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Teaching sustainable development

“By 2030 ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

UNESCO, 1987 

Topics on this page:

What is meant sustainable development? | Different ideologies and perceptions of sustainability | The challenge of teaching ESD | Different perspectives on teaching ESD | Teaching and learning strategies for ESD? | What topics to choose? World or local issues? | Peak oil | The limits to growth | Students’ understanding of sustainability | Resources on sustainability and limits to growth | Reading

What is meant by sustainable development?

The opening quote is the description given of sustainable development in the UN Brundtland Report (Our Common Future 1987). This report recognised that human activity was seriously damaging the biosphere and this could not continue indefinitely – it was unsustainable. The report linked together issues of environment and development and also recognised sustainable development as a global problem.

As identified by the UN, there are four intertwined dimensions to sustainable development – society, environment, culture and economy. Sustainability is a future in which environmental, societal and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of an improved quality of life. People need a healthy environment to provide food and resources, safe drinking water and clean air.

The long-term goal is a sustainable world and sustainable development is the means to achieve it; for example, sustainable agriculture and forestry, sustainable production and consumption, good government, research and technology transfer, education and training.

Surprisingly, since sustainability is so important for the future of the planet, the concept does not feature by name in the statutory geography curriculum. It is, however, implicit in the human use of resources, human-environment interactions and concepts such as interdependence – all of which do feature in the curriculum.

Different ideologies and perceptions of sustainability

While sustainability is generally accepted as a worthwhile goal, there are very different ideas about how it should be achieved. There are three different political ideologies each with a view:

  • Neoliberal: governments should not interfere with people’s lives; business and commerce are put before social and environmental concerns.
  • Welfare state: governments have a significant part to play in the individual’s well-being.
  • Green: governments should encourage all citizens to live their lives more sustainably, be ecologically responsible and think of future generations.

While ideologies are never clear cut, a neoliberal view means only limited support for low-carbon approaches such as renewable energy. Until recently, this was the dominant approach in many western industrialised countries, but things are beginning to change. 

A welfare state view brings greater support for a low-carbon economy, and encouraging business to accept their social and environmental responsibilities. At present no state fully endorses a green view.

Also, there are different perceptions of sustainability. ‘Rich’ countries want greater stewardship of world resources; for example, protecting the rain forest and reducing carbon emissions. ‘Poor’ countries do not see that at their most pressing concern which for them is the eradication of poverty. Caring for the environment is a ‘luxury’ they cannot afford.

Some see science and technology as the solution to sustainable development. For example,  fertilisers and genetically modified crops will solve world food issues; nuclear power and carbon capture and storage will meet energy demands. In contrast, the opposite view is that  humanity should work in harmony with the biosphere and keep within its limits.

Another different perception is ‘light green’ versus ‘deep green’.  Light greens believe that life can go on much the same if governments minimise environmental damage and new technology meets our future needs. Deep greens believe that will not achieve a sustainable future because more needs to change; it requires significant changes in  lifestyle and attitudes to reject materialism, consumerism, growth and greed.

Key reading

The challenge of teaching ESD

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is challenging to teach because there is no common consensus on: What is to be sustained? At what levels? Over what scale? Everyday debates over issues such as wind power, sustainable communities, or world trade illustrate the complexities of the ethical, social and economic issues involved.

The concept of sustainability requires teachers to convey to students some complex ideas such as the understanding that:

  • The natural, physical and human environments and processes are interconnected
  • Our actions now have implications for the future, but these scenarios are not fixed
  • The Earth’s resources cannot support human demands in the long term at the current rate of consumption.
  • That human well-being, quality of life and healthy environments are interdependent
  • People have similar needs but that these are met in different and often unequal ways
  • It is dealing with uncertain knowledge and there are no easy or quick solutions that will please everyone.

The different ideologies and perceptions have been summarised, and simplified, in the previous paragraphs. You should explore these yourself in detail by reading widely about sustainability before you teach this challenging topic. You must be well informed to tackle teaching about the issues involved.

  • Read Jackson (2009) and the articles in the Spring 2009 issue of Geography which have a focus on sustainability in different forms.

Sustainability is a widely-used concept in geographical education and is central to teaching about the environment and its future. Yet, as Alaric Maude (2014) points out, its meaning is often difficult to pin down.

