Teaching and learning in the geography classroom
Teaching geography is like teaching a foreign language. You have to teach words (facts and images about places), grammar (geographic theories and concepts), and narratives (opinions and value judgements about geographic issues) more or less at the same time.
Geography teachers have adopted an eclectic mix of teaching styles, exercising choice over how they are going to teach and how their students are going to learn. A list of teaching and learning strategies is presented in Geography lesson ideas (PDF, 264 KB). Also refer to the diagram Bloom's taxonomy – learning in action that suggests a number of teaching styles.
Some teachers would favour a linear progression through the curriculum focused on a variety of texts with carefully selected regular homework activities. Others are inclined to abandon the text, develop group projects, foster individual initiative, and facilitate open questioning, discussion and debate.
Geography teachers are becoming increasingly aware that the nature and needs of their students vary in terms of their attitudes, abilities, cultural backgrounds and preferred learning styles.
The discipline of geography is regarded as a unique form of knowledge rather than a diverse grouping of related topics. This way of 'knowing' is comprised of:
- a body of concepts, key ideas and a distinctive vocabulary
- distinctive ways of linking these concepts and ideas, imbued with a 'geographical imagination'
- particular expressions and logic, often expressed in a set of geographical questions as a means to describe and understand the world and to validate theories
- explanations that are based on empirical investigation, particularly through fieldwork, and a distinctive way of conducting investigations, namely, through inquiry.
Recent research from the US Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning and the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice (commissioned by the National Research Council) has linked the science of learning with actual classroom practice in its 'How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school' (HPL) project. The summaries presented explain effective discipline-based teaching and learning:
Teachers must draw out and work with the pre-existing understandings that their students bring with them (p.19) … Teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge (p.20) … The teaching of metacognitive skills should be integrated into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas (p.21).
Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, pp. 19–21.
The Geographical Association (UK) website Geography from square two is designed to assist non-specialist primry teachers to start to feel confident with teaching geography.
Promoting inquiry learning
Geographic inquiry aims to fire young people's natural curiosity and direct this energy into forming deeper understandings of the world in all its complexity.
Kriewaldt & Boon, 2012, p. 139
If students are to plan their own geographical inquiries and create new understandings of place, space and environment, then the role of the teacher as an initiator of inquiry should progressively lessen. The geography teacher adopts a subsidiary role in the classroom, but one that is well versed in geographical inquiry methodologies, one that accepts that questioning, problem solving and investigation become the predominant classroom activities.
Geography thus becomes an exciting, unpredictable discipline. Student curiosity is aroused, a sense of both playfulness and seriousness exists in a spirit of directed inquiry, goals are clearly set and the learning environment is conducive to risk taking. Students not only ask where and why it is so, they also speculate and hypothesise, accommodate pre-existing geographies and generate new ideas about the world around them.
The resource Geographical inquiry (PDF, 228 KB) will help you to develop a greater appreciation of how inquiry learning can be promoted in geography classrooms.
Asking useful questions
So geography teachers and their students should be good at asking and using questions. But are we?
Asking useful questions is part of the geography teacher's craft – it is done with the express intention of consciously enhancing student learning. In exposition, questions and discussion are used to facilitate and extend student learning. Good exposition also guides students through lesson procedures and helps to clarify the structure and purpose of the learning experience.
The Geographical Association (UK) provides support on questioning through the Geography Trainer Induction Programme (GTIP). A useful resource is the GTIP Think piece – questioning.
Geographers are intensely curious about the world. In Questions students might spontaneously ask (PDF, 260 KB) a group of pre-service teachers present a number of questions that had been asked in geography classrooms.
All too often the questions that are posed in the geography classroom tend to be 'closed' in the sense that they require one acceptable answer, and consequently often rely on memory recall rather than understanding. Such questioning does little to foster learning when the dialogue becomes:
… a guessing game whereby the teacher has the knowledge, and tries through questioning to extract the right answer from the pupil. They in turn reach towards the preferred response, the correct answer. Alternatively they adopt a variety of strategies to keep their heads below the parapet.
