Better learning in the geography classroom


The 'How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school' (HPL) project, undertaken by the United States National Research Council (2000), has many implications for better teaching and learning in the geography classroom. Geography educators in Australia and the United Kingdom also have made significant contributions to this endeavour. There are several recommendations for approaches to learning including those involving fieldwork. 

This illustration of practice looks at examples of exemplary practice and ways to improve learning in the classroom, including questions to stimulate teacher and student thinking.

Classroom application

Findings from the HPL project, researching 'learners and learning' and 'teachers and teaching', focused on three fundamental and well-established principles of learning: 

  1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but then revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, pp. 14–15, 16, 18.

Another useful resource is The learning classroom: Theory into practice. Developed as a professional development tool for teachers, it provides an exploration of learning theory. Thirteen half-hour programs are provided relating to a variety of learning theories and classroom practice. Other materials supplement the videos to bring theory into practice.

Preconceptions – the understandings that early primary children bring to the classroom - can already be quite powerful. For example, some children have been found to hold onto their preconception of a flat earth by imagining a round earth to be shaped like a pancake so that they cannot fall off. In 2008, Robert Bain asked Year 9 students about the preconception that everyone in Europe, except for Christopher Columbus, knew that the world was flat. They responded that everyone knew this fact, and that their primary school teacher had told them about this. It was quite a convoluted task for this very experienced history teacher to present evidence that substantiated this point of view and then provide more convincing evidence that the discoveries of geographers in Classical Antiquity had clearly established that the world was round. 

Rod Lane states that very little is known about students' alternative conceptions or what students actually believe about many topics in the geography curriculum. He provides some examples of preconceptions students have about environmental geography: 

  • The term ‘storm surge’ refers to a sudden burst in storm activity which creates problems in the supply of electricity.
  • Cyclones are a common cause of tsunamis.
  • Heat from car exhausts is responsible for the Greenhouse Effect.
  • Cold temperatures are the main cause of strong winds.

 Lane, 2008, p. 43.

Geography educators Paul Weeden and David Lambert argue that teachers need to obtain feedback from students. Teachers should ask students questions about what they know to reveal the ideas that are a starting point for geographical learning. The teacher has to:


… listen carefully to, a range of responses, taking them all seriously whether they are right or wrong, to the point or zany, and helping students to talk through the inconsistencies and to respond to the challenges.

Weeden & Lambert, 2006, p. 6.


A deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge. Students must gain mastery over the acquisition, retrieval and application of geographical knowledge. Geography teachers must apply their knowledge of how to teach to both declarative knowledge (what to teach about - the facts or vocabulary of geography) and procedural knowledge (geography's skills and inquiry methodologies). The HPL authors provide a geographical example:



Geography can be used to illustrate the manner in which expertise is organized around principles that support understanding. A student can learn to fill in a map by memorizing states, cities, countries, etc., and can complete the task with a high level of accuracy. But if the boundaries are removed, the problem becomes much more difficult. There are no concepts supporting the student's information. An expert who understands that borders often developed because natural phenomena (like mountains or water bodies) separated people, and that large cities often arose in locations that allowed for trade (along rivers, large lakes, and at coastal ports) will easily outperform the novice. The more developed the conceptual understanding of the needs of cities and the resource base that drew people to them, the more meaningful the map becomes. Students can become more expert if the geographical information they are taught is placed in the appropriate conceptual framework.


The HPL project involved geography educators, neuroscientists and other educators. The findings of the project included significant observations that can improve teaching and learning in the geography classroom. These are outlined in Improving teaching and learning (PDF, 288 KB). 

The YouTube clip Fieldwork: The geography laboratory! (duration, 06:53), features Loxton High School students participating in the Australian Curriculum: Geography trial during October 2011. The focus of the trial was on fieldwork, and the use of spatial technology before and after the fieldtrip.

Also of relevance is the Geogstandards project website Understanding geography teaching - pedagogical practices

Questions for discussion

  1. To what extent will the HPL project's three fundamental and well-established principles of learning alter teaching and learning in your classroom?
  2. What are best ways of discovering the preconceptions that students bring to their geography classrooms?
  3. Discuss the differences between declarative and procedural knowledge. 
  4. Compare the findings of the HPL project with those of Rachel Lofthouse and David Leat.

Questions for reflection

  1. Why do the HPL authors advocate increasing discipline - specific research into teaching and learning in elementary, middle and high schools?
  2. Why have constructivist theories of learning gained more prominence over behaviourist theories?
  3. How have earlier preoccupations with individual teacher's personality characteristics, generic pedagogic practices and classroom management procedures been replaced by cognitive understanding of subject matter?
  4. To what extent should 'deep learning' be discipline-based if the intent is to 'explain the relatively complex relationships between central concepts in a systematic, integrated or holistic way' (Lane 2008, p. 44)?


Books and articles:

Bain, R. (2005). They thought the world was flat? Applying the principles of how people learn in teaching high school history. In S. Donovan & J. Bransford (Eds.). How students learn: History in the classroom. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

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.

Foskett, N. (2000). Fieldwork and the developing of thinking skills. Teaching Geography 25(3), pp. 126-129.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Lane, R. & Coutts, P. (2012). Students' alternative conceptions of tropical cyclone causes and processes. International research in geographical and environmental education, 21(3), pp. 205-222.

Lane, R. (2008). Students' alternative conceptions in geography. Geographical education, 21, pp. 43-52.

Lofthouse, R. & Leat, D. (2006). Reflecting on teaching and learning: Using thinking skills, in D. Baldersostone (Ed.). Secondary geography handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 504-511). 

Morgan, J. & Lambert, D. (2005). Geography: Teaching school subjects 11-19. London: Routledge.

Nagel, M. (2005). Understanding the adolescent brain. In D. Pendergast & N. Bahr. (Eds.). Teaching middle years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, Chapter 4, pp. 65-76.

Smith,G. (1999). Changing fieldwork objectives and constraints in secondary schools. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 8(2), pp. 190-198.

Weeden, P & Lambert, D. (2006). Geography inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the geography classroom. GL Assessment: London. Reporduced with permission of GL Assessment.


YouTube. Fieldwork: The geography laboratory! Retrieved September 2012, from:


Annenberg Learner. The learning classroom: Theory into practice. Retrieved September 2012, from:

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

Other relevant resources are contained in the sections above.