulation/consideration.  For example, the Arts or Humanities may choose to explore themes such as environmental conservation or societal inequalities.  Furthermore, History or Archaeology might choose to examine evidence of unsustainable practices that may have led to the collapse of ancient civilizations and offer context for our current challenges. In cases such as these, connections between lecture content and the SDGs can be signposted and placed within a broader sustainabilty framework.

The SDGs address many wicked or VUCA problems that can be characterized as having unforeseen implications and competing interests; appearing fuzzy with a multiplicity of variables; having patchy supporting data; and requiring inter- and transdisciplinary solutions.  These wicked problems can thus be approached with a complex systems-oriented approach2.  The power of transdisciplinarity can then be realized whenever individuals from various disciplines equitably collaborate around the shared focus and language offered by the SDGs. However, as indicated in Figure 1, a crucial starting point is in establishing firstly, a shared understanding of the SDGs and secondly, sustainability both within the discipline and across the institution as we work to advance this common set of goals.


Fig 1. Word cloud key words defining sustainability as expressed by students and staff during the piloting of SDG Toolkit resources at University College Cork as we explored our shared institutional language. 


Please consider the following questions as you continue to explore the SDG Toolkit:

  • Which SDG or SDG Target best relates to your curriculum?  See SDG Mapping Tools below.
  • What change do you expect to make to your curriculum to integrate this SDG?
  • Can you identify when, where and how to explicitly link your curriculum to the SDGs? 
  • Will you consider Students as Partners in this process?
  • What resources would enhance the student experience?  See SDG Resource Library below.
  • How will you document this process?  For example, module learning outcomes expressing what students are expected to know and do in their assessment.  Could the SDGs be integrated as a performance of understanding within an assessment?
  • How would you share your findings and make them public?  Such artefacts might include a short guide, a research poster, a podcast, a presentation, a conference paper.  Would you share artifacts through our Community of Interest?


SDG Tools & Resources

Learning and Teaching is considered a cornerstone of the UN 2030 Agenda as institutional knowledge accrued within HEIs can spill over into local communities through graduates and partnerships3.   Developing competencies, fostering core values and providing transformative experiences are all key elements of empowering individuals on a lifelong learning journey.  The following tools can be used to support you to identify linkages between your curriculum and the SDGs (mapping) and to uncover resources to use in the teaching of sustainability (digital library).



Learning and Teaching Approaches

The Need for Taking Action

A central aspect of education for sustainable development is a focus on action-oriented pedagogies. Through action-oriented learning, students engage in specific activities and reflect on their experiences with regards to the intended learning process and their personal development.  Action-oriented learning can deepen the acquisition of knowledge, support development of competencies, and foster realignment of values as learners puts theory into practice4.   It draws on pedagogical approaches that promote active, participatory, and inquiry-based methods to foster development of key dispositions and skills necessary to motivate and inspire learners to take action for sustainable development5-7.

Some practice-based examples of this include:

  • Inquiry based learning in the chemistry lab
  • Peer discussion in the lecture theatre or tutorial room prompted by a reflective assignment or task
  • Collaborative learning in the architectural design studio

There is also a growing body of literature suggesting that the fear and worry of eco- or climate anxiety can be transformed through action and hope8-10.  Thus, when our students develop a deep understanding of disciplinary knowledge and values aligned with sustainable development, they can become more adaptable within the context of a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world and can be motivated and empowered to take action in the present moment which in theory should reduce the adverse effects of hopelessness.  A practical example of taking action was raised during student focus sessions informing development of this toolkit.  Students expressed interest in assignments around the topic of climate change in the form of short videos which could subsequently be shared on their social media platforms.  Such an approach would support a number of graduate attributes such as being communicators of knowledge, socially responsible and effective global citizens.


A Deeper Dive: Curriculum Design

The following sections provide a series of design prompts to help you consider how to design learning to integrate the SDGs.

As you reflect upon your curriculum, it is helpful to consider the 6 Learning Types11 of acquisition, inquiry, discussion, practice, collaboration, and production, and to examine the extent to which learners engage in these during a module as they begin to develop and integrate concepts and practices. Acquisition is necessary for students to find inroads into their discipline. Student understanding can be greatly enhanced through the sequencing of other active-learning approaches such as discussion, collaboration and inquiry, culminating in the production of a learning artefact demonstrating their understanding. 

These activities can be supported or modified to suit different learning environments and spaces including online learning. The following figure suggests some digital tools which can support these activities (Fig. 2). You may need to consult with your IT department to determine which are supported by your institution.


Pie diagram showing icons of digital resources in relation to 6 LEarning Types

 Fig. 2. The 6 Learning Types of acquisition, inquiry, discussion, practice, collaboration, and production are presented as wedges in the circle along with the digital resources that can be utilized to support an effective array of potential student learning experiences.  Learning management systems such as Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard and D2L are placed at the centre of the circle since they can be utilized to support all 6 Learning Types.


Learning Outcomes and Competences

A key goal of education for sustainable development is to achieve transformative sustainability learning (TSL). This is a departure from typical teaching and learning in Higher Education which tends to privilege cognitive development. While cognitive learning is highly regarded for developing reasoning skills and critical thinking, it neglects ethical values or the action-based psychomotor experiences which TSL views as critical for holistic human development. The head, hands, and heart model12 was thus developed and reimagines the cognitive, psychomotor and affective learning domains advanced in Bloom’s Taxonomy13.

