Purposeful Learning for the Whole Student: Meaningful Engagement through the Sustainable Development Goals



Students need to find their purpose in learning to succeed both in terms of completion of classroom tasks and in the eventual long term application of their learning. Students often struggle to see the relevance of learning to their lives during the formative primary and secondary school years. Current global challenges may transform this sentiment, but educators will be increasingly tasked with creating links between the curriculum and real life–answering the question for students, “Why do I need to learn this?”.

We suggest that beyond developing these linkages to student lives, educators should highlight purpose and impact from learning at a community and global level. The solution we are proposing answers the following questions:

  • How can we support teachers and leaders to provide a manageable curriculum that is collaborative, meaningful, and meet each student where they’re at?
  • How can we empower students to play a larger role in their own education?

Our solution therefore, suggests 1) Understanding and engaging the whole student and 2) Connecting learning to the local context and community to provide the opportunity to find meaning and purpose in and the application of learned concepts. It is here that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can provide a framework for purposeful learning.

Understanding and Engaging the Whole Student:
Educators should start by understanding the student as a whole person, what is of personal importance, their values, beliefs, and goals in life, motivations and interests, capacity and drivers for learning, social context, cultural drivers, local context and experiences as driving needs, preferences, as well as learning expectations. Students need to be co-designers in their own learning process and can be effectively engaged when their holistic needs are known.

Our purposeful learning toolkit © (including cards, infographics, student and educator planning worksheets) supports the co-design process by enabling students, parents and educators to:

  • Jointly develop and complete the whole student profile.
    • The profile includes assessing key demographics, psychological factors driving learning, socio-cultural drivers impacting and driving learning, local context and experiences as driving student needs. The objective being a learning process that is equitable and inclusive for all students.
  • Discuss and assess student interests.
  • Suggest effective student learning styles and active learning preferences.
  • Jointly determine needed tools and technology to succeed.
  • Enable students to see the potential connections between their interests and the learning unit.
  • Support students in understanding how the knowledge attained can be used in their context and the “real world”.

The Sustainable Development Goals as a Framework for Purposeful Learning: 

How might parents and educators engage their children and students through the sustainable development goals (SDGs)? The SDGs provide a wonderful framework for developing purpose driven and impactful learning in the classroom and in our local communities. Learning modules on equity, empathy, inclusion, diversity, cultures, identity, and respect, all provide opportunities for fruitful discussion and peer inclusion as well as engagement.

Equally, it is possible to link to the STEAM disciplines to permit students to develop critical thinking skills and practice global citizenship (as part of end of learning unit projects or passion projects).

The learning process can unfold as follows: 
1) An educator chooses a key learning concept for teaching as per state/provincial guidelines as part of the day to day learning.
2) Students use the purposeful learning toolkit© and cards (see example cards below) to link their interests to the key learning concepts (to complete end of learning unit projects or passion projects) answering:
a) what interests me about this topic?
b) how do I want to learn based on my preferred learning styles?
c) how do I want to share what I learn with my teacher and peers?
d) what tools do I need and have access to?
e) how can I use this knowledge to help my local community?
3) In answering the question of how can I use this knowledge to help my community, a variety of tools can be made available including books, cards, web-based resources for students to learn about the 17 sustainable development goals.

Example SDG card in the purposeful learning toolkit©:

4) Educator-student or peer-to-peer learning can further direct the discussions to purposefully make the connections between learning concepts and the 17 sustainable development goals at a local community level.

Example 1: 
In classroom X, the focus of the science learning module is on structures and forces.
Student A is interested in chemistry and enjoys project-based learning.
Student A decides to look at structures and forces from the perspective of varied materials and their impact on structure stability and will present a slide-show to the educator and their peers (being both a verbal and visual learner).
For the end of unit project or a passion project, the student and educator can discuss what materials might work well not only for stability (meeting the state/provincial curriculum guidelines), but also as part of climate adaptation for their community, given the current and future impact of climate change on their community (highlighting the meaningful impact of the learned concepts and linking to SDG 11). The level of complexity of the analysis and discussion will vary as a function of student grade and capability-from beginning consideration of varied materials to new designs/forms driven by local climate adaptation needs.

