‘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.


What do we know about initial teacher education in geography?

Simon Catling, Emeritus Professor Oxford Brookes University

What do we know? Surprisingly little it seems, at least from scholarly articles and research.

Though we have details about issues in teacher recruitment and entry into the workforce (Tapsfield, 2016; UCET, 2023), initial teacher education is not a well-researched area, as Butt (2020) indicates in his study of research in geography education in the UK.

There has been some research during the past twenty to thirty years mostly in small scale and single institution studies and typically examining prospective teachers’ ideas about geography, their learning about teaching geography and teacher educators’ identities.  But there has been plenty of public debate on what should be included in geography teacher education programmes in universities or schools, frequently referencing Ofsted inspections, and government policies that determine broadly what should be in courses. Much of what we understand about geography initial teacher education is gained through geography teacher educators talking to each other, such as through publications and conference presentations. While longstanding key texts, such as Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School (Biddulph et al., 2021) provide invaluable guidance for pre-service geography teachers, they say little about the nature and impact of their courses for such prospective geography teachers. This is also true of those texts for future primary teachers, such as Mastering Primary Geography (Barlow and Whitehouse, 2019). 

Perhaps it should be of concern to us that as geography teacher educators we know so little about learning to teach our subject from research, even though ‘research engagement’ is now de rigueur in the teaching profession. (Lambert, 2018)

Secondary teacher education programmes are promoted with succinctly informative outlines of why they are of value in learning to teach geography. Such promotions identify what courses say they cover, including the time and focus of teaching and study in school. What we cannot get a sense of – though perhaps we need to investigate – is whether what is advertised about geography secondary courses is lived up to in the practice of the full programme. In comparison, primary initial teacher education programmes offer a different sales pitch, basing these courses in teaching the whole curriculum and developing younger children’s skills in the core areas of literacy and mathematics. Geography rarely gets a mention. We need to explore why marketing geography (and indeed other foundation subjects) in primary courses is rare and whether geography course provisions ought to be more evidently mentioned. 

If we believe that learning to teach geography in certain ways is necessary and significant for future teachers, we need to research what this is and gather the evidence. Likewise, we should investigate what it is that prospective teachers of geography bring to these primary and secondary programmes. Why do they join the programme they do, as undergraduates or postgraduates? What is the range of understanding and experience pertinent to geography which they and tutors assume they have? How do geography tutors use such information in their courses, if they do? Again, we know positive approaches are enacted but largely through anecdotal discussions rather than thorough robust research investigation.

While there are some commonalities across secondary and primary pre-service programmes there are also fundamental differences. A prospective secondary geography teacher will spend time in school (preferably more than one) working with geography colleagues and teaching geography lesson sequences, often (but not always) encouraged to bring stimulus and some novelty to lessons. Although it may well be that future primary teachers are able to teach lessons in a focused geography topic during their school experiences, it is possible they may not encounter geography teaching at all. We know such disparities exist, but we need research on the extent of the range of experience of future primary and secondary teachers in learning to teach geography in schools. What is the extent of such disparities and how do they affect future teachers’ potential and capabilities as teachers of geography? 

Much has been made of the role of curriculum making in geography education (Biddulph, 2018). In what ways does this intellectual and practical activity feature in preservice courses and, if it does, how does it contribute to high levels of teacher agency (Biesta, Priestley and Robinson, 2015). More investigations into the work of geography mentors, given their important role, is also needed, to develop their work in secondary geography initial teacher education (Healey et al., 2022). It is also required to provide evidence of the practice (or its lack) by primary geography subject leads (Howells et al., 2021). Indeed, we might ask, who the primary geography mentors are and how are they chosen; and, if geography is well taught in the primary schools to which prospective teachers are sent for their school placements. Is there any evidence for example that primary schools which have earned the GA’s Primary Geography Quality Mark are better placements than those without? And why?

