Learning by Teaching an Intensive Graduate School Course on SDGs

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Thank you Professor, I learned a lot!

This was the rewarding comment from my students of the SDGs course I teach at Tsukuba University Graduate school as a visiting lecturer.

SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) include so many things that it is quite easy to get lost on what to do, and there are so many ways to contribute. In this post, I will briefly share why I teach unconventional course content for SDGs, course description and some learning out of it. Since SDGs is everyone’s business (in theory but not in practice) but still complex for many, I hope this might serve to unpack these global goals.

 Why SDGs?

Before even touching upon SDGs course, why SDGs?

Simply put, our planet is in danger in many ways, and we need to understand, plan, take actions with others to sustain the planet in a long term.

There are 17 goals and 169 targets (To know more about SDGs, visit here). Common mistake is to separate each of them instead of thinking as a whole. Common challenge is not to have clear idea about how to contribute in a concrete way to this large scale goal. Of course, simple action might be related to specific target/goal, but as with the case with many things (any learning, work and life) things are closely connected.

Why teaching this SDGs course

The course title is “SDGs Seminar on Central Eurasia“.

It is the part of NipCA (Nippon Foundation Central Asia) project offered by Tsukuba University for students from Central Asia  (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.).

In 2020, I had a chance to provide a lecture for this project event. Later on, I was asked to teach this intensive short course with 1 credit in English, based on my work experience in international development (NGO, UN, ODA, etc.), which is all about SDGs at the theoretical and practical level.

Since I thought it would be an interesting and learning experience to teach at graduate school for exchange students on SDGs (with a wide range of topics mentioned below) and somehow contributing to SDGs, I decided to accept the offer.

What is the content of SDGs course

There are so many different ways to tackle SDGs, below is just one example to unpack these global goals, by linking global goals, education and learning, paradigm shift, life skill and wellbeing, among others.

Course Description

The challenges surrounding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) need to be considered from a variety of perspectives. SDG 4 is about Education and Learning, which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. At the advent of new technology, globalization, new job demands and longer life-expectancy in the 21st century, education has faced the need of a paradigm shift to develop a wide range of relevant skill, attitude and experiences. This was accelerated by the COVID-19 which closed schools across the globe and forced us to change the way to teach, learn, work, live and connect with others.

In other words, education is not only about mere training to read, write and calculate, but is also aboutpreparing to be a lifelong learner and better human to serve others as a global citizen in a complex world. In that sense, SDG 4 can be an appropriate platform to bridge with other SDG areas such as social fairness,gender, employability, innovation, peace, cultural diversity, inclusion, etc.

By examining actual cases from different angles (UN, NGO, donor, government, educator, etc.), this course will take a deep dive into SDG 4 at the macro and micro level, its potential contribution to other SDGs, and some skill set needed for sustainable development.

Course Objectives

Through this course, students will have opportunities to gain practical insights into SDG 4 and its potential connections with other areas, as well as some life/soft skills. More specifically, students will:

  • reflect student’s own education and analyze linkage and/or gap between his/her country’s education and SDGs;
  • increase practical knowledge of international education and the need of a paradigm shift in the context of development, humanitarian and its nexus;
  • gain familiarity with multi-sectoral approach of international organizations and the potential contribution and associated challenges of the education sector
  • have an opportunity to prepare and present a short concept note of a project

How I did, and how it went (well and not well)

How I did

My objective was simple but complex: promote students’ learning in line with the course objective. I could have just kept talking about what I knew, which is the easiest way but most likely students will not learn. Learning mechanism is complex and everyone has different learning style, and also, not everyone is equally motivated on the contents.

Among so many learning theories I tend to use the following Learning Pyramid model as a general guidance whenever I conduct training and/or teach.

(source: The Learning Pyramid by National Training Laboratories Institute extracted from here)

This pyramid can be oversimplifying, as learning depends on each student and teaching content/method. Also, it shows as if reading and demonstration were not important when they can be part of learning.

Nevertheless, I still believe this is a powerful guide and I mix various aspects of the pyramid, such as below:

  • Lots of inspiring Quotes / story telling that are relevant to the contents
  • Theories around SDGs and Education
  • Realtime demonstration of the contents
  • Provision of autonomy (letting students to work individually or in group)
  • Discussions
  • Practices and provision of realtime feedback
  • Let them teach / present their idea

What went well

Let me list up what went well from my point of view (very subjective) and actual feedback from the students (somehow objective).

  • Ice-break was engaging
  • Use of evidence throughout the course (pre/post survey, formative assessment, real-time feedback)
  • Leaving enough space for interaction at any moment (not after me speaking for an hour) was helpful and unusual for Japanese lesson according to students
  • Recap and use spatial memory: Repeating recap helped them to remember the contents (I listed key slides in 1 slide to ask what each slide was about at the end of the class and beginning of the following class)
  • Make the contents and assignment as relevant and practical to the students as possible (linking personal story and passion with their country case study in the assignment)
  • Focus on learning, not only consuming the contents (see below assessment result)
  • Using lots of visuals, story telling and quotes
  • Real-time demonstration (e.g. how to make effective and interactive presentation slide)
  • Connecting different topics together for holistic learning (things don’t work separately)

What didn’t go well

I am also aware of things that didn’t go well as shown below, which are lessons learnt for future improvement.

  • Turning everyone’s camera on during the presentation could be distraction when non-presenter is not paying attention or moving
  • Time management (break): students needed more break time
  • Time management (content): since the student number doubled from last cohort, I should have reduced the content and assignment volume
  • Time management (presentation): each presentation’s time should have been managed better from the beginning, which is crucial as a facilitator
  • Too many contents in this short course (some contents could be removed)
  • Not checking if the university online platform worked well (some announcements were not done well due to the system error, which I didn’t check and students needed guidance)

Some feedback / learning

At least students (n=11) had positive experience. They learned, met expectation, rated high and would recommend (I don’t know to whom), and improved the knowledge and skills, based on the below result result summary and pre-post comparison (before and after the course).

Below are the comparative results of Before (left) and After (right) the course from the scale of 1-5 (1= lowest and 5=highest)

Although the results seem very positive, if the students do not practice in real life in some way, this is not going to serve as real learning (which is the challenge of this type of short course), so all the best to their future contribution!

Also as a teacher of this intensive course, in addition to some of the lessons learnt mentioned above, I have also learned many things about their home countries through students’ story telling and assignment,

The learning of this time 

To teach and contribute to the global objectives (SDGs), you have to connect the different areas so that the understanding is more holistic, and teaching is the best way to learn.

Thank you for reading this article. Have a great learning!


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