Today’s guest blog is by Ben Ballin.

255 learning objectives

Attentive souls may have spotted that a report was published by UNESCO earlier this year, setting out learning objectives for each of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.  It is no doubt a laudable achievement to create fifteen learning objectives for each of the seventeen goals: that’s a very productive 255 learning objectives in total.  Moreover, each set of fifteen objectives has been neatly subdivided into three categories:

  • Cognitive learning objectives;
  • Socio-emotional learning objectives;
  • Behavioural learning objectives.

On top of the learning objectives for each goal, there are extensive lists of suggested topics, learning approaches and methods.  At this point, I start to lose count (and quite possibly the will to live).  Categorising all those objectives in such a tidy manner must have taken a vast amount of work, involving many embattled hours around the international conference table, a forest of post-its and many carefully-considered words in many languages. The process probably had great value for those involved and such a learning processes is not to be sniffed at.

But what about the rest of us?  How useful is it to us?

The writers certainly hoped that this report would be useful to textbook writers, teachers, informal educators, trainers, policymakers, curriculum designers and those involved in MOOCs.  Hoping to stimulate discussion, I put the question of its usefulness to a meeting of the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network: a low-budget and informal gathering of precisely the sort of people in the list above (not quite sure about the MOOCs, though).  Like most such documents, the report begins with a preamble. This is interesting and it only runs to five pages, which is pretty good going.  It includes a brief overview of the seventeen SDGs, which while available elsewhere in a more colourful form, is certainly worth having to hand.  The preamble also includes a fascinating but gnarly list of eight key competencies for sustainability, although these don’t crop up again. Each competency is followed by a list of additional things that people ought to be thinking about.


At this point, lapsed Catholic that I am, I was reminded a little of the catechisms of my childhood: lists of prayers and phrases to memorise.  These too are often also in numbered sequences.  If applied correctly and with a good heart, they are intended to set the true believer on the right path to salvation: in this instance, a sustainable path. One problem with this sort of catechism or guidance list is that it misses a key issue.  What hard-pressed teachers usually need is a little support, time and space to think and plan creatively, rather than long lists of extra stuff to have to think about.  Without that thinking space and support, finding ways to effectively integrate sustainability into their educational practice is enormously difficult.

Moreover, teachers and schools are already wrestling with some very long to-do lists relating to national curricula, data collection, safeguarding, inspection frameworks etc. Having worked in the past couple of years with teaching colleagues from Bangladesh, Kenya, The Gambia, Spain and Germany, I can confidently say the problem of finding space for sustainability in schools is not a peculiarly British problem … and the reasons are often very similar.  In short, wherever thinking and planning space is squeezed, high quality work on sustainability tends to get squeezed out.  The same is true when school curricula grow narrow to meet the demands of high stakes testing. Or when dwindling budgets put a further squeeze on staff time and resources.  You get an almost perfect storm.  The miracle is that so many schools still manage to weather it and come up with amazing work.

Personally, I think we need much more of that time and space. Ultimately, that means educational reform and not longer lists of things to do; an opening up of the curriculum; a relocating of professional decision-making back into the hands of educators (and of learning into the hands of the learner).  Otherwise, well-intentioned reports like this can only be part of the problem.

So, back to the network members, who I have left wrestling with the UNESCO report.  The good news, dear reader, is that we have read the report, so you don’t have to.  Here are a few things that we found.

Politically useful?  We all thought that it was helpful to know about the report, and that it might even prove a useful tool in maintaining the profile of sustainability education.  It helps keep it visible.   Indeed, one of us sent it to her MP.

A problem of integration?  We all felt that there was a risk that, as with the Sustainable Schools Framework, individual goals and objectives take on a life of their own, rather than being seen as part of a connected whole.  The report often talks about the need for integration and systems thinking, but its structure tends in the opposite direction.

Categories of objectives  All objectives are equal, but some are more equal than others.  In other words, the content for individual goals was often too much about content and not enough about process.  Cognitive objectives (stuff to know and understand) were fairly clear.  Behavioural ones were abut what learners were able to, so at least didn’t fall into the classic trap of simplistic and prescribed behaviour change.  The socio-emotional ones were generally more socio- than -emotional.  SDG4 is about ’quality education’ but the objectives were too often just about knowing a lot of different things.  Where was the deeper learning?  Is that not what we need most if we are to critique present norms and to work together creatively and imaginatively for a more just and sustainable world?

Unintended bias?  A good example of critical thinking at work: one perceptive reader detected signs of unintentional cultural bias in one of the objectives for Gender Equality, where a reference to ‘traditional perception of gender roles’ ignored the many non-European traditions where there are multiple conceptions of gender.

In sum, we agreed that this is a flawed report that overlays the existing demands on teachers and schools with many further demands.  It is perhaps symptomatic of what happens when committees and conferences decide what is best for the rest of us.  It is not, however, without its uses: not least of these is to serve as a reminder of where our time and energy might more productively spent if we are to really build on the excellent work that already exists.


Ben Ballin chairs the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network: @wmsussch  This blog is written in a personal capacity.


  1. Personally I feel that until these reports remove the power of language specifics and talk in straight terms that enable educators to recognise all learning as having the potential to contribute to SDGs or global learning or whatever other political agenda it is, then we will continue to reconvene to discuss the same things again and again. I am not saying there is no place for specific language and understanding, but that this is not necessarily where we need to begin in order to make connections, remove barriers and enable more people to onboard. Thanks for the interesting summary though Ben – I agree with much of what you say.

  2. Ha, good one Ben. Yes, it’s an ‘interesting’ document – I’m currently wading my way through this even longer one The task is to summarise it in a one page doc for some authors and editors, would your network fancy this job next? I think as with all of these recommendations for practice, and they have always existed of course, is that some people find this stuff useful but most just don’t have the time or inclination to read. One of the joys of the GLP is that it has helped create the time and physical space for educator-led innovation and creation (and that includes objective setting) of their own, with the support of fabulous advisors and cpd providers of course (a crucial part of the programme) – the SDGs have certainly provided a useful tool or way in to this and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I do think that schools have found the language of the global goals particularly accessible. Personally, I’m finding the organically emerging networks of schools and educators (e.g. to be of more interest, e.g. the sharing of experiences and blogs like this – but then I would say that wouldn’t I! Hope you’re well.

  3. As Chair of the NAEE Executive, still teaching to National Curriculum targets (if intermittently these days) I so agree with Ben.
    I an still trying to get visiting schools to integrate a thought provoking sustainability slant when visiting my centre.
    We have many sustainable features to the building but their learning objectives don’t allow for time to ponder…..
    Reassuring that Ben sees that this is not just a UK dilemma.
    Producing such goals in this format doesn’t get to class based teachers and I want to thank you for saving me the time to wade through the treacle of 255 learning objectives.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Harriet, I completely agree that the SDGs themselves offer a useful ‘currency’ for talking about sustainable development, but as Rob and Nina say, stuff like the UNESCO guidance is not generally the best way to engage people and move things forward. We can share all those links with the West Mids network, including the textbook, but on this occasion, Harriet, we might just have to decline your kind offer to once more be the ones who read stuff so that others don’t have to.

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