These topics and issues are not simply matters for the countries of the UK. There is little available information about the nature of the course content in secondary and primary pre-service courses across the nations of the world. Overall, research is lacking across institutions and schools about how courses are taught and what their impact is, let alone about comparability between providers. With the increasing diversity of providers and their number, this is not a straightforward concern to research. Indeed, this diversity has become a legitimate matter of research in its own right as private individuals and groups have begun to take an entrepreneurial interest in teacher training – and in some settings with very little public accountability (eg Black, 2015).

In much of the world, there appears to be negligible (comparative) analysis of pre-service geography courses, their staffing, their time provision, their resourcing and the placements of their prospective teachers of geography. There is little to draw on globally to help future research and comparison.

The geography education research community debates curriculum questions and the question of geographical knowledge (eg Morgan and Lambert, 2023). Individuals share experiences, ideas and intentions about teaching pe-service teachers how to teach geography to infant children right through to A level students. Yet as a community we seem to find it difficult to research and draw well-grounded findings from teaching pre-service students and their courses, so that we can develop, (re)construct and be creative about the courses we provide. The community seems to have been more trusting of service and experience than of research, capable of critiquing preservice course strengths and limitations and of government proposals and policies, but reluctant to examine presumptions and claims through systematic and dispassionate research.

Geography pre-service teacher education has been working in an environment of changing expectations and shifting requirements for many years, which seem to need constant shifts of focus and course revisions, if not closure. Before one set of changes can bed in and be properly reviewed for effectiveness or efficacy, the next set of changes seem designed to ensure that this is not possible to do, and so we move, poorly informed, from one set of changes to another. Does this really matter other than to ourselves? If it does, how can we fund and find the time in busy and over-pressed working schedules to do the research into our own practices?


Barlow, A. and Whitehouse, S. (2019) Mastering Primary Geography. London: Bloomsbury.

Biddulph, M. (2018) Curriculum Enactment in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (Eds) Debates in Geography Education.Abingdon: Routledge.

Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience. Abingdon: Routledge.

Biesta, G., Priestley, M. and Robinson, S. (20115) “The role of beliefs in teacher agency.” Teachers and Teaching21(6), 624-640.

Black, L. (2015) Schools officials’ consulting raises questions of transparency. Chicago Tribune. October 23.

Butt, G. (2020) Geography Education Research in the UK: Retrospect and Prospect. Cham: Springer.

Healey, G., Hammond, L., Puttick, S. and Walshe, N. (Eds) (2022) Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School: A Practical Guide. Abingdon: Routledge.

Howells, K. and Lawrence, J. with Roden, J. (2021) Mentoring Teachers in the Primary School: A Practical Guide. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lambert, D. (2018) Teaching as a research-engaged profession: uncovering a blind spot and revealing new possibilities, London Review of Education. 16(3) 357-370.

Morgan, J. and Lambert, D. (2023) Race, Racism and the Geography Curriculum. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Tapsfield, A. (2016) Teacher education and the supply of geography teachers in England. Teaching Geography, 41(2), 105-109.

UCET (2023) Response to the Call for Evidence to the Education Select Committee: Teacher recruitment, training and retention. London: UCET.


Anti-racist Learning and Teaching in School Geography?

Watch the recording of the GEReCo / UK IGU-CGE open forum that was held online on 6th November 2021.

This GEReCo open forum engaged with academic geographers’ work on anti-racism and started to think through the ways in which it might be applied in school geography. Anti-racist learning and teaching in British Geography (Esson and Last, 2020) examines how learning and teaching in UK Higher Education has functioned to reinforce racism, but also has the potential to counteract it. The three panelists facilitated a discussion about the ways in which anti-racist learning and teaching might be realised in school geography.

Dr James Esson, Reader in Human Geography, Loughborough University

Dr Angela Last, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Leicester

Iram Sammar, former school geography teacher, MPhil/PhD student UCL Institute of Education