Example 2: 

In classroom Y, the focus of the math learning module is on geometry.
Student B is interested in art and history.
Student B can be encouraged to look at how geometry (shapes, angles) has creatively been used by artists (e.g. in Picasso’s Cubism) and how this artistic form emerged.
For the end of unit project or a passion project, student B can present a personal, artistic representation of geometric shapes (meeting the state/provincial curriculum guidelines) and a short presentation on the local use of this artistic form for example in buildings-allowing students to learn more about their community and diverse, functional designs.

Ultimately, the goal is for students to see how the STEAM disciplines can be used to learn about and find local solutions across the 17 SDGs (local examples can be used quite effectively to teach math, science, social studies, health). Local solutions will ensure that the learning is more tangible and that local community stakeholders can be engaged through field-trips, workshops, and presentations.

Example cards from the purposeful learning toolkit©:

Dr. Minna Allarakhia

Expected Impact

Partnerships: We have successfully implemented purposeful learning through our partnerships in Tanzania and Zanzibar and are seeking other global partnerships with schools and education focused NGOs. Our current purposeful learning modules have specifically empowered girls through social entrepreneurship. Our social entrepreneurship program has enabled girls to develop their STEAM, language, critical and creative thinking skills, through design, local community, and local business engagement. These skills were leveraged as participants developed their social entrepreneurship business models as well as through analysis of local social ventures.

Engagement and Outcomes: Participants were enthusiastically engaged across modules focusing on: the sustainable development goals and the connection to their social ventures; science through biomimicry and green product design; socio-economics through business model development; math through cost and pricing assessments; language and art through marketing and logo design.

Students explored/developed a variety of ventures including: a reusable, eco-friendly menstrual product development initiative; collaborated with a local water nanofiltration business; participated in a field trip to a local business recycling plastic to create building materials; proposed a whole-child daycare teaching the SDGs; designed a university based health-food restaurant engaging local farmers; and suggested a women’s empowerment farming program.

Expanding the Concept: The goal is to expand these purposeful and contextually driven education modules, to link the STEAM disciplines to the sustainable development goals. Specifically, we hope to empower students, parents and educators, to connect the STEAM disciplines to learning concepts in the classroom, to find local and contextually driven solutions across the 17 SDGs (answering then the question for students: Why am I learning this and how can I use this learning material to have a real impact in my community?).

Adopt & Adapt

We are in the process of developing the purposeful learning toolkit©, a learning and training platform and videos to support students, parents and educators. The toolkit will including both hard and soft copies of materials to ensure broad access and usability (ensuring transferability and feasibility). Our training programs will support both parents and educators in the use of the whole student profile and purposeful learning toolkit© in their local context, alongside e-workshops (through video conferencing and/or email to support implementation).

Resource Provision: Specifically, we are developing workshops on using the toolkit and creating lesson planning worksheets to enable educators to learn how to embed purpose learning into the curriculum. Additionally, we hope that our videos targeted to students can be used in the classroom as part of the learning process and in the design of purposeful learning activities.

Integrating Purposeful Learning into the Classroom: On a day to day basis, educators will need to teach the concepts at a class level to ensure a basic understanding of key concepts (using local examples where possible in the teaching process).

However, it is suggested in order to augment the learning process and to ensure equity given student learning styles and needs (at the end of each learning module or via subject driven passion projects), that the whole student profile and purpose-led activities be co-designed with students using the provided toolkit resources. We do additionally suggest that metrics for evaluation be co-developed with students to ensure that state/provincial guidelines are met (allowing for ease of evaluation by teachers), but that the opportunity for assessing creativity and rewarding thoughtful consideration of local impact, be provided as incentives for students. Purposeful learning should ultimately incentivize deeper and thoughtful (student-driven) learning and global citizenship skillset development by students.

Example worksheet to co-design end of unit learning or passion projects from the purposeful learning toolkit©:

Sharing Best Practices: Finally, we envision an annual workshop (either held by our organization or held locally, by providing event planning guidelines for educators) bringing together educators to share their experiences and strategies (inspiring new learning strategies and adding to the purposeful learning toolkit©) for connecting learning to student interests, local community needs, and the SDGs.

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