What is needed for a hopeful school geography?

Dr David Mitchell (UCL / IoE)

In this blog post I first reflect on the extraordinary summer of 2022 and coming out of the pandemic, with a geographical perspective. Then, I raise some questions around geography education’s role in the challenge of the Anthropocene, drawing on some projects I am involved in. I argue here that exploring the relationship of knowledge and values, including by geographers collaborating with other subject specialists, can help develop a curriculum for hopeful futures, without diminishing the distinctive power of geography. 

Early one morning at the height of the heatwave this summer, I woke to find a fox in my bedroom. Emboldened by the scarcity of food and water in parched suburban England, it had come in through an open door and chased my cat up the stairs. It gave me quite a shock! It struck me that this was another signal of climate change. If we make a few connections, it is hard to ignore. Here was climate change announcing itself, coming up to bite me (almost literally). The small local signs keep coming – a poisonous spider on my garden fence (the false widow – an invasive species), trees dropping their leaves in August, England at over 40 degrees. Summer 2022’s weather extremes are no joke for those struggling to live with forest fires in southern Europe, floods in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa. Recent months seem like a wake-up call to the speed and seriousness of climate change. 

Most people can probably think of an example of how ‘nature’ has recently changed to impinge on their lives, but they may not make the connection to climate change and the Anthropocene. Geography education helps here, through concepts of interconnection and environment. Covid 19 is another case in point. The virus mutated, jumping to people partly because development pushing into the fringes of wild, forest areas has put pressure on these ecosystems, encouraging viruses to move beyond their usual zoological pools and into humans.

An interesting geographical connection between climate crisis and Covid 19, which I do not think is often made, is about taking action. The climate crisis demands swift, collaborative action to decarbonise the global economy. A few encouraging examples can be found – for instance, this summer, Germany’s €9 ticket scheme which gave a month’s unlimited public transport across cities, significantly reducing car use, and the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) committing the USA to serious investment in renewable energy infrastructure. But overall, change is slow and limited, even as tipping points are approaching. It can seem that, in democracies, it is just too much to expect people to stand for the disruption needed, for example in the form of taxation to fund a dramatic overhaul of energy, transport and housing infrastructure, perhaps even measures to limit individual freedoms to consume as we choose. And yet when a more immediate fear of a killer disease (covid 19) is brought into the mix, people in those same democracies willingly obey orders to stay at home for months at a time, home-schooling their children, not visiting elderly relatives. 

Covid 19 has shown that, in democracies as well as autocracies, governments can act fast, show leadership in the face of environmental crisis, and collaborate across the world. Why is such leadership not forthcoming with the climate crisis? Perhaps it is the super-complexity of climate change, a wicked problem and a ‘hyper-object’ – vast, well known, and ever-present, yet defying perception (see Morton, 2014). Like the fable of the frog in the cauldron (it dies because it doesn’t notice the water gradually heating) the problem is that creeping change is harder to grasp than a sudden event. 

Geographical concepts help us to make connections between events and places, to find patterns and make sense of our lives on the earth. In this way, geographical education is about developing knowledge and understanding of the present. Geography’s contribution to education is also about the future, which depends on how knowledge and understanding is used – the choices made. This is not just about conceptual knowledge, but (as I have alluded to in my introduction) it includes viewpoints, attitudes, and values, often developed by debate. The work for geography educators and teachers is daunting. Eco-anxiety is on the rise, teacher recruitment and retention are in crisis, and teachers struggle to balance teaching about global issues accurately, without provoking a sense of despair. Here I want to explore some issues this raises for geography education, by posing four questions:

In education for the Anthropocene,

  1. What does it mean to have geographic capabilities?
  2. How should geography education handle the relationship between knowledge and values?
  3. Should subject teachers collaborate more across subjects?
  4. (in conclusion) What ‘levers’ could be used to develop curricula and pedagogies?

