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Teaching about the environment


“Developing a deeper understanding of people and places, and of the need to live in balance with an increasingly fragile environment, is more important than ever in today’s world.”

‘Geography: Learning to make a world of difference’, Ofsted, 2011

Topics on this page:

What is meant by the ‘environment’? | Students’ understanding of the environment | Changing policy and the school curriculum | Environmental geography in your school | Why is teaching about the environment important for young people? | Why is environmental geography a complex and challenging topic for students? | Reflect on these questions raised by Morgan (2017) | Reflect on Rawding’s questions | What should geographers be teaching? | Teach some environmental topics | Reflection as an ECT | Reflection questions for new teachers | Reading

What is meant by the ‘environment’?

Environmental features can be natural, managed, or constructed (i.e. the built environment) and encompass both human and physical geography.

Key reading

  • Lambert, D. (2017) on the ‘Environment’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association p 27.

Lambert recognises that concept of environment provides a powerful way of understanding, explaining and thinking about the world. It is a very central concept in the subject, particularly because it is at the interaction of physical and human geography. But it also includes other ideas that are fundamental to our discipline such as values and change as well as the key concepts of place and space. ‘Environment’ encompasses most of what we consider to be ‘geographical’ and provides us with many of the broad organising concepts of geography, as Lambert illustrates, such as:

  • The environment as an ecosystem: e.g. nutrient cycling, water stores
  • Environments as physical systems: e.g. weather, hydrology, soils
  • Environments change and are managed (intentionally and unintentionally)
  • The people/environment relationship e.g. stewardship and sustainability
  • The ethical dimension e.g. who gets what, where and why (and why care)?
  • The effects on people and places e.g. through economic development/settlement
  • Its contribution to people’s sense of identity.

David Hicks reminds us that we live in ‘unsustainable times’ and education about the environment needs to have a global dimension and a futures perspective (Hicks 2012). Teaching about the ‘environment’ is multi-dimensional. It demands a good subject knowledge of all dimensions. Use the above list of organising concepts as a starting point to review your own subject knowledge and do some in-depth reading/research about any areas in which you feel unsure or insecure.

Students’ understanding of the environment

Trevor Bennetts has identified these key concepts that are fundamental in the development of students’ geographical understanding of the relationships between people and environments. He does not claim that this is a definitive list, but it is a good one to start working with when making a curriculum:

  • Environment
  • The dynamic character of environments
  • Environmental influences on people
  • The human impact on environments
  • The quality of environments
  • Environmental hazards
  • Resources
  • Sustainability
  • Environmental and resource management.
  • Read Bennetts (2008) pp 58-9 for an analysis of each of these concepts.

Make sure you have a good understanding of each of the above concepts and would feel confident to teach them to students in the later years of secondary schools.

Changing policy and the school curriculum

In the last half century or so school geography priorities have changed to reflect different concerns and political policy as Morgan (2017) explains. 

In the 1980s and 1990s teaching of the environment began to reflect concerns over global issues and development but it was not until the Sustainable Schools in England policy that ‘environmental change and sustainable development’ became part of the 2007 National Curriculum. A new government in 2010 removed the mention of ‘sustainability’ from the National Curriculum. However, the DfE made this statement:

The Department for Education is committed to sustainable development and believes it is important to prepare young people for the future … We want schools to make their own judgements on how sustainable development should be reflected in their ethos, day-to-day operations and through education for sustainable development. Those judgements should be based on sound knowledge and local needs.’ (Top tips for sustainability in schools, DfE, 2012)

Politicians frequently remind us that the statutory requirements in the National Curriculum are not the whole curriculum for a school. ‘Sustainability’ is a good case for applying this. It is for geography teachers to decide how important it is for their students to learn about sustainable development and the environmental issues which are concerned with their ‘futures’. See Teaching sustainable development.

While not explicitly mentioned in the National Curriculum, it is implied, within the topics and aims/purposes of the subject, that interactions between people and their environments should be taught. At key stages 1-3, students are expected to make observations and experience fieldwork in human and physical environments in order to understand features, and how human activity is both reliant upon natural systems and influences these systems, processes and resources.

The GCSE specifications have an expectation that students consider environmental services and ecosystem functioning, how resources are consumed, how humans change ecosystems and sustainability. At A level, students are required to understand how human activity influences landforms over time, changing places, environmental management, geopolitics of resources and global governance, and how natural cycles influence resource security.