Carter, 1991, p. 1.
A useful resource is Strategies for developing questions (PDF, 260 KB).
There are also those who advocate the use of rich or big questions, ones that: 'cannot be answered immediately but requires the learner to work on a series of questions and activities before they have a stab at answering it'.
Weeden & Lambert, 2006, p.10.
In order to check whether students have understood a new idea, concept or line of reasoning, or understood the relative worth and merit of arguments about environmental issues, well-constructed questions are essential. But the answers can be obtained in a variety of ways. Students can answer using information and communications technology in programs such as SurveyMonkey. They can be asked to discuss their answers in small groups, in 'think-pair-share' formations (a cooperative learning technique that encourages participation across all grade levels and class sizes). Information about this technique can be accessed on the TeacherVision website.
Students should be encouraged to ask their own questions in relation to the topic being studied. They need time to think and reflect. They should be encouraged to offer personal responses that open up further areas for discussion. They should be encouraged to ask many questions of their geography teachers.
Teaching concept building
Geography, like all dynamic ideas of disciplinary thought, is in a constant "state of becoming". Indeed, it might be argued that geography is a discipline that involves creating concepts in response to changes in the nature of the world.
Lambert & Morgan, 2010, p. xi.
How do you teach about the friction of distance, sustainability, marine erosion, green water and mobility in a geographical context?
How might you teach about abstract ideas related to geography that are usually emphasised in the classroom?
How do you understand the very substance of geography?
Answers to these questions cannot be accomplished through rote memory tasks. The teacher cannot do the learning for the student. Students need to develop their own knowledge of geographical concepts, skills for learning this knowledge, and abilities to reflect on the processes involved in the learning of concepts. Their minds are engaged in concept building by student talk, teacher talk, through their geographical imaginations, and in their interpretations of a host of multimodal texts.
At its most basic level, a concept is something conceived in the mind, but is more generally thought of as a class of specific objects or ideas sharing 'like characteristics'. At a more complex level, geographical concepts are open to contestation and debate, and consist of multiple layers of meaning. Some of the most basic geographical concepts such as space, place and nature are highly contested in academic geography.
Teaching the concepts (PDF, 163 KB) provides an additional insight into concept building.
Critical skills and critical geographies
Students need to understand what counts as a good quality piece of work. They also need some yardstick of where their work stands in relation to such a standard. When these critical skills are achieved they can employ metacognition: which is the power to oversee and steer their own learning in the right direction, so that they can take responsibility for it.
Weeden & Lambert, 2006, p. 6.
Geography students need to understand and relate new knowledge to existing knowledge in the process of deep learning rather than memorise information in order to meet assessment requirements. They need to be able to collect and sift though geographical information and then examine it critically. They need to listen to each other's stories, theories and explanations, to critically assess them and to feel free to disagree with other students. They need to participate in the long and valued tradition in education of critical thinking using 'critical skills' to deconstruct and reduce ideas to their component parts.
Geography students need to develop the skills of social and ideological criticism. The Australian Curriculum: Geography states that:
Older students can investigate how urban planning organises the built environment, creates commercial, industrial residential and green spaces, and manages the flows of goods and people between them.
Based on Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) materials.
Rob Gilbert explains that:
... in geography, varying explanatory discourses develop from different metaphors. Hugh Stretton (1978), in discussing the social theories implicit in approaches to urban planning identified four main images or models of cities which distinguished the theories: consensual theories of cities as communities; theories viewing cities as battlegrounds for conflict between classes or other groups; cities as market places dominated by the rules of economic competition, consumption and efficiency; and cities as machinery emphasising planning by rational expertise. Each metaphor raises different questions, highlights different problems, and leads to different interpretations.
Gilbert, 1988, p. 153.
