Education to achieve the SDGs

Making the SDGs a reality will require people with new mindsets as well as new skills. Education is critical, and must rise to the challenge of enabling learners to drive sustainable development forward at the scale and pace required


School children in Watamu, Kenya learning about conservation, release a sea turtle back in the ocean. © Cyril Villemain/UNEP

The world has less than a decade left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The COVID-19 pandemic has made meeting this deadline even harder. Even before the pandemic, no country was on track to achieve all the SDGs (as seen in the Sustainable Development Report 2020).

The pandemic has brought about greater awareness of our vulnerability and of the urgency of advancing sustainable development with multidisciplinary solutions. It has highlighted the role of science and the complexity of the challenges we face, interconnected across disciplines, sectors, and countries. It has also shown the breakthroughs that science can achieve within months if scientists are able to share their knowledge, and if the public and private sectors work together. We now have an opportunity to change how we confront the challenge of sustainable development and enact the deep transformations that are required.

To succeed in the biggest challenge of our time, education will be vital. Achieving the SDGs requires a shared understanding of sustainable development, including the complex interactions between systems, as well as advanced mechanisms to bridge across sectors and disciplines. Education processes can expand a comprehensive and multidisciplinary body of knowledge, as well as contribute to changing how we analyze and confront problems. Achieving the SDGs will not just require people with the right skill sets, but also new mindsets, more cooperative processes, and real-life applications. Through education, learners can make links between theory and concrete challenges, opening up new opportunities to improve the lives of people within our communities. In being trained to find and pursue realistic opportunities to achieve change, learners can be empowered as active actors in shaping their future, creating new narratives of hope for the future.


The SDGs require deep and radical transformations in each country and in the way we approach every one of our activities. Current education systems and pedagogies at all levels are ill equipped for preparing learners to take on ownership and leadership at the scale and pace required by the SDGs. We describe three challenges below.

First, the interdisciplinary nature of the SDGs is at odds with the focus on specialization that is a defining feature of higher education. The Accelerating Education for the SDGs in Universities guide proposes a number of examples of how to successfully support cross-university, interdisciplinary collaboration on education for the SDGs that can address the need to train specialists who are also able to work across epistemological fields. Such efforts need to begin at the institution level. Avenues for cross-disciplinary projects or areas of research and practice need to be developed within universities.

Second, high schools and universities lack trained teachers or sufficient resources to cover all SDG-relevant fields of knowledge. Educators will need to identify opportunities to work with resources outside of their institutions, including:

  • financial resources
  • involvement of working professionals as adjunct professors or invited speakers
  • recognition of collaborative projects as part of their formal curriculum

Third, the fields of study covered by the SDGs are evolving in real time. We are constantly grappling with new evidence, new challenges and new solutions. Academia needs to keep up with these developments and build them into its existing body of knowledge. This is a challenge for those fields of study where deliberative, careful research is the norm, and where evidence needs to pass through several layers of scrutiny before taking its place as established wisdom. It is exacerbated by the democratization of information and the shift in the role of the instructor from being the font of knowledge to being the curator of knowledge. Educators need to be much more agile and adept at processing new information, while at the same time keeping to the high standards that define their field.

Educating for the SDGs today

Through the SDG Academy and the recently published report on accelerating education for the SDGs in universities (mentioned above), SDSN has been proposing ways to address the key principles of an evolving education in the service of the SDGs. These principles include:

  • interdisciplinarity (working across traditional silos and disciplines of knowledge)
  • systemic approaches (studying societies and economies as single systems to better understand sub parts)
  • action-based learning (grounded in real-life problem solving)
  • multi-actor involvement (recognizing the role of different stakeholders)
  • solutions-oriented approaches (applying knowledge to practice)

As part of this work, SDSN has identified over 300 cases from universities from around the world that can help inspire other teaching institutions and promote scaling.

Universities are taking diverse approaches that are well suited to their contexts. Some are organizing activities to raise awareness in their communities, such as social media campaigns, public events, or co-curricular activities that focus on sustainable development. For example, ‘entrepreneurship challenges’ or ‘living labs’ are processes that can bridge across sectors. They can gain the wide interest of local communities while providing students with opportunities to develop the skills and mindsets of sustainable development. These activities allow a degree of design innovation that can be difficult to implement in a formal curriculum.

Other institutions are incorporating the SDGs into their existing curriculum via SDG-focused capstone projects, case study analysis, exercises, lectures, or readings. The SDG Academy has reached over 850,000 learners across 193 countries with its content of over 35 courses, covering topics of the SDGs. The courses are taught online by faculty from different parts of the world, and focus on solutions that work. An important focus is to teach learners the range of actions needed at different scales of implementation (local, national, global), and to help understand what works in different contexts. More importantly, a global cohort of learners fosters a multi-cultural dialogue, exposing students to ways of examining the same challenge from different lenses.

SDSN is also working, through its Global Schools Program and Mission 4.7, with ministries of education to review existing curricula from the perspective of the SDGs. The aim is to understand how best to update and integrate sustainable development topics into existing pedagogies.

This shortlist of examples shows that institutions of many sorts are advancing education for the SDGs. However, the scale of the necessary transformations to achieve the SDGs will require mainstreaming sustainable development education and drastically scaling up successful initiatives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in just 15 months, mirrored the challenges and opportunities we face in sustainable development: the enormity of a global challenge, experienced differently in different parts of the world; the need for collective solutions, driven by science, but localized for impact; the need to keep pace with an evolving challenge and multiple sources of information around it; and the dangers of fragmentation, both of knowledge and effort, in limiting our ability to collectively address the most critical challenges of our times.

We have a unique opportunity to build a generation that can create a more just, equal, prosperous, and sustainable world. Let us, educators worldwide, not squander that opportunity. Let us work to create education systems that are fit for purpose to achieve the SDGs. 

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