The A level criteria also include a statement about the importance of people-environment interactions, although the choice of issues and questions is determined by the awarding bodies.

  • Study the KS3 curriculum in your school. Identify the places and topics where environment-related topics are found.
  • Discuss with geography teachers the importance of teaching about the fragility of the environment and sustainability at KS3. Do you agree with their approach?
  • Analyse the content of environmental geography within the GCSE and A level specifications in your school.

Why is teaching about the environment important for young people?

Teaching about the environment provides geographers with an opportunity to teach young people about pressing global issues. We can explain how human activities are threatening the biosphere and plundering the world’s resources which is resulting in inequalities and poverty that are adversely affecting the quality of life for billions of people.

At the 2016 GA Conference the 13-year-old Mya-Rose Craig was a presenter. She is a writer, blogger and speaker who is passionate about saving our planet and everything on it. She realises that many teenagers don’t know or care about these issues. But she believes that young people are the future and addressed the audience of geography teachers telling them that unless we can interest our students in the environment there is no hope.

  • Look at Educating our Future Environmentalists which sets out her thoughts on essential topics to teach such as re-wilding, fracking and palm oil plantations, and on engaging your students so that they care.

Ofsted’s 2011 report (see quote at top of page) points out that it is part of a broad and balanced education for life to have an understanding of physical and human environments. Without this students are: ‘denied the opportunity to think about change in the contemporary world and how to imagine alternative futures.

Environments are rapidly changing in ways that we had not previously anticipated and this has led to issues at every scale from local to global: climate change, water scarcity, resource depletion, food shortages. Young people need to explore the dynamic interaction between physical and human geographies so they can understand these changes and recognise their own environmental responsibilities. Learners find this study fascinating and the frequent reports about environmental issues in the media gives this study relevance and topicality.

Environmental education seeks to engender in students a concern for the environment, the future of the planet. It is important that students understand the concept of sustainability and learn how to evaluate information about local and global issues, particularly since it may be derived from media sources.

Students must learn to identify that some persuasive arguments might be manipulative and not factually accurate. Education in the twenty-first century should be about developing in students a critical awareness of important issues that affect them and society and the ability to look forward to the future. The Geographical Association’s manifesto, A Different View (2009), argues that geography ‘seeks explanations about how the world works and helps us think about alternative futures’.

Within school geography we study major environmental changes that are affecting the whole world and all societies from the local to the global scale. Our studies include the:

  • Investigation of data – graphical, statistical and spatial analysis
  • Analysis of environmental patterns, processes and relationships
  • Exploration of questions about change, predictions and forecasts.

Why is environmental geography a complex and challenging topic for students?

Here are some of the underlying reasons:

  • It requires understanding of both physical and human processes.
  • The multiple perspectives can be challenging for students.
  • It is often studied at different scales – from local to global.
  • It can require students to deal with uncertainty and/or conflicting opinions.

Particularly at key stage 3, avoid teaching ‘simplistic’ explanations that are inaccurate in an attempt to reduce the complexity for students.

Morgan (2017) comments about environmental issues that ‘such teaching is challenging, but so is the scale of the environmental challenge faced by future generations’. He explains how you need to engage with some complex arguments when teaching about sustainability and uses the example of the Amazon rainforest ‘story’ to illustrate the inherent complexity in a topic that is commonly taught to key stage 3 students.

Key Reading

  • Morgan, J. (2017) ‘Teaching geography for sustainability’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Are you technocentric or ecocentric? (refer p 95 Figure 62).
  • Discuss with other teachers the Key questions for education for sustainability on p 99.
  • Should environmental issues always be taught through geographical enquiries that invite students to engage critically with the issues?
  • In your teaching, how can you balance environmental orthodoxies with the new ideas set out in Figure 7 on p 103?
  • What should you teach about the Amazon rainforest? (Refer to Figure 6 p 101). Explore some schemes of work, textbooks and resources for teaching about this topic. What perspectives do they adopt?

Also, with reference to the same schemes and resources, which of Bennett’s key concepts figure in them?

Teaching about the environment gives excellent opportunities to integrate teaching about human activities with the physical environment in holistic geographies as Rawding (2016) outlines.