I offer some brief reflections on each question, here:

1.         What does it mean to have ‘geographic capabilities’?

The GeoCapabilities project has developed some very useful conceptual tools for teachers. It has brought theories of curriculum, curriculum-making, collaborative teacher-led curriculum development, powerful disciplinary knowledge (PDK) and powerful pedagogies together. I think its most significant contribution has been to help geography teachers and educators to articulate why teaching geography matters. It does so by the idea that some geographical knowledge (thinking geographically, with concepts) is essential for people to be able to make choices that enable them to live a life they value. GeoCapabilities thus articulates a connection between learning geography and human development – and not just in the narrow instrumental sense (of skills or qualifications leading to a job).

However, knowledge capabilities as individual freedoms raise questions about how other people, and other living things are considered in human development. Nussbaum’s (2011) list of capabilities requires more than knowledge. Her list involves capabilities for affiliation, forming attachments, care and loving relationships, and to engage politically. Geography teachers know that a great geography lesson often involves debate, different viewpoints and the chance to apply and explore the implications of geographical knowledge for people’s choices, as well as for more powerful decision-makers. GeoCapabilities remains a very helpful heuristic, but perhaps the next step in the project could be to explore further, the relationship between geographical knowledge and the values/ ethical dimension informing how that knowledge is used. This resonates with the OECD global competencies (2018) which connects knowledge, values, attitudes and skills, for understanding, engagement and action for sustainable development…This brings me to the second question:

2.         How should geography education handle the relationship between knowledge and values?

I have been lucky enough to have been involved in a collaboration of three universities (UCL, Karlstadt and Helsinki) exploring subject specific teaching and teacher education in various subjects. The group, called the KOSS network, has been exploring the educational contribution of disciplinary knowledge using notions of ‘powerful disciplinary knowledge’ (PDK) (see Young and Muller, 2010) and ‘epistemic quality’ (Hudson et al, 2022). Working with the KOSS network has led me to ask – is the knowledge focus, under-playing the role of values in curriculum? If disciplinary knowledge is powerful in enabling new ways of thinking about the world, how do values, the ethical and the political shape the use of that power? From this we can pose the question, how should subject teaching engage with values, the ethical and the political as young people make sense of the knowledge they are taught?

These questions led Religious Education (RE) educator, Alexis Stones, and I to explore this further together, in the context of the Anthropocene and the turbulent, uncertain times we are in. We have written a paper in which we unpack the relationships between curriculum, disciplinary knowledge, values, and ethical perspectives. We make the case for repositioning values and ethics as central to understanding how curriculum knowledge can be educationally powerful (Mitchell and Stones, 2022). Our thinking is informed by the notion of knowledge capabilities. The GeoCapabilities project, phase 3, explores the teaching of migration with a capabilities lens, showing how disciplinary knowledge (the geography of migration) and emotions, values and ethics were woven together (Mitchell, 2022). For example, in thinking about human rights, the morality of refugee treatment, inequalities and injustices around migrant movements and so forth. It also brought to light how knowledge capabilities around an issue or debate (like migration) cannot be contained by one discipline or school subject. Understanding migration for instance, requires some historical knowledge. More widely, students making sense of concepts such as the Anthropocene and sustainability requires history, as well as notions of stewardship, care, meanings of life and different worldviews, including marginalised indigenous voices – concepts developed in RE. 

There is already a well-developed field of literature in values education, including in school geography (see Slater, 1996 and Mitchell, 2018). The field of education for sustainable development is another huge field. Both fields remind us that different political/philosophical positions towards potential futures mean a once-and-for-all school geography stance toward global issues is neither possible, nor desirable, and so the ongoing debate is necessary. However, my point here is about the idea of ‘powerful disciplinary knowledge’ (PDK). It is very important that teachers are educated and updated with knowledge from the discipline. Take the topic of development, for example. Rostow’s model portrays development as linear, about growth and ‘maturity’) it is an elegant theory and persistent in school geography – but also misleading and dated. It should be explored by students, but also challenged and complemented by theories of core-periphery, dependency, neo-colonialism, sustainable development, human capabilities and post-development ideas. 

