Empowering students in university curriculum through Sustainable Development Goals

6th January 2023

Author: Mr. Adrian LAM Man-Ho


The inestimable power of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hinges on their potential to accelerate fundamental and transformative shifts in thinking, values, and actions among all stakeholders and individuals.

To attain these integrated, global, and universal goals, our society should possess the capacity and capability to produce, adapt, and apply knowledge. While the SDGs are perceived as a widely accepted framework of collective actions, it is crucial to explore how they could be embedded into the university curriculum.

Both education and research are essential to all SDGs. By building upon these goals, teachers can make good use of these broad headings as the driving vehicles to frame, contextualise, and comprehend the issues, challenges, and complexities of various disciplines. Most crucially, since all these SDGs are interconnected and comprehensive, one cannot attain one without attaining the others. They can subsequently bring the wider issues into thinking about their own core disciplines and experience among students. Meanwhile, students would consider a wide range of potential ways to make progress and implement solutions, so as to attain practicable targets eventually. Throughout the dynamic process, students will recognise themselves as active and engaged citizens with the confidence and responsibility to tackle these challenges within their communities, through collaboration, critical thinking and innovative problem-solving.

Many individuals are often ill-prepared for cooperative and collaborative efforts in response to the complex issues outlined by the SDGs. Nonetheless, in the authentic context of real-world themes, all these divides and boundaries across the conventional and specialised disciplines are naturally bridged. While there might be differing viewpoints of phenomena, interpretations of causes, and solutions of challenges among the concurring disciplines, it is the diversity of views and awareness of the various dimensions which ultimately harness collective intelligence, and lead to creativities and innovations.

The SDGs allow teachers to incorporate broad, holistic, and flexible frameworks into curriculum planning and design, which also facilitate them to transcend the minute details, and to promote the more enduring and overarching goals. This aligns with the systems-thinking approaches upon where these goals foundationally rest. This also avoids the tendency of possessing silo-thinking and introducing fragmented practices. By putting these ambitious goals into concrete practices, students will consider the connections and integrations, as well as constraints and conflicts among multiple disciplines, dimensions, and analytical perspectives. They would unearth the constituent elements within challenges and crises and their underlying relationships, interactions, and intersections. Afterwards, these competing or even conflicting viewpoints and interests are coordinated and balanced through a collaborative and synergistic mindset, to reach the eventual informed decision.

Situated in the “VUCA” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world, it is essential to allowing students not merely survive by responding to the emerging problems, but flourish by foreseeing the challenges ahead of them. They also need to remain active, responsible, and contributing in adapting or tackling them. While the contemporary world is no stranger to crises of all kinds, the higher education curriculum has been regrettably slow and stagnant in the wake of these crises. The dominant approach emphasises on incorporating past knowledge and traditional ways of living, or asking students to tackle immediate problems after they have emerged. Lamentably, such approach lags behind rather than looks forward. It will be often slow, unresponsive, or even resistant to change. It will also be impossible to keep pace with larger contextual changes and even unprecedented disruptive crises. In fact, many current and future crises happen beyond conventional understandings, approaches, and disciplines. Students need to think, learn, and prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead. There will also certainly be shifting demands and expectations in terms of the required knowledge and skill sets, and there is the need to deconstruct and reconstruct one’s knowledge and skills sets continuously.

With the constant practice and reflection through the SDGs, teachers can empower students to remain as eager, curious, and life-long learners beyond their graduation. Students are first to be trusted as mature and confident, and they should feel valued for being themselves. They would subsequently lead their own learning by allowing greater control and choice, where they would have a clearer idea of the roles that they can play for society, and they would be actively looking out for opportunities. In the end, they would map out their own concrete roadmap of transforming society for a better society, especially how to push things forward realistically and strategically. In other words, they will be self-motivated to catalyse meaningful societal change.

About the author

Mr. Adrian LAM Man-Ho hold degrees of Bachelor of Arts, English Studies as well as Politics and Public Administration (First-Class Honours); Master of Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy (Distinction); as well as a Postgraduate Diploma in Education in Secondary English, all from the University of Hong Kong.

He is currently a Course Tutor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration in the Faculty of Social Sciences and a Research Group Member for the Common Core Curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

His most recent academic publications include a series of peer-reviewed journal articles and book articles in the areas of interdisciplinary learning and teaching, higher education, high-performing learning systems, curriculum studies, and educational policies.

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