Read Rawding (2016) and identify an environmental geography topic that you have taught, or you have observed being taught, at KS3. Or study a unit in a textbook.  

Think carefully about the four questions Rawding asks in relation to the teaching content for that topic:

  • Are environmental geographies too simplistic?
  • Are environmental geographies too negative?
  • Are Green geographies too doom-laden?
  • Are environmental geographies too fixed?

What should geographers be teaching?

To help students to understand the concept of environment they must study topics and issues in which physical and human inter-relationships are clearly apparent. Common topics taught in the geography curriculum to illustrate the concept are: deforestation, flooding, food and water. 

Students also need to consider human responses and management strategies. They need opportunities to make the connections between the science of earth systems, human responses and views about the future. 

This is often best approached by examining case studies at a range of scales and context. Students also should be given a chance to consider relevance to their own lives, their own interactions with the environment and their own opinions about the future of the environment.

Teaching about environmental issues presents you with two big challenges: getting the content right and how to teach it.

As you will have seen from the above, the ways to approach to the teaching of environmental issues are hotly debated. There are no clear-cut, right answers to the questions about what and how should we teach about environmental issues. Clarify your own thoughts before you begin to plan lessons and it might help you to discuss some of the above questions with your fellow teachers, your geography mentor or tutor.

  • See the GA resource Tropical rainforests – the causes of deforestation. The resource focuses on the causes and impacts of deforestation, including a case study of Sumatra, Indonesia. It is a key element of the key stage 3 National Curriculum in the consideration of how human and physical processes interact to influence, and change landscapes, environments and the climate; and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems.
A good resource to help you to reflect on aspects of environmental and cultural determinism are several of the articles in the Spring 2023 issue of Geography. The editor of this issue writes,
The quality of the articles is impressive, spanning a range of environmental and cultural topics that are timely and relevant. … As I was reading through I began to think increasingly about and started to ponder exactly where on the spectrum I find myself. Each of the articles in the issue addresses environment–society relationships and I found it a stimulating intellectual exercise trying to place each one in the context of environmental determinism, environmental probabilism, environmental possibilism or cultural determinism. Given the highly relevant nature of climate change and its many manifestations constantly in the news, I wonder if you have also paused to consider the debate around environment–society relationships and how these are changing as we experience unusual climatic events around the world. To what extent are we shaped by our physical versus our cultural environments and how does our behaviour change the physical and social world? Perhaps reading the articles through this lens will help stimulate your engagement with the debate around the complex co-evolving cultural–natural global ecosystem.
Take your time to read and reflect on these matters as you read this issue of Geography, in particular the articles on British National Parks and the Arctic.

If possible, try to gain some practical experience in several of these areas, then you can see for yourself the challenges for both you and your students:

  • Teach a unit of work on global warming/climate change.
  • Teach about a local issue (including fieldwork if possible) to explore ideas of sustainability.
  • Plan and teach a topic that explores how resources limit growth e.g. energy, water, food.
  • Use teaching activities that explore students’ ideas of probable and preferable futures.

Reflection as an ECT

As you have read above, the environment is a challenging topic to tackle and one which is worth spending time exploring this area in detail during your induction through reading and discussion with other geography teachers during your induction.

David Hicks asked the questions set out below in his 2013 GA lecture on ‘Looking to the Future’. Read his article on ‘A geography of hope’ in Geography Spring 2014 which is based on this lecture. When you have taught some lessons on the environment, reflect on what he has asked.

In what ways does your teaching:

  • analyse the nature and impact of unsustainable/sustainable practices?
  • imply that continued economic growth will always be the norm?
  • assume that there will always be a ready supply of fossil fuels for human use?
  • explore the nature and importance of renewable energy sources?
  • help learners explore the nature of/need for a more sustainable future?
  • foster capabilities needed for the transition to a post-carbon society?


  • Bennetts, T. (2008) ‘Improving geographical understanding at KS3’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hicks, D. (2012) Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures, WWF.
  • Lambert, D. (2017) on the ‘Environment’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association p 27.
  • Morgan, J. (2011) Teaching Geography as if the Planet Matters, London: Routledge.
  • Morgan, J. (2017) ‘Teaching geography for sustainability’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Rawding, C. (2016) ‘The challenges of environmental education’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • See Improving your subject knowledge of environmental topics.