He distinguishes between ‘sustainability’ (the state or condition of being sustainable) and ‘sustainable development’ (a process of economic and social change). Sustainable development may be hard to define, but the really difficult issue, as Boardman and Ranger (1996) point out, is ‘determining what has to be done to achieve it’.

‘Carbon Colonialism’ refers to the power imbalances in the landscape of sustainability that allow wealthy countries to determine how environmental impacts are measured. Read more about this in the RGS resource Carbon Colonialism: How Rich Countries Export Climate Breakdown.

Biddulph et al (2021) in Figure 9.2 show how environmental, social and economic processes intersect in creating the concept of ‘sustainable development’. They make the case for multidisciplinary study of education for sustainable development (ESD).

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pages 260 – 264.

There is also a wealth of literature setting out different interpretations of education for sustainable development (ESD). It is important that you explore this to gain an appreciation of the range of views and perspectives that exist in education, and clarify your own ideas. In particular, you should consider carefully what teaching sustainability means in today’s classroom. Also consider the implications for fieldwork as outlined by Job (2001).

Refer specifically to the readings by John Morgan (2017) and Alun Morgan (2011). In the latter reference, note the difference that is described between learning for sustainable development and learning as sustainable development.

Different perspectives on teaching ESD

In geography teaching we often ask ‘big geographical questions’, which can be seen from different perspectives. Sustainability is a good example to consider in relation to each of these groups of big questions:

  • Social fairness and justice: Who gets what? Where? Why? Why should we care?
  • Economic prosperity: How do cities, regions and nations work? What jobs do people do? How do they make a living? How can this be secured?
  • Environmental quality: How we conserve resources and landscape? How can we avoid large scale environmental damage (e.g. pollution, soil erosion or overfishing)? How can we manage global climate change?

  • Are you looking to teach about sustainability, through sustainability or for sustainability?
  • Or are you looking to use ESD as a vehicle (learning as sustainable development) to build students’ capacity to think critically.
  • How important do you think it is it for learners to develop their own opinions?
  • Should you focus on the local, or the global scale? Or both?
  • What is your own experience of ESD, from school, university and your life outside of education? How important has this been in influencing your ideas?
  • In what areas of the curriculum, outside of geography, are aspects of ESD taught in your school. Discuss with the teachers in these subjects why and how they teach it.

Different perspectives engender a lively debate between geography teacher educators.

  • Explore this debate in these four Teaching Geography articles. The three by Morgan, Hicks and Firth in Teaching Geography Spring 2011 set out their different arguments, and the final article, by Huckle in the Autumn 2011 issue, considers and comments on what they have written.

Teaching and learning strategies for ESD?

You may hold strong views yourself on issues of sustainability, so you must consider very carefully how to present ESD to students. You must not indoctrinate students to follow your opinion! 

You must teach students how to debate, evaluate and judge for themselves the relative merits of different views. Refer to Values and controversial issues which suggests different approaches you can adopt the avoid imposing your views.

Ofsted (2008), reporting on ESD, observed lessons taught across the curriculum and noted that:

‘The most effective lessons had a consistent focus on engaging the students and ensuring that they understood why they were studying the topic and its relevance to their own lives. Lessons were framed around key questions with students researching the answers, often in groups. They were given opportunities to discuss, make decisions, solve problems, listen to and assess alternative points of view and to arrive at their own conclusions. In this way, they were able to tackle complex moral and ethical issues, such as equality and justice, enjoyed these lessons and were ‘able to learn better’ because they were personally involved, could express their own views and could listen to those of fellow students, ‘not just those of the teacher’. (‘Schools and sustainability’, Ofsted, 2008)

The subject content involves evaluating and weighing evidence, forming opinions and presenting viewpoints and conclusions. Strategies that are best practice for ESD involve the skills of enquiry and critical thinking to:

  • Use enquiry, creativity, imagination, or collective decision making
  • Actively engage with issues and context e.g. fieldwork, role play
  • Develop autonomous and critical thinking
  • Enable students to ask questions, voice opinions and present their ideas to others
  • Consider how and why others might see and do things differently
  • Use a range of text and media resources
  • Tackle controversial issues where there are a range of alternative responses
  • Encourage students to look critically at their everyday lives and surroundings and articulate their concerns.

