17 goals to transform our schools



Primary School, Secondary School



Introduction: 17 goals to transform our schools

Every day, teachers from all over the world ask themselves the same questions: what is good teaching and what characterises a good school?

In 2015, the United Nations provided globally recognised answers to these questions with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. Good teaching enables learners to contribute to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

A good school brings the 17 SDGs to life not only in the classroom, but throughout the entire school day and orients all its activities towards these sustainability goals (Whole School Approach). Competent teachers make a significant contribution to the implementation of Education for Sustainable Development. Many examples show that with a little courage and creativity, schools and lessons can indeed be transformed profitably on the basis of the 17 SDGs without undue effort.

„The sustainable development goals must be present - in all subjects, in all schools, in all minds and hearts.“

Jakob von Au

Jakob von Au

Author, secondary school teacher, lecturer and SDG coordinator in Heidelberg

Jakob von Au has been campaigning for education for sustainable development in schools, universities and extracurricular learning environments for over ten years.

He studied to become a teacher for biology, geography and sport and did his doctorate on outdoor education at the Institute for Natural Sciences, Geography and Technology at Heidelberg University of Education.

Today he works as a secondary school teacher, lecturer and SDG coordinator in Heidelberg.

Jakob von Au was excited about Science on Stage's "Act Now for the UN Sustainable Development Goals" project and agreed to write the introduction on the background of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The 2030 Agenda

Poverty, climate change, social inequality, loss of biodiversity - how can these and other immense global challenges be met in the 21st century? The 2030 Agenda provides answers to this question. What exactly is the 2030 Agenda and what impact does it have on schools and teaching?

The 2030 Agenda was adopted by the 193 member states of the United Nations in 2015. It is a catalogue of 17 overarching goals and 169 sub-goals to be achieved by 2030. This catalogue of goals is intended to cover all areas of sustainable development. This means developments that do not negatively affect life in any of the world’s countries or in future generations.

There is great hope that this agenda will trigger a fundamental change worldwide towards an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable way of life and economy. The original title "Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" makes the agenda’s ambitious claims clear and shows that it is a "transformative vision [...] of unprecedented scope and significance" (UN General Assembly, 2015, Points 5 and 7). Is the 2030 Agenda indeed an unprecedented agreement that is fundamentally different from other political action programmes?

Agenda 21 (1992) and the eight "Millennium Development Goals" (MDGs, 2000 to 2015) already pursued the goal of reconciling economic effectiveness with social justice, social participation and ecological sustainability. However, the effectiveness of these predecessors to the 2030 Agenda was limited mainly by their thematic focus.

The 2030 Agenda replaced these predecessor programmes and is significantly more comprehensive. It consists of five parts:

  • Preamble
  • Declaration of the heads of state and government
  • Sustainable development goals and targets
  • Means of implementation and global partnership
  • Follow-up and review

In the preamble, the goals are clearly divided into the areas of People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership. In the declaration, the governments emphasise the universal validity of the goals. This means that, in contrast to the eight MDGs, responsibility is shared and the goals are not only directed at the countries of the global South. It is also noteworthy that in comparison to the predecessor programmes, children's rights are explicitly emphasised as rights for the future, ecological objectives are highlighted and both the goals and means of implementation are formulated comparatively concretely.

Of course, some of the contents of the 2030 Agenda lead to controversial discussion. In class, for example, the following questions can be asked as a starting point for a discussion with students:

  • How can the goal of "reducing resource use" in the 2030 Agenda be reconciled with the goal of "sustainable economic growth"?
  • What challenges might arise if poor countries pursue the same goals as rich countries?
  • Some people call the 2030 Agenda a "toothless tiger" because it does not commit states to anything and progress in certain areas cannot even be verified. How would you rate this opinion?


Martens, J. & Obenland, W. (2017). Die Agenda 2030. Globale Zukunftsziele für nachhaltige Entwicklung. Bonn: Global Policy Forum. (August 2022).

UN General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York (August 2022)


Teaching ideas:

Discuss the following caricature in class: SDG-Birthday Cartoon (August 2022)

Introduction, In: UNESCO - Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning Objectives  (p. 10/11) (August 2022)

Further reading: (August 2022)

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Almost everyone in the world is now in agreement that we must fundamentally change our current way of life and economy in order to preserve the foundations of life for future generations. But what exactly might this change look like and what goals do we need to pursue?