Such knowledge supports a curriculum of engagement, and a sense of possibility which challenges narratives of despair. David Alcock’s arguments about hopeful geography (2019) and Hans Rosling’s foregrounding positive human development data (2019) are relevant here. But there are different versions of truth, different lenses to be applied which combine values positions with knowledge. Different stories of future societies and environment can be told. We receive a stream of bad news in the media, not always, but in general, stories of human suffering, cruelty and brutality are amplified by the news, reinforcing a narrative that people are inherently self-centred and greedy. But this is a distorted view of people and the world. The story can change, and with it the belief of what is possible in the future. There is much evidence that people are overwhelmingly kind, compassionate and social (see Monbiot, 2018 and Bregman, 2020). So, PDK is important, but there are different knowledges, and they should be explored through values to get as close as possible to truth about people and planet.

3.         Should subject teachers collaborate more across subjects?

Many important, issue-based geographical topics like migration, climate change, energy, geopolitics, and development, can neither be ‘known’ nor the implications of that knowledge explored (through discussion about possible futures, solutions, actions needed and so forth) without a range of disciplinary lenses. Understanding climate change and the Anthropocene, for example, benefits from using atmospheric chemistry and physics to understand the greenhouse effect, mathematics to calculate and extrapolate changes, history to understand industrial change and mercantilism, RE to explore care and stewardship, economics to understand scarcity, resource pressures and cost-benefit, citizenship to explore rights and responsibilities, English, art and music to explore different narratives, emotional and expressive responses to the changing world. Taking just geography and history, it is hard to disentangle one from the other in some of the most significant work to understand society and environment, for example Harari’s sweeping and exploratory writing (2011) is a story of human history but also how people’s relationship with the earth has come to be and might be in the future. Another is Malm’s analysis of ‘fossil capitalism’ and the roots of global warming (2016) which blends historical and geographical lenses.  Both disciplines deal with change, both need to understand past events to understand the present and both offer ways to approach the future.

Taking this a step further, we can ask, what human attributes (or ‘capabilities’ in a broad sense) does society need to deal with climate change and its environmental, social, and economic challenge? I suggest some are:

  • science, logic, calculation, and precision
  • empathy, ethics, and care for others
  • political literacy and social understanding
  • creativity, imagination, and vision
  • cultural awareness and a long historical view
  • a sense of scale and how people and nature connect at different levels
  • new stories to be written and old ones challenged.  

Many different types of knowledge, skills and values are needed, and these come from a wide range of subject disciplines. 

Such knowledge, skills and values can be learned separately, through discrete subjects, but making connections across subjects is powerful. For me, one way geography is interesting and meaningful, is by putting the concepts, ideas, and techniques of other subjects to use in real world contexts. I am not advocating for collapsing subject boundaries here, but for finding ways for subject teachers to talk together and collaborate to develop their curricula. This is what we have begun to do in UCL’s ‘sustainability across subjects’ project (SAS, 2022) with trainee subject teachers. We borrowed the GeoCapabilities principle of applying a disciplinary lens to texts, images, and discussions about ‘the Anthropocene’, in collaborative student teacher groups. The difference to GeoCapabilities being that the disciplinary lenses are not just geography but a wide range of school subjects. 

In the SAS project so far, we have found that teachers value the collaboration and reflection across subjects. We suspect that this collaboration develops both better understanding of how other subjects think about sustainability, and clearer understanding off their own subject’s contribution (though we do not yet have this evidence). We have also found there are substantial barriers to cross-subject collaboration for teaching about and for sustainability, including teachers feeling under constant pressure, accountability for exam results, feeling that (in most schools) education for sustainability is not taken seriously and secondary PGCE being (currently) quite siloed into subjects. 

At UCL-IOE we are exploring ways to support greater collaborative work across subjects, including through the new Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education (CCCSE 2022). This will include developing research informed professional development courses and materials to be made freely available to teachers. Some of these will be aimed at specific subject teachers, but also, they will cross subject boundaries. I believe this will not diminish the PDK of subjects but will only enhance it. This is because, by carefully exploring their own subject’s disciplinary structure in relation to other subjects, teachers are pushed to articulate their distinctive contribution to education for sustainability.

Conclusion – What ‘levers’ could be used to develop geography curricula and pedagogies?