You might want to start your teaching by:

  • Planning some lessons using the Development compass rose to consider the physical, social, political and economic perspectives of sustainability
  • Using a local issue to explore the principles of sustainable development in land use planning in your area. Use some of the ideas in the What is a sustainable community? (Building sustainable communities project) or Smyth (2001)
  • Using the topic ‘water’ to plan some lessons on sustainability using Wateraid or Water conflict: the Aral Sea
  • Planning some local fieldwork for students to undertake an environmental audit (Bartlett 2003) or explore ecological footprints (Heath 2002)
  • Setting students a group project to research for a multi-media presentation on a local sustainability issue, as described in Morgan (2001)
  • Refer to these Top tips for teaching about biodiversity from the GA’s Sustainability and Citizenship Special Interest Group.

What topics to choose? World or local issues?

Key questions to pose to students is whether we can afford to continue in our current unsustainable ways and how do we work together to create a more sustainable future? There are a wide number of possible topics you can use to explore these questions: food and drink; energy and water; travel and traffic; purchasing and waste; buildings and grounds; local well-being and the global dimension.

Sustainability should be studied through one or more of these topics at different scales from the global to the very local, and include fieldwork. Young people do not immediately see the connections between their lives and the environment and first-hand experience of fieldwork, or a visit to an environmental project can assist in doing this. Living in the UK they do not always recognise the impact of their lifestyle on the rest of the planet. Geography lessons should open their eyes to the connections.

A teaching idea: The UK Government has launched its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. Point 7 of the plan – greener buildings, e.g. your school or home – is a good aspect to explore with students. Raising awareness of the parts of the school building that are energy efficient and those that are not, e.g. draughty windows, lights left on, and then making a COP 26 pledge that can be acted upon to show the impact of making the school building and/or their home greener and more sustainable.

Two key ideas to consider when you are planning your curriculum are peak oil and the limits to growth.

Peak oil

Energy is an excellent example of a local and global issue. In the western world coal, oil and gas have been the basis for transport, heating and power generation since the Industrial Revolution and also provide by-products such as pesticides, fertilisers and plastics. These high-carbon fossil fuels are now recognised to be dangerous to both humans and the natural environment across the world.

Peak oil is a term that is not as familiar as ‘climate change’ but it will result in important changes to how we live. It refers to the year when the maximum rate of petroleum is reached, after which it will decline quite steeply while demand continues to rise. Fracking is an attempt to eke out resources. Hicks (2011) discusses teaching about peak oil.

Key aspects about energy use to teach in geography lessons are:

  • The consequences of using high carbon fossil fuels and their by-products
  • Sources of renewable energies – wind, solar, wave and biomass
  • The advantages/disadvantages of different energy sources: fossil fuels, nuclear, renewable
  • Peak oil and whether fracking is a solution or a problem
  • The implications of a shift to a low carbon society.
  • Read Bustin (2015) which considers different ideological approaches to the teaching of natural resources in ways that make the topic relevant in the context of sustainability.

 The limits to growth

Concerns over global warming and energy shortages as well as water scarcity and food shortages have shown us how the earth’s natural resources are finite. Unsustainable practices ignore the fact that there need to be limits to growth. Farming can destroy soils, over-fishing can destroy fish stocks, over-population can destroy habitats, and clearance for agriculture can destroy forests.

We create waste that is stored in the ground, the oceans and the atmosphere; all have limits to the amount that they can store before being damaged beyond repair. The capacity of our planet is not inexhaustible. Yet people live in big cities in places that were once thought impractical for humans to inhabit, such as Las Vegas and Dubai.

Geography teachers need to ensure that young people consider:

  • The ‘impossible’ places in which people live
  • The ways in which humans are damaging the biosphere
  • How we live wastefully without regard to the planet’s limits
  • How to provide an environmentally stable world for future generations.
A combination of factors have precipitated a worldwide energy crisis. For insights on recent events and their local as well as global impacts on energy supply, refer to ‘Place Matters! Rediscovering the role of geography in the energy transition’ by Dr Richard Waller in Geography Matters, Spring 2023 from the GA’s Post-16 & HE Phase Committee.