"We are the first generation that can abolish poverty and the last generation that can fight climate change." With these words, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the great opportunity, but also the great responsibility of our generation. He highlights two important tasks for the global community: climate protection and the fight against poverty. Together with 15 other goals, these form the 17 SDGs, i.e. the global goals for sustainable development within the framework of the 2030 Agenda.

The 17 SDGs represent an attempt to draw a positive vision of the Earth in 2030 and to link it to measurable and verifiable goals. On a global scale, all 17 SDGs are equally important: SDG 2 (no hunger) is therefore no more important than SDG 3 (health and well-being). However, at national and local level, the individual SDGs, with their 169 sub-goals in total, need to be weighted. Many western countries are not directly affected by "extreme poverty" or "desertification", for example.

By formulating overarching goals, sub-goals and measures to achieve the goals, an attempt is made to break down the complex global challenges into manageable units. However, all these goals are interrelated. For example, to enable health and well-being (SDG 3), poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2) must be addressed, as well as education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5), clean water (SDG 6) and certainly life on land (SDG 15).

The SDGs in detail:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development
© UN


UN General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York. (August 2022)

Teaching inspiration:

SDG-Tracker: Measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  (August 2022)

The SDG-Tracker provides information, maps and charts about every SDG.

Further reading: (August 2022)  Maps including data on ecological footprints per country/person etc. (August 2022)

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

The 17 global sustainability goals in the 2030 Agenda show how the world must change to enable sustainable development. What role does education play in this transformation process? And how do education and teaching need to be transformed to become sustainable?

Many politicians and education experts believe that education is the key to achieving all the other Sustainable Development Goals. They refer to Nelson Mandela, among others, who believed that education was the most powerful weapon with which to change the world.

The fourth of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) puts education at the forefront. Under the title "Quality Education", inclusive, equitable and quality education should be ensured worldwide and opportunities for lifelong learning promoted for all. According to the United Nations, a central criterion for quality education is education for sustainable development (ESD). Target 4.7 reads:

"By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles [...]."


With reference to learners at school, ESD can be understood as follows:

"ESD aims at developing competencies that empower individuals to reflect on their own actions, taking into account their current and future social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts, from a local and a global perspective. Individuals should also be empowered to act in complex situations in a sustainable manner, which may require them to strike out in new directions; and to participate in socio-political processes, moving their societies towards sustainable development. "(UNESCO, 2017, p. 7)

Accordingly, ESD differs from other educational approaches in that it emphasises the future significance of one's own actions and the ability to sustainably change one's own actions. The aim is to promote, among other things, systemic thinking and action that includes interactions between ecology, economy and social issues. In the sense of a transformational and transdisciplinary education, ESD aims to transcend subject boundaries and broaden learning horizons in a variety of ways.

For teaching, ESD represents a universal guiding principle in which lessons are linked to the target perspectives of ESD in all subject areas. There are different strategies for implementing ESD in schools. One can categorise these strategies according to the depth of their integration. A rather superficial integration of ESD is the addition of sustainability-oriented topics in the curriculum. In the school curriculum for mathematics, for example, the topic "probability calculation using the example of biodiversity loss" is added separately to the usual topics. The integration is much more far-reaching when ESD is firmly anchored in various areas. In mathematics and all other school subjects, a sustainability perspective then plays a role in almost all topics. The deepest level of integration of ESD is transformation or immersion. In this case, the entire school system is rethought beyond the classroom in accordance with the guiding principle of sustainable development (Whole School Approach).


UNESCO (2017). Education for Sustainable Development Goals. Learning Objectives.  (August 2022)

ESD-Expert-Net Engagement Global (2017). Teaching the Sustainable Development Goals.(August 2022)

Teaching idea:

Students can discuss this caricature (August 2022) taken from “To the principal: yours sincerely” (2011) by Shankar Musafir.


Further teaching materials:  (August 2022) (August 2022) (August 2022)

Reef Recovery Initiative (August 2022)


„Le climat, ma planète… et moi!“ (August 2022) (August 2022)

Whole School Approach

Schools can make a significant contribution to achieving the 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda.

True to the motto "we live what we learn", the 'Whole School Approach' describes how a school can be transformed at all levels according to the guiding principle of ESD. One important level is teaching and learning, which can be sustainably transformed in various ways. Other important levels of transformation in a school are school life, school management and partnerships or networks.

