In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography and Sustainability Education at the School Level

  • Introduction
  • Antecedents
  • Geography’s Unique Position to Advance Sustainability Education
  • The Power of Geographical Knowledge and Thinking for Sustainability
  • Geography Education Develops Sustainability Thinking, Knowledge, Attitudes, and Propensity for Action
  • Going Beyond Purely Scientific Knowledge to Consider Moral and Ethical Issues
  • Geography Education Is Concerned with Sustainable Futures
  • Geography Education and Climate Change
  • Critical Studies of Geography Education and Sustainability

Geography Geography and Sustainability Education at the School Level
Sally Windsor, Shu Jun Lee, Jeana Kriewaldt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0283


Scholars are in broad agreement that studying geography is a core component of mainstream schooling which can contribute to sustainability education. Numerous emphases that transcend geography have developed extolling the importance of holistic education, scientific knowledge, interconnected thinking, and the utopian desire to transform society and schools. School transformation is a lofty goal that requires schools to rethink what they teach, how they teach in the lessons explicitly taught in their curriculum, their co-curricular undertakings, and the implicit activities that together are the fabric of what is taught and what may be learned. Current global conceptions of sustainability education, i.e., education for sustainable development (ESD), arose from critiques that traditional environmental education based only in the natural sciences could not satisfactorily address the interlinked human and societal issues that pre-empt or cause ecological destruction and environmental issues, and the imperative, now, that is climate change. Based on the United Nations’ well-established Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ESD aims to give all people the knowledge, skills, values, and agency to address global challenges. Geography uniquely promotes human-environment thinking, which is essential for considering sustainable futures. Geography education is inherently concerned about the future and thus plays a vital role in helping young people imagine sustainable futures and bring about transformative change. Geography, with its embedded use of spatial technologies and measurements within observations, enables and makes visible the explicit linking of human and natural systems. Other aspects of sustainability education in geography have received less attention. Critical geography is, at best, only gently making its way into schools. There is consideration of social justice in geography education, yet few accounts from the perspective of those who are oppressed exist. The belief that the solution can be achieved by incremental individual actions when education fails to ask students to critically assess the impacts of consumerism and capitalism on those who live in poverty is being challenged.


For decades scholars, including the authors Huckle 2002, Kriewaldt 2004, Mason and Kuhn 1971, and McKeown-Ice 1994, have argued that geography as a discipline is a natural fit for the teaching of sustainability at the school level. During that time, discourses of planet-focused education have changed from conserving nature to environmental education (EE), education for sustainability (EfS), and sustainability education (SE) with the seminal publication in 2001 of Stephen Sterling’s learning as sustainable SE framework, which influenced geography education. Traces of each discourse remain in circulation. In these changing contexts up until the 2000s, many works, including Chambers 1999, Emery, et al. 1974, and Reid 2000 considered that geography teachers were well placed to teach environmental education. Reid 2000 posits that geography’s contribution to students’ knowledge can be articulated as being: able to provide distinctive insights into environmental education; a primary vehicle for contributions to pupils’ environmental education; and able to recognize that other subjects can make other worthwhile, and even geographical, contributions.

  • Chambers, Bill. “Environmental Education and Primary Geography.” International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education 8.1 (1999): 90–93.

    DOI: 10.1080/10382049908667597

    Chambers traced developments in the English curriculum in environmental education and primary geography, and suggested implications for research.

  • Emery, John S., Colin Davey, and Anthony K. Milne. “Environmental Education: The Geography Teacher’s Contribution.” Journal of Geography 73.4 (1974): 8–18.

    DOI: 10.1080/00221347408980274

    Emery and colleagues posited that geography’s “concepts, models and content” (p. 8) are highly relevant to environmental education and that learning about and for the environment in geography needs to involve both the cognitive and affective domains.

  • Huckle, John. “Reconstructing Nature: Towards a Geographical Education for Sustainable Development.” Geography 87.1 (2002): 64–72.

    This article introduces teachers to the concepts of political ecology with the hope these would change the ways in which nature is constructed and represented in the classroom, so that teachers can adopt more radical content and critical pedagogy for geographical education for sustainable development.

  • Kriewaldt, Jeana. “The Place of School Geography in Education for Sustainability.” Geographical Education 17 (2004): 27–32.

    Arguing that geography is at the heart of EfS, this article explores how school geography contributes to EfS and the status of EfS with particular reference to the context of Australia.

  • Mason, Peter F., and Michael W. Kuhn. “Geography and Environmental Studies: The Fifth Tradition?” Journal of Geography 70.2 (1971): 91–94.

    DOI: 10.1080/00221347108981592

    This article argues that geography’s distinctive methodology is a significant strength for environmental studies which, because of their interdisciplinary nature in American universities, tend to lack a strong methodology.

  • McKeown-Ice, Rosalyn. “Environmental Education: A Geographical Perspective.” Journal of Geography 93.1 (1994): 40–42.

    DOI: 10.1080/00221349408979684

    “Geography is an ideal disciplinary vehicle for environmental education” (p. 1). Geographers study the environment in distinctive ways and are particularly attuned to spatial patterns and the interconnections between the environment and economy. As such, the article argues, geography can play a significant role in shaping the development of geography and environmental education standards, assessment frameworks, and environmental education certification standards.

  • Reid, Alan. “How Does a Geography Teacher Contribute to Pupils’ Environmental Education? Unweaving the Web Between Theorising and Data.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 5 (Spring 2000): 327–343.

    Reid suggests three ways in which secondary geography teachers consider geography’s contribution to environmental education: (i) exclusivist—geography offers distinctive insights into environmental education, (ii) inclusivist—while geography is a primary vehicle for contributions to students’ environmental education, other subjects also make worthwhile and even geographical contributions, (iii) pluralist—all subjects contribute in different and significant ways to environmental education.

  • Sterling, Stephen. Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change. Totnes, UK: Green Books, The Schumacher Society, 2001.

    A seminal publication challenging mechanistic ESD or EE, calling instead for a paradigmatic shift in education from transmissive “information education” toward transformative “wisdom education” focused on whole systems thinking, in order that we can address sustainability issues, because there is a parallel between the social response and the educational response to the challenge of sustainability.

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