In the Irish HE system, modules are described in terms of Learning Outcomes. Learning activities and assessments are designed to support students to acquire the specified Learning Outcomes, an approach known as constructive alignment. When seeking to integrate SDGs in teaching, a module or programme should expand its focus to consider socio-emotional and behavioural domains5.  UCC’s Academic Strategy7 states that “the Bologna process and its Learning Outcomes model speak to the connected nature of learning and its outcomes and impact” Learning outcomes need to be clearly articulated for the learner so that they may realize the relatedness of material within a module or course of study14.

Some examples of Learning Outcomes which speak to the SDGs include.  At the end of this period of learning, the student will be able to:

  • explain basic ecology with reference to local and global ecosystems, identify local species and categorize biodiversity (Head)
  • argue against destructive environmental practices that cause biodiversity loss (Heart)
  • connect with local groups working toward biodiversity conservation in their area (Hands)
  • reflect on how individual lifestyle choices influence social, economic and environmental development (Head)
  • envision sustainable lifestyles (Heart)
  • plan, implement and evaluate consumption-related activities using existing sustainability criteria (Hands)

In some professional courses and other HE sectors, student learning is also articulated in terms of the acquisition of competences, i.e. knowledge, skills and attributes. These tend to be more general and consider the learning across a whole programme. Learning Outcomes describe what a student will be able to do in a measurable way. Competences can be drawn on to articulate programme level learning outcomes or to scaffold skills and attribute development over a number of modules or years. Core competences have been identified for education for sustainable development which include5:

  • Systems thinking competency - understanding relationships and analysing complex systems
  • Anticipatory competency - creating a vision of the future with a multiplicity of uncertain outcomes
  • Normative competency - understanding and reflecting upon norms and values as expressed by the individual
  • Strategic competency - developing and implementing plans for long term actions
  • Collaboration competency - the ability to function effectively within teams, often aided by the refinement of soft-skills
  • Critical thinking competency - questioning accepted norms and conventions based on one's values
  • Self-awareness competency - reflecting upon one's place, behaviours, and actions both locally and globally
  • Integrated problem-solving competency - application of problem-solving methods and skills on complex VUCA scenarios

These competences suggest a range of different skills and behaviours which can be thoughtfully developed through integrating SDGs in the curriculum.


Student Success

Many Higher Education institutions have expressed a commitment to addressing global societal challenges including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and encourage staff to reflect on what and how they teach8.  Within the realm of learning and teaching, we are called upon to “develop graduates who are socially and ethically responsible global citizens, equipped for personal and professional success” and to “enhance employability by developing learners as socially responsible, globally aware, critical thinkers equipped for life-long, life-wide learning9.


What’s Next

Consider deepening your practice with a range of CIRTL professional development workshops with sustainability themes such as the SDG Workshops or Connected Curriculum Design Sprints.  You may also advance your career with credit-bearing programmes in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education where activities and portfolio assessments can take an ESD focus as you reflect upon your teaching practice.  More information can be found through CIRTL.

You might also consider enriching your understand of the SDGs through a university-wide module such as Sustainability (UW0005) or Global Sustainable Development: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (UW1201).

Free, open educational resources and online CPD training from the world’s leading experts on sustainable development are available at the SDG Academy. 

Additional Tools for Teaching and Learning Enhancement



  1. Department of Education (2021) Ireland’s Education for Sustainable Development Strategy to 2030, Consultation Paper.
  2. Weber JM, Lindenmeyer CP & Lapkin AA (2021) Teaching sustainability as complex systems approach: a sustainable development goals workshop.  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.  Vol. 22(8), pp. 25-41.
  3. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2014) Sustainable development begins with education.
  4. Kolb, D. A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall
  5. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2018) Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning Objectives
  6. Department of Education (2014) ‘Education for Sustainability’ The National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland, 2014-2020
  7. UCC's Academic Strategy (2018 - 2022).
  8. Panu P (2020) Anxiety and the ecological crisis: An analysis of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety.  Sustainability: 2020(12), 7836. 
  9.  Wu J, Snell G & Samji H (2020) Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action.    Vol 4, October 2020, e435-e436.
  10. Hayes K, Blashki G, Wiseman J, Burke S & Reifels L (2018) Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions.  International Journal of Mental Health Systems: 12(28). 
  11. Laurillard, D (2016) Introduction to the six learning types.
  12. Sipos Y, Battisti B & Grimm K (2008) Achieving transformative sustainability learning: Engaging head, hands and heart. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9, 68-86.
  13. Bloom BS, Masia BB & Krathwohl DR (1964), Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Two Volumes: The Affective Domain & The Cognitive Domain), David McKay & Co., New York, NY.
  14. Biggs J (2012) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning.  Higher Education Research & Development, 31:39-55.

SDG Toolkit for Teaching and Learning

UCC Green Campus Programme & the Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning

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SDG Curriculum Toolkit by John Barimo, Catherine O’Mahony, Gerard Mullally, John O’Halloran, Edmond Byrne, Darren Reidy, Maria Kirrane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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