School life can be enriched by sustainability perspectives at various points. For example, school events such as school competitions, sports festivals or theatre performances can be linked to sustainability issues as often as possible. In any case, students should be democratically involved in the planning of school activities with a view to strengthening their role as Change Agents. Living school democracy and participation also means involving all other internal school stakeholders (e.g. school administration, caretakers, the canteen) and external school stakeholders (e.g. parents) in as many decision-making processes as possible.


The school management level includes areas such as facility management or human resources management. The building of a sustainability-oriented school is redesigned step by step with the participation of all stakeholders. This can include major changes such as photovoltaic systems, insulation or the creation of a school garden. But also small changes that require little effort, such as consistent waste separation or signs about saving energy next to light switches and water taps. Sustainability orientation is also essential in the area of human resources management. Internal training and pedagogic days, for example, can be planned with the aim of sustainable development within and outside the school.


Another level of the 'Whole School Approach' is school partnerships and networks. One important area is school partnerships with sustainability-oriented schools in the immediate vicinity, but also with schools in countries of the Global South. The network of UNESCO project schools is a unique contact point in this regard (Good Practice). Equally important are partnerships with non-school partners, because ESD requires learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom. Permanent partnerships with libraries or museums, but also with neighbourhood cafés or committed private persons broaden learning horizons and create sustainable educational landscapes from which all participants benefit.


UNESCO-Projectschools (August 2022)

Engagement Global (Hrsg.)(2016). Curriculum Framework: Education for Sustainable Development. (August 2022)

Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) (August 2022)

Further reading:

GreenComp: The European sustainability competence framework (September 2022)

ESD competencies for teachers

Teachers are among the most important Change Agents and can bring about sustainable transformation processes through their work inside and outside the classroom. But what makes a good ESD teacher and what ESD competences are there?

Some core competences can be identified that distinguish good ESD teachers. UNESCO defines the concept of competence in connection with ESD broadly and differentiates it into the four areas of learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be. A competent ESD teacher not only has knowledge and skills, but also lives sustainability. For all these areas, it is particularly important to have a holistic or integrative perspective and a future-oriented way of thinking that aims at change.


Accordingly, learning to know means that, for example, interactions between ecological, social and economic systems are recognised and connections are made both between present and future generations and between near and far spaces. Furthermore, good ESD teachers value critical reflection and creative thinking, and they recognise and link both the importance of learners' everyday experiences and the importance of current scientific findings. Teachers are aware, for example, that children and young people initially associate all facts with their own experiential knowledge. Based on this, problems can be reflected from different perspectives. Example question: what effect does it have on fellow pupils, on the economy and on the living nature whether you come to school by car, by bus or by bicycle?


The area of learning to do includes competencies such as a problem orientation of teaching and the connection of different perspectives and subject disciplines. The holistic perspective of good ESD teachers also includes the competence to enable learners to recognise and experience the connection between local actions and global impacts. This can be achieved, for example, through “real-world” learning situations. Competent teachers allow learners to recognise the urgency for change while also experiencing self-efficacy. This enables learners to develop a positive, hopeful feeling for transformation processes. An example: children in fifth grade plant an unkempt strip of grass near the school with native flowering plants. Over several weeks, they study the development of the plants and count insects. In doing so, they perceive how they can achieve impressive effects through their own actions in the "real world" and transfer these experiences to other areas on a global scale.


The area of learning to live together describes, among other things, the competence of enabling knowledge expansion through the integration of new perspectives. This is particularly successful when different people are brought together across cultures, generations and disciplines. Competent ESD teachers help learners to analyse conflicting goals of different groups in the field of sustainability. They encourage understanding different views of people and the world through dialogue and develop different scenarios for the future. This can be achieved, for example, by inviting experts from other countries into the classroom, by establishing virtual contact with classes from countries in the South (e.g. "Chat of the Worlds", but also by deliberately adopting different perspectives in the classroom through role plays.


An important competence in learning to be is better understanding one's own perspective and way of life. Comparisons with indigenous peoples, for example in South America or Central Africa, can be helpful. An important skill for ESD teachers is to be able to deal well with uncertainty themselves and to model this tolerance of ambiguity to the learners. This positively influences the entire school and teaching culture and creates an important foundation for effective ESD. An example: the teacher shows an eighth-grade class their own calculated ecological footprint and compares it with the average footprint of a person from The Congo. The teacher describes how they try to live in as low-emission a manner as possible through various measures. The teacher shows how disappointed they are that their footprint is still too high and how unsure they are about what to do. This situation could be a starting point for discussing with the class the causes and effects of the ecological footprint and handprint without moralising.