Students need to explore the various perspectives that have been ignored in much geographical writing, unearth new understandings based on the relatively powerless rather than the powerful, ask important questions that have been left unasked and use insights from ethics, citizenship, science, politics, economics and cultural studies. Only then can important concepts such as globalisation, sustainability and landscape aesthetics be fully appreciated, and only then can important issues such as climate change, 'boat people' and 'fly-in-fly-out' workforces be examined. It is argued that we need to grapple with 'moral carelessness' in geography teaching and learning.
Who are Western European school children (under the guidance of their teachers and textbooks) to argue to Brazilians that they should stop cutting down the forest (for 'environmental' reasons) when forests in Europe were destroyed some centuries ago? Surely geography educators need to engage with such a discussion - or stand accused of moral carelessness in teaching dogma, myth and received wisdom.
Morgan & Lambert, 2005, p. 61.
Students need to develop their own critical geographies:
A critical geography needs to engage with the everyday practices of all of us who live in the places that we do; it needs to focus on the needs and interests of the poor and the underprivileged; it remains a very modern enterprise, retaining a belief that it is possible to make the world a 'better' place.
Unwin, 2000, p. 25.
About the illustrations
Illustration 1: Questioning looks at examples of exemplary practice in geography classrooms, and presents some evaluation and analysis of different types of questions. A range of resources is provided.
Illustration 2: Better learning in the geography classroom looks at examples of exemplary practice on ways to improve learning in the classroom, including questions to stimulate teacher and student thinking. A range of resources is provided.
Books and articles:
Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R. (2000). (Eds.). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded Edition). Washington, D.C. National Academy Press. Reproduced with permission of the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academics Press, Washington D.C., USA.
Carter, R. (1991). (Ed.). Talking about geography: The work of geography teachers in the national oracy project. Sheffield: Geographical Association. © The Geographical Association, 1991.
Cox, B. & Alexander, D. (2005). Concept building. In C. Marsh (Ed.). Teaching studies of society and environment (4th ed.). Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education Australia.
Gersmehl, P. (2005). Teaching geography. New York: The Guildford Press. Reproduced with permission of Guilford Publications.
Gilbert, R. (1988). Critical skills in geography teaching. In R. Gerber & J. Lidstone (Eds.). Developing skills in geographical education. Brisbane: IGU. Reproduced with permission of Wiley Australian & Jacaranda Press.
Gilbert, R. (1989). Language and ideology in geography teaching. In F. Slater (Ed.). Language and learning in the teaching of geography. London: Routledge.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning; a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
King, S. (1999). Using questions to promote geography. Teaching Geography 24(4), pp.169–172. © The Geographical Association, 1999.
Kriewaldt, J. & Boon, D. (2012). Geographic inquiry. In T. Taylor, C. Fahey, J. Kriewaldt & D. Boon. Place and time: Explorations in teaching geography and history. Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education Australia.
Lambert, D. & Balderstone, D. (2010). Learning to teach geography in the secondary school (2nd ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
Lambert, D. & Morgan, J. (2010). Teaching geography 11–18: A conceptual approach. Maidenhead: Open University Press & McGraw Hill Education.
Lang, H., McBeath, A. & Hebert, J. (1995). Teaching concepts. In H. Lang, A. McBeath & J. Hebert. Teaching strategies and methods for student-centred instruction. Torinto: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Leat, D. (2001). Thinking Through Geography (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing.
Morgan, J. & Lambert, D. (2005). Geography: Teaching school subjects 11-19. London: Routledge.
Roberts, M. (2003). Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
Unwin, T. (2000). A waste of space? Towards a critique of the social production of space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 25(1), pp.11-29.
Weeden, P & Lambert, D. (2006). Geography inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the geography classroom. GL Assessment: London. Reproduced with permission of GL Assessment.
Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Australian Curriculum: Geography. Retrieved May 2013, from: www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Geography/Rationale
Other relevant resources are contained in the sections above.