In this blog piece, I have raised some questions which I hope will encourage debate about how school geography can evolve to continue making an important contribution to education. I see this as a hopeful school geography, in which teachers and students alike find satisfaction and an excitement about the future. But what can support this evolution? Oates (2011) explored the levers controlling school curriculums (what gets taught and how), including national curriculum requirements, exam boards, inspection and accountability measures, funding, teacher training and professional development. When (and if) these are aligned to pull in the same direction ‘curriculum coherence’ (ibid) makes for high performing education systems. The trick, I believe, is to make sure the epistemic quality (see Hudson et al, 2022) of subjects inputting to these factors is also high, for the most powerful, engaging and rewarding school geography teaching.

I want to conclude by considering just one lever for change here – the Geographical Association’s (GA), forthcoming curriculum framework. This project, led by Eleanor Rawling with a steering group, has been developed with advisory input from teachers, academic geographers, and educators. I had the privilege of being part of initial steering group discussions. Currently in draft form, it is to be trialled with various groups before being published online in 2023. The framework is not a model school curriculum or list of content, rather it helps to understand how the discipline of geography should inform how a school geography curriculum is developed. The framework’s stated purposes are:

‘…to identify key concepts, significant features and distinctive approaches of the discipline of geography; to highlight how these features can contribute to the education of young people; and to clarify how this should inform the development of the school curriculum at national level.’ (GA, 2022: 1)

The framework is intended to be used at a range of levels from national, including government departments, to sub-national level, by awarding organisations, publishers, and subject organisations (including the GA and RGS-IBG) geography educators and Multi-Academy Trust geography leaders for instance, and at local level, by individual schools and teachers. The framework offers a clear and forward-looking way to think about geographical knowledge by breaking it into three areas of: ‘geographical key concepts’ (thinking like a geographer); ‘geographical practice’ (how geographers find out); and ‘geographical application’ (how geographers make use of geography). 

The second and third categories particularly, show the inescapable connection between knowledge and values. The description of ‘geographical practice’ includes:

‘…recognition of the values and moral/ethical dimensions involved in any enquiry and development of one’s own moral and ethical stance.’

The ethical dimension is also implied as part of geographical application, described as:

‘…applying knowledge, understanding and skills to real world challenges and issues – living peacefully and productively with others and ensuring our future on the planet.’ (GA, 2022: 3)

I believe the GA’s framework is a key moment in the evolution in the geographical knowledge debate, by encouraging the connection of knowledge and values in curriculum thinking. If used well, it is a significant way to leverage geography curriculum development. For both students and teachers, this can help revitalise school geography toward a curriculum of engagement and hopeful futures.


For their support and collaborative work in developing the ideas I draw on in this blog piece, I am most grateful to Alexis Stones, members of the KOSS network, the GeoCapabilities3 project team and the GA curriculum framework steering group.

References and weblinks

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

Bregman, R. (2020). Humankind: A hopeful history. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

CCCSE (2022)

Geographical Association (2022) A Framework for the School Geography Curriculum (draft version not yet published) 

Harari, Y. (2011) Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind. London: Vintage

Hudson, B., Gericke, N., Olin-Scheller, C. and Stolare, M. (eds) (2022) International Perspectives on Knowledge and Quality Implications for Innovation in Teacher Education Policy and Practice: Reinventing teacher education. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Malm, A. (2016). Fossil capital: The rise of steam power and the roots of global warming. London: Verso Books.

Mitchell, D. (2018) ‘Handling controversial issues in geography’ in D. Lambert and M. Jones (eds.) Debates in Geography Education, Second Edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mitchell, D. (2022) ‘GeoCapabilities 3 –Knowledge and Values in Education for the Anthropocene’. International Review of Geography and Environmental Education. Available online 

Mitchell, D. and Stones, A. (2022) ‘Disciplinary knowledge for what ends? The values dimension of curriculum research in the Anthropocene’. London Review of Education, 20 (1), 23.

Monbiot, G. (2018) Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. London: Verso

Morton, T. (2014) Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.

Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Oates, T. (2011): ‘Could do better: using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England’. Curriculum Journal, 22 (2), 121-150.

OECD (2018)

Rosling, H. (2019). Factfulness. Paris: Flammarion.

SAS (2022)

Slater, F. (1996) ‘Values: Toward mapping their locations in a geography education’, in A. Kent, D. Lambert, M. Naish and F. Slater (eds) Geography in education: Viewpoints on teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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