Science Curriculum Foundations: Sustainability

This is blog post no 1 in a planned series considering what the key questions and outcomes could be when developing an intended science curriculum focused around a core issue or approach. In this blog I consider how sustainability (specifically the UN Sustainable Development Goals) could affect the development of a science curriculum.


I’ve written before that when developing a science curriculum it is important to consider the context you are working in and to set clear principles, aims and values and ensure you know the answer to the questions; what is the subject doing? Why is this subject important to my context?

There are many reasons that can be used to justify a subject. These can include societal needs – the subject has intrinsic value to a society for economic or cultural reasons. For example if a nation is trying to develop the scientific industries for long term economic growth investment in science education will, hopefully, pay a dividend by supplying that future industry with home grown specialists who remain within the country boosting the economy by keeping high skilled people in country and by having high skilled people attract more investment from the desired industry. (growth can beget growth)

Often these societal needs are domestic but can include international aspects, for example a desire to equip learners with the qualifications to enable them to access education and careers outside the nation.

There is also the subject purist view that scientific knowledge and understanding is now a basic right and all learners should have a fundamental understanding of science in order to understand the natural world, and the phenomenon within it. (This is going to be the focus of blog post no 2 in this series)

Amid all this, there is also the role international and supranational organisations can have on education and policy. In this area there has been, based on my own observations and experience, interest in how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be applied to inform education activity (at both national and school level) and this is becoming more and more discussed in the context of curriculum reform.

The question I will start to explore in this blog is; if the SDGs are used as a foundation for a science curriculum what could that mean for curriculum design?

The Sustainable Development Goals themselves


Firstly, I do not proclaim to be an expert in the SDGs or what they cover. I have only had a recent introduction to the SDGs (past year), through informal discussions with people I know (particularly Margaret Fleming, who I would class as an expert on the SDGs), attending recent workshops about them at ASE conferences where they have been referenced or been driving the workshop, and through realising their relevance and interest to a range of countries in my international work.

Secondly, my impression of the goals (based on my limited understanding) is they are a useful tool and lever for discussions about sustainability at an international or national policy level (which I think is what they were designed for). They can help nations start conversations about how they address the issues within the goals especially those that may be relevant to their specific context. Within this nations may look at education as a way of addressing the goals but the goals have not been written solely for education so will not be a perfect fit. This introduces the risk of trying to use education as a blunt instrument across for all the goals rather than a scalpel to address specific goals in a meaningful way that aligns to the role of education within a nation.

And this is perhaps the first important point – any attempt to use them as a foundation for a science curriculum will require the curriculum designers to develop a good understanding of the SDGs in order to apply them to education. Without a good understanding how can the goals be challenged for inclusion within curriculum and agreement reached on the most effective way curriculum can support addressing the goals. Without a deep understanding, there is an increased risk the SDGs don’t really reform education with the goals at the heart, but you end up with a reconfigured science curriculum that looks and feels familiar but with increased reference to the goals.

Immediate questions for curriculum design

While I don’t have in-depth understanding of the goals needed for presenting a curriculum in this blog ( e.g. a nice worked up list of content within a clear structure, with progression and rationales for why content has been included or excluded) I can, as a curriculum designer, raise immediate questions that curriculum designers who do use the goals to drive reform may (need?) to consider.

  • Which of the goals, if any, can education directly support through curriculum reform?

Many of the goals could have some link to science however is curriculum reform, and education more broadly, the best way to move a goal forward? For example goal 8 is about decent work and economic growth. A good science education and the growth of scientific industries may support that goal but it has, on the surface, little direct impact on what a science curriculum specifies. However, goal 6 about clean water and sanitation more clearly has an impact on a science curriculum through including more content and teaching about water, purity, disease transmission and other connected topics. It may be from the 17 goals presented, some are not relevant for education to directly address, some are relevant for education but curriculum reform will not be required while others can affect curriculum reform decision making. This may mean you whittle the list from 17 goals to five or six that affect science curriculum reform. This conversation, level of challenge and decision making is a vital first step.

  • Should the goals be driving curriculum, or should curriculum reference the goals? Aka; does anything really need to change?

There are two ways of considering the use of the goals within curriculum reform. One is as a foundation for decisions about what structure should be used, what content is in or out etc. This foundational application of the goals would be, for many curriculum, a radical and innovative reform that would require significant resources to develop.

The alternative is to reference the goals. This referencing can be done through linking existing content in a curriculum to the goals and providing more support in how the goals can be referenced during implementation – turning the SDGs into a context for teaching science effectively. This is probably how many schools who hold up the goals as something they use do at the moment; referencing them but still within the limitations of a curriculum that was not designed, or originally implemented, for the goals. Improving the referencing of the goals within an existing curriculum is easier to do but it doesn’t really change the curriculum – the use of the SDGs as a context could be removed just as easily as it was put in place. I have assumed in this blog that the goals will drive curriculum reforms but I recognise some schools and nations may not be in a position to redesign their science curriculum extensively.

Once decisions have been made about which goals are relevant to the reform, and that a full reform is viable where a curriculum will be fundamentally changed to support the SDGs, then you can get on with the process of the curriculum reform itself which brings with it some curriculum design questions.

Curriculum design questions:

One of the interesting things I noted having worked on multiple curriculum projects, in many different contexts, is there is a fundamental set of curriculum design questions. This seems intuitive in many ways, after all it is a process and regardless of subject or context you would expect some common approaches to emerge. However it is very easy to focus so much on the context of a reform or the complexity of the reform (number of subjects, the number of schools/teachers affected, the specific issues of that reform and the considerations and limitations that creates) you start to treat curriculum reform as unique with little connection to other reforms. While context will always vary the detail of the reform there remains a standard set of questions which would also apply if the SDGs were being used as a foundation for a science curriculum.