As you plan your teaching, consider whether you are helping your students to understand:

  • what a world without oil would look like
  • the need for a zero-carbon economy in their lifetime
  • the changes that will be necessary as we get nearer to ‘the limits of growth’
  • how everyone should consider a more sustainable lifestyle
  • that the shift to a post-carbon society will be a difficult cultural transition.

Students’ understanding of sustainability

Although we may teach about the issues/concepts of sustainability in the geography classroom, how do we know about what students understand and how does this influence students beyond school?

Read these two articles by Nicola Walshe to find out how she helped her students to see how sustainable development was a local and an achievable objective and go beyond a superficial appreciation of sustainability to begin to understand the interconnectivity between the environment, social and economic.

  • Walshe, N. (2010) ‘Enough for everyone forever? considering sustainability of resource consumption with year 10 students’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Walshe, N. (2011) ‘Evaluating Local Agenda 21’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Walshe and Perry (2022) present ‘eco-capabilities’ as an approach to tackling some of our current unprecedented issues. They consider geography’s rich setting for developing these capabilities and suggest ways to promote students’ awareness of wellbeing and sustainability.

Read how Nick Hopwood (2008) in a Think Piece – Education for sustainable development: Students’ perspectives found from his research that students can have different personal agendas and beliefs that they bring with them to geography lessons.

This can lead them to construct dramatically different meanings and learning outcomes in learning activities which may not be evident to the teacher in their written work. For example, he shows how for one student the strongly ‘green’ agendas she brought to her learning were not readily apparent, but were nonetheless integral to her learning experiences.

  • Plan and carry out a mini research project into some of your students’ personal agendas and beliefs on ESD issues.
  • Interview a few students and observe their responses in debate/discussion of ESD issues as well as analysing their written work.


  • Bartlett, K. (2003) ‘An environmental audit’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) ‘Sustainable development and Global Citizenship’’ in Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Boardman, D. and Ranger, G. (1996) ‘Teaching sustainable development’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Bustin, R. (2015) ‘Preparing to teach ‘natural resources’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Firth, R. (2011) ‘The Nature of ESD through geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring. 
  • Heath, R. (2002) ‘Putting your foot in it’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Hicks, D. (2011) ‘A sustainable future: four challenges for geographers’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hicks, D. (2012) Sustainable Schools, Sustainable Futures: A resource for teachers, Godalming: WWF UK.
  • Hicks, D. (2013) A post-carbon geography, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hicks, D. (2014) ‘A Geography of Hope’, Geography, Spring.
  • Hopwood, N. (2008) Think Piece – Education for sustainable development: Students’ perspectivesGeographical Association on-line.
  • Huckle, D. (2011) ‘Bringing sustainability into sharper focus’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Jackson, P. (2009) ‘Editorial: Thinking through sustainability’, Geography, Spring. This whole issue of Geography has a focus on sustainability in different forms
  • Job, D. (2001) ‘Fieldwork for a change’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Jones, P. Hillier D. and Comfort, D. (2015) ‘Contested perspectives on fracking in the UK: Shale gas and fracking and the potential economic benefits and environmental risks’, Geography, Spring.
  • Lane, S. N. (2014) ‘Virtual water’, Geography, Spring.
  • Maude, A. (2014) ‘A sustainable view of sustainability?’, Geography, Spring.
  • Morgan, A. (2011) ‘Sustaining ESD in geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Morgan, J. (2011) Teaching Geography as if the Planet Matters. London: Routledge.
  • Morgan, J. (2017) ‘Teaching geography for sustainability Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Ofsted (2008) ‘Schools and sustainability: A climate for change? Ref no: 070173: Ofsted
  • Smyth, T. (2001) ‘Citizenship and sustainable development through geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Staddon, C., Brown, J. and Hayes, E. (2016) ‘Potential environmental impacts of ‘fracking’ in the UK’, Geography, Summer.
  • Walshe, N. (2010) ‘Enough for everyone forever? considering sustainability of resource consumption with year 10 students’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Walshe, N. (2011) ‘Evaluating Local Agenda 21’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Walshe, N. and Perry, J. (2022) ‘Transforming geography education: developing eco-capabilites for a flourishing and sustainable future’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.