In the 2017 publication “Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives”, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has compiled from the relevant literature eight cross-cutting sustainability competencies that are interrelated with each other, transversal, multifunctional, content-independent, and key for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

  • Systems thinking: The ability to recognize and understand relationships; to analyse complex systems; to think of how systems are embedded within different domains and different scales; and to deal with uncertainty.
  • Anticipatory: The ability to understand and evaluate multiple scenarios for the future – possible, probable and desirable; to create one’s own visions for the future; to apply the precautionary principle; to assess the consequences of actions; and to deal with risks and changes.
  • Normative: The ability to understand and reflect on the norms and values that underlie one’s actions; and to negotiate sustainability values, principles, goals, and targets, in a context of conflicts of interests and trade-offs, uncertain knowledge and contradictions.
  • Strategic: The ability to collectively develop and implement innovative actions that further sustainability at the local level and further afield.
  • Collaboration: The ability to learn from others; to understand and respect the needs, perspectives and actions of others (empathy); to understand, relate to and be sensitive to others (empathic leadership); to deal with conflicts in a group; and to facilitate collaborative and participatory problem solving.
  • Critical thinking: The ability to question norms, practices and opinions; to reflect on one’s own values, perceptions and actions; and to take a position in the sustainability discourse.
  • Self-awareness: The ability to reflect on one’s own role in the local community and (global) society; to continually evaluate and further motivate one’s actions; and to deal with one’s feelings and desires.
  • Integrated problem-solving: The overarching ability to apply different problem-solving frameworks to complex sustainability problems and develop viable, inclusive and equitable solution options that promote sustainable development, integrating the abovementioned competences.

The key competencies represent what sustainability citizens particularly need to deal with today’s complex challenges. They are relevant to all SDGs and also enable individuals to relate the different SDGs to each other – to see ”the big picture” of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

SDG-specific learning objectives were also outlined in this publication that are to be seen in conjunction with the cross-cutting sustainability competencies. For each SDG and associated cross-cutting competencies, learning objectives are described in the cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural domains:

  • The cognitive domain comprises knowledge and thinking skills necessary to better understand the SDG and the challenges in achieving it.
  • The socio-emotional domain includes social skills that enable learners to collaborate, negotiate and communicate to promote the SDGs as well as self-reflection skills, values, attitudes and motivations that enable learners to develop themselves.
  • The behavioural domain describes action competencies.

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These learning domains have been adapted for UN SDG:Learn as follows:

  • Knowledge (head): cognitive aspects of a competency such as facts, definitions, concepts and associated thinking skills.
  • Emotions (heart): socio-emotional aspects of a competency (both inter- and intra-personally) such as values, attitudes, motivations, willingness, and reflection.
  • Action (hand): behavioural aspects of a competency such as common methods, processes and associated skills to plan, implement and evaluate actions (e.g. design, create, propose solutions and undertake activities)