Scale in physical geography


Cartographic scale is taught widely in schools and refers to the relationship between the distance on a map to the corresponding distance in real life, or 'on the ground'. Geographic scale denotes the spatial extent of a phenomenon or distribution, and in some ways is closest to the 'everyday meaning' attached to the word scale.

Lambert & Morgan 2010, p. 98

We know that global, national and local scales do not exist as such (they are intuitive fictions just like any other scales of whatever name).

Smith 2003, p. 35

Cartographic scale is taught widely in schools. Here it is applied to a study of landforms. Geographical scale refers to the geographical 'extent' of the landforms under study. Operational scale refers to the appropriate scale at which the landforms are to be examined. Geographers search for explanations at a variety of scales. Landforms are best studied in the field.

Learning goals

The illustration-specific learning goals are:

  • understanding the ways cartographic scale relates to a study of landforms
  • understanding the relationship between geographical scale and the landforms under study
  • understanding the extent to which operational scale influences explanations of landforms
  • understanding the ways in which authentic fieldwork about landforms can be informed by the aesthetic, cultural and spiritual value of landscapes and landforms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Geographical understanding and context

Students examine geomorphic landscapes and landforms, and their significance to people. In Year 7 students have examined how climate and landforms influence the physical characteristics of places. In Year 8 they investigate key geomorphological processes and their resulting landforms. Scale is an important concept that can be explained through the conduct of these investigations.

The websites Geography Exploration: An Introduction to Map Scale using Google Earth, Primary students – 5th and 6th and Mapzone: Understanding scale are particularly useful in explaining cartographic scale. The video Globalisation and revolt – scale (duration, 16:84) is also recommended.

Students should explore ways of experiencing landscapes by conducting fieldwork with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and reading, listening or performing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander explanations of the origins of particular landforms.

Teaching approaches

The materials presented in this illustration of practice are provided to enhance the concept of scale in physical geography. 

The concept of cartographic scale is explained in relation to landforms that vary in scale from a river meander to the world's mountainous areas. Students are encouraged to use maps and remotely sensed images at a variety of scales. 

The concept of geographical scale is examined in relation to a cascade of scales from the personal to the global and through scientific notation. 

Operational scale is linked to fieldwork and the search for explanation in physical geography. Using personal scale to explore the concept of operational scale has been found to be very effective in engaging Year 8 students. 

The aesthetic, cultural and spiritual value of landscapes and landforms for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are alluded to in relation to landforms. The website It's about time: extending time-space discussion in geography through use of 'ethnogeomorphology' as an education and communication tool provides insights into the worldviews of Indigenous peoples and landforms.

The materials provided in the 'What you need' and 'Resources' sections below will support you and your to embark on meaningful inquiry work.

What you need

Access to the Internet.

Cartographic scale (PDF, 249 KB).

Geographic scale (PDF, 238 KB).

Operational scale (PDF, 321 KB).

The personal scale (PDF, 228 KB).

The search for explanation (PDF, 261 KB).

More authentic fieldwork (PDF, 260 KB).



Kriewaldt, J. & Digby, B. (2011). Keys to geography: Essential skills and tools (2nd ed.). South Yarra: Macmillan Education Australia.

Lambert, D. & Morgan, J. (2010). Teaching geography, 11–18. London: Routledge.

McMaster, R. & Sheppard, E. (2004). Introduction: Scale and geographic inquiry. In E. Shepherd & R. McMaster (Eds.). Scale & geographic inquiry: Nature, society and method. Carlton: Blackwell, pp. 1–22.

Smith, J. (1992). Aboriginal legends of the Blue Mountains. Wentworth Falls, NSW: self-published Jim Smith.

Smith, R. G. (2003). World city actor-networks. Progress in Human Geography, 27.25–44.


Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Australian Curriculum: Geography. Retrieved May 2013, from:

The following materials can be accessed on the Internet and will assist you and your students to develop an understanding of scale and its application in geography.

Ask about Ireland. Primary students - 5th and 6th. Retrieved September 2012, from:

Geography Exploration: An Introduction to Map Scale using Google Earth. Retrieved September 2012, from:

Geosciences Australia. Education: Landforms from space. Retrieved September 2012, from:

Ordnance Survey. Mapzone: Understanding scale. Retrieved September 2012, from:

The journal of sustainability education. It's about time: extending time-space discussion in geography through use of 'ethnogeomorphology' as an education and communication tool. This will support you to engage with some further subtleties about scale, the worldviews of Indigenous peoples and landforms. Retrieved September 2012, from: A PDF of the full article can be accessed on

The power of place: Geography for the 21st century, case study 2. Globalisation and revolt – scale. This recommended video (duration, 16:84) is the second case study in one video, it begins at 11:54. Retrieved September 2012, from: .

All other required resources are listed in the 'What you need' section above.