Good Practice

Transforming schools and education based on the 17 SDGs is possible - on a large and small scale. There are countless encouraging examples of schools around the world where ESD is lived out. Two examples are given below, which are representative of many other good approaches. 1) The network of UNESCO project schools for transformation on a large scale and 2) the Heidelberg Outdoor Education concept for transformation on a small scale.

The UNESCO Project Schools Network is the world's largest school network in the field of sustainability. The network was founded in 1953 and now consists of over 11,500 project schools in 182 countries (effective 2022). In all UNESCO project schools, a transformation process according to the guiding principle of the 'Whole School Approach' is strived for:


"UNESCO project schools anchor the goals and values of UNESCO in their school profiles and mission statements as well as in their everyday school life and pedagogical work. They are thus committed to peace, openness to the world and sustainable development. The network is an actor and initiator for the achievement of the Education Agenda 2030 [...]."

The project schools can largely decide autonomously how they want to pursue the UNESCO goals. However, it is important that teachers and parents are involved in the transformation process, as well as students.

All schools that are interested in the work done by UNESCO and which have already initiated activities in the field of sustainability are eligible to apply for membership in the network. The path to becoming a UNESCO project school is a multi-year process that progresses through the stage of an "interested" to a "collaborating" and finally to a "recognised" project school.

One example of a small-scale transformation process at the level of classroom organisation is the Heidelberg Outdoor Education concept. Based on the conviction that good ESD sometimes has to overcome the boundaries of the classroom, all fifth-graders at a school in Heidelberg have lessons outside the classroom one morning a week throughout the year. The focus is on phenomena that are investigated in an interdisciplinary manner and with a lot of initiative, for example directly in nature or in urban facilities, with the help of experts or independently in small groups.

Numerous other good examples of implementation of the SDGs in schools and lessons can often be found in regional ESD school networks. Initiatives such as Global Schools, Global Goals Curriculum, Educators For Future or Frei Days also provide ideas and encouragement for teaching and school transformation based on the 17 SDGs.

Source and quote from:

UNESCO Projectschools in German (August 2022)

Further reading (August 2022) (August 2022) (August 2022)

You can find all the sources and links mentioned in the texts above here.

The 2030 Agenda


Martens, J. & Obenland, W. (2017). Die Agenda 2030. Globale Zukunftsziele für nachhaltige Entwicklung. Bonn: Global Policy Forum. (August 2022)

UN General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York (August 2022)

Teaching idea:

Students discuss the following caricature: SDG-Birthday Cartoon (August 2022)

Further reading: (August 2022)


The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


UN General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York. (August 2022)

Teaching inspiration:

SDG-Tracker: Measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  (August 2022)

The SDG-Tracker provides maps, charts and tables about the SDGs. (August 2022)  Maps including data on ecological footprints per country/person etc. (August 2022)


Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)


UNESCO (2017). Education for Sustainable Development Goals. Learning Objectives.  (August 2022)

ESD-Expert-Net Engagement Global (2017). Teaching the Sustainable Development Goals.(August 2022)

Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung: Was ist BNE? (August 2022)

Teaching idea

Students discuss the following caricature from “To the principal: yours sincerely” (2011) by Shankar Musafir.

Energy in Motion-Broschüre (MINT-EC-Schriftenreihe) (August 2022)  (August 2022) (August 2022) (August 2022)

Reef Recovery Initiative (August 2022)


„Le climat, ma planète… et moi!“ (August 2022) (August 2022)

Whole School Approach


UNESCO-Projektschulen (August 2022)

Engagement Global (Hrsg.)(2016). Curriculum Framework: Education for Sustainable Development. (August 2022)

Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) (August 2022)

Further reading:

GreenComp: The European sustainability competence framework (September 2022)


ESD competencies for teachers


UNECE (2012). Learning for the future. Competences in Education for Sustainable Development. (August 2022)

Chat der Welten (August 2022)

Further reading:

GreenComp: The European sustainability competence framework (September 2022)  (August 2022)


Good Practice

Englisch (August 2022) (August 2022) (August 2022)

German (August 2022)  (August 2022) (August 2022) (August 2022)

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