‘Teaching for Sustainable Futures’ – a research informed professional development programme

Dr David Mitchell, Associate Professor of Geography Education, UCL – Institute of Education

On 13th July 2023 the UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE) launched the report of a national survey of teachers in England and its flagship professional development programme for teachers, Teaching for Sustainable Futures. In this blog piece, I hope to show how Teaching for Sustainable Futures is not only a response to evidence of accelerating climate change, eco-anxiety and a demand from many parents, children, and teachers for more education about climate change. It is also an outcome of sustained research efforts to explore the educational potential of geography for challenging and uncertain futures. Of particular significance to the approach taken by the geography part of the professional development programme are concepts and tools drawn from GeoCapabilities: in particular, its approach to curriculum making and ‘future 3 curriculum’ scenarios (Young and Muller, 2010; Lambert, Béneker and Bladh, 2021).

The CCCSE’s 2023 teachers’ survey and an earlier survey of parents commissioned by the CCCSE in 2022, show that most parents and teachers want more opportunities for teaching about climate change and for sustainable futures.  The teachers’ survey showed that geography is the subject most likely to teach about climate change – which is no surprise, but it also revealed that 70% of teachers are self-taught when it comes to teaching about climate change and sustainability. There is a pressing need for more support for teachers and structured professional development in this area. In developing Teaching for Sustainable Futures, steered and supported by advisory teachers and academic colleagues, the intention is to connect research around why subject disciplinary knowledge matters in education, with some practical materials to support teachers.

The notion of GeoCapabilities uses the ideas of powerful knowledge (Young 2008), powerful pedagogies (Roberts 2017) and curriculum making, all deployed towards the goal of human development, measured as human capabilities. Capabilities here means achieving the enabling power to think geographically, freeing the individual (intellectually at least) to make real choices about how to live (Lambert et al, 2015). When capabilities become an educational goal geography, through its distinctive knowledge structure, offers a powerful way to understand climate change and can enable young people to make sense of it, and be able to think and act for themselves, toward more sustainable futures.

Concepts of place, space, environment, earth-processes and interconnection make up a key part of geography’s powerful disciplinary knowledge (Geographical Association, 2023). But knowledge is only powerful when teachers and young people are engaged with it. Teachers need access to rapidly evolving ideas which geographers play a part in developing and communicating: such as, the Anthropocene, the sixth mass extinction, and revisions on where we are in relation to keeping to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels (we are at 1.2 degrees at the time of writing). We believe that teachers also benefit from refreshing their understanding and use of the structure of the discipline itself, as this can be rather lost when the focus of teaching can be heavily on content coverage and generic ‘technique’ such as question practice to prepare students for examinations. A re-orientation to geography’s deeper potential (expressed as the ability to ‘think geographically’) supports teachers’ curriculum making so that young people can be more intrinsically interested and engaged, seeing significance in geography lessons beyond exam results. I believe Teaching for Sustainable Futures (TSF)exemplifies a ‘future 3’ curriculum in practice – one of engagement with an emancipatory view of geographical knowledge. Teachers can tap into geography’s potential to help young people to think, participate and ultimately make choices, around the big issues and questions of sustainable futures.

Some geography teachers express a heightened awareness that teaching about climate change can communicate ‘doom and gloom’ for young people. This is corroborated by Alcock’s research (2019) in England which found that both geography lessons and media representations feed into young people’s minds, the majority of who answer ‘no’ when asked: is the world getting better? The programme addresses this by showing ways that the geographical lens can help to explore climate change and the wider crises of sustainability we face, realistically, critically, but also with hope. This reminds us that geographical knowledge has educational potential because knowledge is so entwined with values in the geography classroom (Mitchell, 2022). Both academic geographers (eg Castree et al, 2010) and educationists in the field (notably Hicks, 2007; 2014) have been pioneering thought about how ‘pessimism of the intellect’ (to borrow from the famous phrase usually attributed to Gramsci) can be obviated, and the TSF programme at least tried to avoid this ‘trap’.

Geographical enquiry for action is a key pedagogy used and this is coupled with an emancipatory take on disciplinary knowledge for young people’s engagement in these issues. The programme draws on the Geographical Association’s curriculum framework (2023) amongst other research-informed materials including Huckle’s critical school geography (2022). Discussion questions and short activities are used and there is advice from classroom teachers, academics and others in the form of short video clips. Modules are free, online and can be accessed at any time. These are short courses, designed with busy teachers in mind to take about 90 minutes (or longer when the ‘going further’ options and links are followed). They can be taken individually, but taking them with colleagues, for example a geography department team, is encouraged for the discussion and collaborative curriculum making this supports.

There are separate programmes for primary and secondary age phases. The programme has begun with modules for history and geography, extending later to address the teaching of mathematics and English. The initial geography modules explore the potential of teaching geography for sustainable futures. Potentials are then exemplified using worked-through examples of critical geography teaching, for example, using some lessons created and taught to a group of 12–13-year-old children which examine Arctic ice restoration through a form of ‘biomimicry’. Students are asked to evaluate this with a geographical lens, and critically compare it to other geo-engineering approaches for mitigating climate change.

To access the programme, Teaching for Sustainable Futures, please click here. For the survey report, please click here.


Alcock, D. (2019) ‘Optimism, progress and geography – celebration and calibration’, Teaching Geography. 44 (3), pp. 118–121.

Castree, N., Chatterton, P. A., Heynen, N., Larner, W. and Wright, M. W. (Eds) (2010) The Point Is To Change It: Geographies of Hope and Survival in an Age of Crisis. Chichetser: Wiley-Blackwell.

Geographical Association (2023) A framework for the school geography curriculum. Online material. last accessed July 2023.

Hicks, D. (2007) ‘Lessons for the future: a geographical contribution’, Geography, 92, 4, pp. 179–88.

Hicks, D. (2014) Education for Hope: Climate change, peak oil and the transition to a post-carbon future. London: Trentham Books/Institute of Education Press

Huckle, J. (2022) Critical School Geography. Self-published, online content last accessed July 2023.

Lambert, D., Béneker, T. and Bladh, G. (2021) The Challenge of Recontextualisation and Future 3 Curriculum Scenarios: an overview. In Fargher, M., Mitchell, D. and Till, E. (eds) Recontextualising Geography in Education. Cham: Springer.

Lambert, D. Solem, M. & Tani, S. (2015) ‘Achieving Human Potential Through Geography Education: A Capabilities Approach to Curriculum-making in Schools’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105, 4), pp. 723-735.

Mitchell, D. (2022): GeoCapabilities 3: knowledge and values in education for the Anthropocene, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education.

UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (2023) last accessed July 2023.

Young, M. (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social Realism in the sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Young, M. & Muller, J. (2010) Three Educational Scenarios for the Future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge, European Journal of Education, 45, 1, pp. 11-26.

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