  • How is the science curriculum presented? What is my structure?

Should the goals being used drive the curriculum structure? Should there be a strand on sanitation? Or on life below water? Should goals be grouped or an area of learning identified e.g. a curriculum section on Health and Well-being which subsumes clean water, sanitation, zero hunger, mental health, peace, justice etc If more traditional structures were used e.g. biology, chemistry, physics will this allow the SDGs to be explicit and covered as expected? The structure of the curriculum, and how it is presented, tells a lot about how the designers intend the curriculum to be perceived. If a curriculum is really going to be driven by the goals I would expect the goals in some way to be clear through the curriculum structure and presentation rather than implied and hidden away.

  • What concepts go within that structure?

Once you have a structure, what are you going to specify within that structure? With the goals some concepts will have more direct relevance than others e.g. the place of learning about diet is clear in goals 2 and 3. The need to learn about forces, magnetism and chemical reactions is less clear. This introduces a tension within science that will need to be carefully discussed and decided upon.

  • Do the concepts have any knowledge dependencies I need in my curriculum?

This is where progression within the curriculum starts to become apparent. If you know you want learners to develop a concept by the end of the curriculum period then what knowledge, skills and understanding are required in order for them to be secure in that concept. This may be where the science concepts not directly linked to the goals start to be relevant as they become foundational/dependencies for learners to develop a concept that is directly linked to realising a goal. For example for learners to learn about clean water they need the concept of dissolving, which means they need the concept of mixtures and therefore can say what a solid and liquid is. This backward curriculum design may mean you include a lot of traditional science content while still being driven by a very different purpose than normal.

  • How should statements of learning be presented?

All curriculum, and especially science, must consider how statements of learning are presented. How granular are they? What expectation does the opening verb imply for teaching, learning and assessment? The use of the SDGs in driving the curriculum reform should not affect this important step.

  • Does the curriculum fulfil its role?

At the end of the day, does the curriculum do what it needs to? What it was built to do? If the plan was for learners to access some of the goals and have a deeper understanding of how to be sustainable is that likely to be achieved through the curriculum that has been created?

A science specific consideration:

It is worth raising again, following the points when discussing the curriculum design questions, there are some science specific issues one of which is the tension that will exist between focusing a science curriculum on supporting the SDGs, in part or in whole, and the general expectations of what a science curriculum should cover. Some aspects of science are taught because they explain naturally occurring phenomenon, other aspects because they prepare learners for later study, other aspects because they are historically considered as important to cover and it can be almost sacrilegious to not include them in a science curriculum.

This is a tension that applies to other subject but specifically so in science. Science in general is content heavy and has strong representation from many stakeholders due to how science is divided up into disciplines most commonly at school level biology, chemistry and physics.

What if by focusing on the goals the concept of the rock cycle is not covered. What impact would that have? What if the concept not covered is forces? Would stakeholders accept that even if the decision is justified by the curriculum focus?

Thankfully, as science is about explaining the world we live in and the goals are focused on how humanity as a species becomes sustainable in the world there will be a lot of content that is relevant and the content that is not seen as directly related will have to be included as it will be foundational for supporting the goals at a later point in education, as mentioned earlier.

However, this should not turn into putting a square peg into a round hole. If a concept does not fit, or is not foundational, in meeting the core driver of the curriculum then it should logically be removed. If there is argument against that, the argument is really about using the SDGs as the driver of the curriculum which shows something has gone wrong with stakeholder engagement or when the initial decisions were being made.

The point is many of the goals are underpinned by science and concepts that may seem abstract from the goals. This should enable the science curriculum to be reformed around the goals without disrupting what people expect science to cover at school level (well at least not too much)

It is also important to note that the goals not immediately relevant to education to affect can be dependent on education e.g. goal 9 on industry, innovation and infrastructure is not something I would immediately envision as driving a curriculum area but it is dependent on education providing specialists who can support that goal within a nation. The nation will still need engineers and physicists so to get these specialists the curriculum will need to include relevant abstract concepts.

Final thoughts:

In summary, I believe some (but not all) of the SDGs align well to existing science curriculum content common to many nations around the world. Some new content will be required, and some content will need reframing in order to make their links to the SDGs more explicit (and that could be done during implementation). Some of the goals can be supported in education, while others are supported by education and identifying which is which would be a good thing to do.

Given the current situation humanity, as a species, finds itself in (regarding resources, health, conflict, climate change and other issues) it may be considering the SDGs as a foundation of curriculum design for science, and other subjects, is an inevitability rather than an option and something we can reference contextually within subjects.

The bottom line is no one, as far as I know, has attempted to reform a science curriculum with the SDGs at the heart of the reform (rather than a consideration). This makes it unknown territory for what the output could be, but I believe it should be possible. You would end up with a radically different notion of what science education should do as it would be focused entirely on the human species becoming sustainable before valuing scientific understanding for the sake of it or for economic considerations, which many science curricula focus on.

It would be fascinating to see if the outcomes of a curriculum founded on the SDGs remain true to the broader themes of the goals and maybe one of the future outputs of the SDGs is a model of what a science curriculum could look like (if this is already in progress or floating out there please point me in its direction!)


*As I mentioned in the blog I am not a specialist in the SDGs but I am, as hopefully this blog indicates, increasing my understanding about them as part of my own development.

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